Interview Hindi

He had a genuine concern in his eyes for my character: Vijay Varma on Gully Boy Ranveer Singh's empathy

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With Gully Boy, Varma has finally broken into the spotlight. The actor sat down with us to speak about creating the irrepressible Moeen.

Shriram Iyengar

"The phone has not stopped ringing," Vijay Varma says sheepishly. The actor's splendid performance as the relentless Moeen in Zoya Akhtar's Gully Boy (2019) has earned him a place in the spotlight. In his quiet Versova apartment, Varma spoke to in the middle of a gruelling day filled with shoots and interviews. 

"I am still getting used to this recognition," the actor admitted. Varma has slowly carved his own niche in the industry since making his debut in Chittagong, back in 2012. Since then, Varma has made his mark as the menacing villain of Pink (2016), before turning the leading man in the noirish Monsoon Shootout (2017). 

Vijay Varma in Monsoon Shootout (2017)

In Gully Boy, he plays Moeen, a tough rascal friend who is the dose of reality in the life of Ranveer Singh's Murad. Playing the character with no bias, Varma became the perfect foil to Singh in Akhtar's film. 

"There is a certain kind of revelation with Moeen, I never wanted the revelation to be something which we didn’t see coming," he tells us while discussing the character. 

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But, he reminds us, the magic also lies in the dynamic between himself and Singh in the movie. Praising Singh's performance, Varma said, "We did have a little bit of give and take during the film. He suggested a film for me to watch, City of God. He said, ‘Lil ‘Ze is Moeen’ and it was a bang on the reference. I was surprised at the links in his cinematic world, very interesting."

Vijay Varma in Gully Boy (2019)

The success of Gully Boy is not the only thing going in Varma's favour. The actor has also signed on for a web-series helmed by Imtiaz Ali, and for Anurag Kashyap's next production. 

"I have managed to sail my way around, working with, and hanging on to some really cool dudes," he shrugs. 

Hopefully, the run continues. 

Following are excerpts from the interview. 

We last met during the promotions of Monsoon Shootout, and it seems to have been quite the year for you.

I signed Gully Boy in December, and started shooting in January. Since then, I have finished a couple of other projects. It has been fairly hectic. I worked the hardest in 2018, and the seeds I have sowed in '18, might reap rewards later. 

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The recognition coming your way must really feel good, after the struggle you went through...

Yes, it is deeply validating and at the same time, I am not used to this kind of major attention. I am a little lost and trying to make sense of it. But I am very happy. 

What was your brief for Moeen?

The first brief came from the casting team. It focussed more on being a mechanic and a peddler on the side. Then when I met Zoya, and I was locked, I figured out there is a lot more going on with this guy. 

There is a front which is a garage boy, but there are many enterprises that he belongs to. Most of them are on the wrong side of the law. It is all for survival, sometimes, employing the kids is something within the realm of his consciousness, not a big deal. He finds it philanthropic in his own way. 

What were your references?

He appears in small patches throughout the film, and there is some revelation about the character at each stage. I tried to create a consistency in the character. He is a mix of two attitudes. There is this showmanship he has, and he also has to be discreet about something. 

It took a lot of mental preparation than physical. But once you have that charted out, the externals from the costume and make-up team add to the rest, which they did brilliantly. 

But how do you bring in the attitude when you are facing Ranveer Singh, who can be quite the scene stealer when he is at full pelt? Also, you are a lanky guy, so how did you bring in the physicality of a drug-dealing mechanic in Dharavi?

That attitude came to me in the script itself. It was written into the character, and his language. Yeah, to look like a guy who can shove around a Ranveer Singh was not easy. Zoya told me Moeen has to be the toughest guy, the biggest survivor in the story. 

You also have to see where Ranveer was resonating in the script. He was being Murad, somebody who could be intimidated easily. There were clear cut instructions laid out in the script, and all the actors were so professional and graceful to follow it. 

Vijay Varma with Ranveer Singh in Gully Boy (2019)

We discussed that Moeen is always low-status in terms of the job he does, but high status in terms of availability of stuff that he has or money he has. He is also slightly older as compared to the other boys. 

Zoya being Zoya, she made sure she was checking on everything. From the way we looked, to the way we sound, she would minutely observe. She knows the script in and out. 

Was there a process to get the sounding of the language and the street slang right?

It was not only about making it sound good, but to know how to say it. That’s when we met Vijay Maurya and the rappers from the locality — MC Altaf, Rahul Siske. They were there in the dubbing studio as well to make sure that we are sounding correct. 

I also developed a vocabulary of 50 words which are not part of the screen, but a part of my character, aside from any other characters on screen. 

The character seems to have a 1970s hangover, with his Amitabh Bachchan style walk where he puts his hands into his jacket. What was the thought behind that? 

I think I am kind of in a limbo there somewhere personally. I am a big sucker for vintage and retro stuff. I think the world was far more fascinating then. There was a lot of simplicity and depth in that era. 

How long did you do workshops to get the feel of these characters right?

We did a couple of workshops with Atul Mongia, and the boys, where Ranveer was there. The dynamics were clearly laid out during the reading by Zoya. It was here that we discussed the status quo, about who is who.

There is a certain kind of revelation with Moeen, I never wanted the revelation to be something which we didn’t see coming. I wanted there to be certain shades of the split personality visible so that people are not shocked. 

That final scene with Murad is a touching one. That dynamic between the two, how long did you guys work to get it?

Even on the day of the shoot, we didn’t rehearse it. I didn’t know what emotional plane he would operate on in the scene. 

This is Moeen, nobody has ever been there for him. That’s the state I am in, trying to hustle my way out. He [Ranveer Singh] came in with his own energy, where he is really worried about me.

I was in the lockup for an hour, and he had been in his own quiet space, wearing his earphones. They had moved everyone else away from the set. 

I think he just saw what’s happening with Moeen, and the conversation happened. He had such genuine concern in his eyes for my character, that I was affected.

The empathy which I saw in his eyes. He was truly breaking down in the scene. I wanted to console him, but Moeen cannot. It was that kind of a thing. 

Ranveer Singh in Gully Boy

Ranveer Singh is right now on a purple patch that many actors envy. What is it that sets him apart? You have previously worked with Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Both are method actors in a way. How different are they?

I would say there are some similarities. One is definitely a great understanding of what they are doing. Extreme command of their craft. The second is a search for truth. They are really trying to be true. They are never trying to generate a false reaction. They are completely there. The commitment to craft is extremely similar. 

If something is not working, he [Ranveer Singh] would rather say ‘Try this’. Then the other person discovers something, a self realisation; that just works better. 

We did have a little bit of give and take during the film. He suggested a film for me to watch, City of God (2002). He said, ‘Lil ‘Ze is Moeen’ and it was a bang on reference. I was surprised at the links in his cinematic world, very interesting. 

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How is Zoya Akhtar as a director?

Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011) and Dil Dhadakne Do (2015), while they are set in a certain milieu and landscape they are wholesome in their own way. She does justice to the story, and to the characters she has picked up for the story. An actor only looks for that primarily. 

Being a fan, you always go in thinking ‘This person has done incredible work with other actors and I would love to be a part of her filmography’. 

She is extremely keen on hearing from you. She is extremely protective of where you come from whenever you say something. So she doesn’t build a performance. She sculpts it. She lets you build a performance, and later tells you what she wants to remove. She does not mould your performance as such, she just chisels it. Her process of sculpting your performance is fascinating. 

Was there a scene that you wanted to keep but she chose not to?

No, all my scenes are there in the film. Nothing is removed. A couple of scenes were chopped off but I understand why. 

One scene that was not in the film was the lock-up sequence. It was out in the edit. She spoke to me about it, and told me ‘You are good in the film and all of your scenes are there, except one.’ I checked which one and found out this one. I don’t remember what the scene, the exact dynamics of it was, but I knew we had a moment with Ranveer. I was thinking that moment was very special, and I would like to see it. I told her that. She told me it was already difficult for her. 

But later, when they held a couple of focus screenings, it was Javed Saab (Javed Akhtar) who suggested they put that scene back in. 

Two years down the line, with Gully Boy, is it looking?

It is always very difficult to make choices. On thought level and decision level both. Choices only exist when you have a choice. I am in a space where I can reach out to directors, and they can reach out to me. 

So what next?

I am shooting a web-series with Imtiaz Ali. They have not formally announced it yet, but hopefully it will happen soon. Viacom18 is producing it. 

I have finished one film called Bamfaad. Anurag Kashyap is presenting this one. I have always been wanting to work with him, but he has always been a part of my film as producer or presenter. Never as a director. 

I have managed to sail my way around, working with, and hanging on to some really cool dudes. In fact, I did a cameo in Manto (2018) just because I wanted to be a part of the story.