The actor, who is now famous for his malicious character in Pink (2016), sat down for an exclusive conversation with Cinestaan.com to speak about Amit Kumar's edgy thriller, Monsoon Shootout.
Easy to kill, but very difficult to hold impulse of killing: Vijay Varma on Monsoon Shootout
Mumbai - 16 Dec 2017 9:00 IST
At one point during Cinestaan.com's interview, actor Vijay Varma launched into a wonderful exposition on the use of dialogues and words into shaping character on stage. It was the first glimpse of an actor who has made his journey to the big screen after many years spent on the stage.
Varma, a resident of Hyderabad, sharpened his skills on stage and at the famed Film and Television Insitute of India (FTII) before turning to films. One of his early film choices was Amit Kumar's noir thriller, Monsoon Shootout. Cast alongside Neeraj Kabi and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Varma delivered a fine, nuanced performance of a rookie cop about to make a decision that could change the lives of several people forever. The film certainly caught the attention of critics with its sharp, edgy visuals and triptych narrative. But since making its midnight screening at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in 2013, Monsoon Shootout remained on the backburner for four long years.
Now, with the film set to be released on 15 December, Varma is relieved and happy about the film. In that span of time, he has made a mark with his appearance as the malicious, misogynist in Shoojit Sircar's Pink (2016). While the film earned plaudits for its portrayal of the hypocrisy and violence perpetrated against women, it was Varma's portrayal of the perpetrator that added to its impact. The role, while significant and impressive, does have its drawbacks.
"When Pink (2016) came out, everybody wanted to give me a girl to molest," Varma sighs, before adding, "They just want to perceive you in a certain light as soon as somebody else has seen it."
The trailers of Monsoon Shootout capture the actor in a very different light. As the naive and rookie cop, Varma displays a sincerity that fits in nicely with the role. "I was in my 20s, and now I am in my 30s. I have crossed a milestone waiting for the film's release," the actor laughs.
The film arrives five long years to the day you began shooting. For an actor, especially one trying to break through, what is it like to have a film locked out of audience reach? How do you cope with it?
You can either go almost insane, or you can be lost in the glory of the past. I knew this was a jewel that I had that I could not share with anybody. Udaan (2010) was the last film which went to Cannes before Monsoon Shootout.
I saw everybody's film release, and they were achieving things. I felt happy, but I knew it would happen to me. Rajkummar's (Rao) Shahid (2013) came out. He is a batchmate of mine from FTII. Vicky's (Kaushal) Masaan (2015) came out. Titli (2015) came out.
I had a feeling that even I will see that happen. Although, it (the film) had to come out, because if nobody sees it, nobody will see you in a different light.
When Pink (2016) came out, everybody wanted to give me a girl to molest. Just as the trailer of Monsoon Shootout came out, I got at least five phone calls for different roles. The one thing they all had in common was a gun and a uniform. They just want to perceive you in a certain light as soon as somebody else has seen it.
But in between these years, things were not happening at that moment, and I was freaking out. I went through the phases that actors go through. Desperate, frustrated, sad, angry, bitter, and completely dejected. My morale was gone, my confidence was shaken. This was while I was still working. Every year I have had one film since 2012.
However, things have changed after Pink. After Pink, I've been pretty busy, which is a welcome change.
Yet, I had to face it and learn whatever lesson I could. Practice patience and to be able to say 'I will start again'.
The character of Monsoon Shootout has never come back to me ever again. The only place I saw a character similar to that in recent times is Newton. Otherwise, you don't get to see characters like these. He is very idealistic, very model. Correct on ethics. He is very empathetic about everything, such kind of roles are not seen too often. People find it too boring.
It is the need of the hour though. People are going out and killing people with axes, burning them. There has to be a conscious effort of telling people that it is very easy to kill, but is very difficult to hold the impulse of killing.
Your character, Adi, is a cop stuck in this limbo where his decision can change the lives of people around him. How do you approach such a character?
It comes with two things, primarily lack of experience in the job. Imagine you are a journalist in training, you don't know what works in the field unless you've been in the field. He (Adi) has not even been in the field, he is on trials. He has just gone through the physical training and practice. So, he knows that you move in this direction, and shoot, then this will be the reaction.
I have been to the police academy. They teach you a lot of things on movement, shooting. But many of them (trainees) have never shot the gun. There is a lack of resources. This is the system we are living in.
Secondly, he (Adi) is somebody who sticks to the book. He does not rely on information. It is dubious so he relies on the system. In his head, he can choose to pull the trigger right now, but at the cost of what?
I met several military people, stationed in Siachen, when they pull the trigger...they talk about it later, they still feel the shiver down the spine. It still affects you. It is a question, and the film revolves around the question. It is a fraction of a thought.
As an actor, you play off the energy of your co-actors. In the film, you are paired alongside Neeraj Kabi and Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Two different actors with two starkly different styles. Nawaz brings energy and urgency into his character, while Kabi slows down the entire scene. How did you adapt to these two styles?
It was incredible because Neeraj Kabi already had this fame. He was famous in the acting circuit. He is a great teacher, does workshops. I had trained with him when I was a student. He is a mentor to me in the film, off camera, and he is a mentor to me on camera as well. At the same time, he tried to stick to the character throughout the course of the film. He tried to reason with me why I am wrong, but very gently, beautifully. He was constantly in a debate with me. It was that kind of an exchange.
Contrary to that, Nawaz had nothing to talk about the film. He would talk about this and that, have fun. He had not read the script when he came to the workshop. He just heard the narration. That is how he is. He hears the narration, and draws a picture, comes on the set and starts acting.
So, how do you deal with these different styles?
I have only one technique which is to know where I am coming from in the film. I know my lines. At the same time, I try to know where the director and writer is trying to take the story from there. This is the information I come with every scene. The rest I leave it for the other actor, and what I am feeling in that moment, to play so that some kind of magic takes place.
It is not a film where dialogues take precedence in that it is very brief and visual heavy. How useful was the writing in preparing for this role?
Very. Everything that the actor does in the scene is a credit to the writer. There is no question about that. One word in a description of a character can change how an actor can improve the role.
I remember the character names were also very small. Shiva, Adi, Khan, Geeta. He (director Amit Kumar) would write one word next to the character as a description. For instance: Khan - 40s - Eagle. Adi - 20s - Lean. You could see the traits of these characters through these words. These were very clear instructions.
You choose certain words or phrase only because of the personality. Those are giveaways that the actor can see the character's background. You think 'Ok he uses these words, because he is from this strata...or that he is thinking this.'
At the same time, you witness an exchange that shows whether the character is confronting, avoiding, diverting the topic on the scene. It is all in the writing.
That is why you have to go into the writing, especially when you are beginning. I spend a lot of time with the writer. People who have done stage, for instance, Nawaz has done so much stage that he knows that exact moment . 'Sur kya hai?' (What is your angle?) is his question. When that moment comes, and he says, 'Pakad liya saala!' (Gotcha!), then you know he has got it.
People like Tigmanshu (Dhulia) whom I have worked with so much, his performance is like that. I have seen him as a writer, director, actor, and know his personality. So, when I read his writing, I tend to laugh so hard because I know exactly how he is going to say it.
You have all become familiar names in your own right. You have Pink as your calling card. Nawazuddin is already a star, and Neeraj Kabi has already proved it with films like Talvar. Does it feel nostalgic looking back at Monsoon Shootout?
It is total nostalgia for me because I look so much younger. I look like somebody who is underfed (laughs). I was in my 20s, and now I am in my 30s. I have crossed a milestone waiting for the film's release.
The wait does have its advantages though. It is a very discerning audience in theatres today.
I am in no position to judge whether the audience would have accepted, or not accepted it, if it had released in 2013. Or whether it will accept it now. But the very fact that we have an audience open to cross-narratives, multiple-narratives, layered stories. We are exposed to the idea of watching (television shows) Breaking Bad, True Detective, Mindhunters where people are playing with perception. All those connections, interesting edit patterns is happening right now, which people are consuming. Particularly the urban audiences.
I remember when we had the first screening of the film, right after Cannes in India, a producer walked right up to the DVD and started the scene again. He thought something had gone wrong with the scene.
You have a couple of interesting projects lined up. You are teaming up with Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Manto again.
I have a small cameo in the film. I am doing that film only because I love Manto. Nothing else. If you look at the Manto cast, it will see 15-20 actors in small roles. It has got everybody who you've seen in films at some point. Just like how Manto's world was full of interesting characters, we had our parts.
I play a very small role, where he is addressing a group of budding writers and I am one of them. It is a slight comic relief that I play.
Then there is the short film, Counterfeit Kunkoo, heading to Sundance, we believe...
Yes, it is one of the first short films, after 15 years, that is making it to Sundance. Sundance is very difficult to get into. It is one festival where every independent director, actor wants to be seen. In a sleepy town, in the middle of snow, does not care about red carpets. I have been to Cannes, and a couple of other festivals for Monsoon Shootout to know that this is the real deal. I will probably visit the festival this year.
It (Counterfeit Kunkoo) is one of the most kickass short films you will ever see.
Any other kickass projects you are looking forward to next year?
There is another wonderful short film called Mara. We called it that because we can't call it 'Rama'. It is about a suicidal guy who is trying to find a purpose to his life. It gets into a very difficult space as an actor and as a filmmaker. It is an independent film; we have borrowed money to make it. We plan to send it to festivals later this year. There is another Telugu film where I am playing a mainstream villain for the first time. Let's see where the year takes us from there.