Gully Boy: I Have Had Physical Confrontations with My Father, Says Vijay Varma
Up close and personal with Vijay Varma—the outsider among outsiders.
Vijay Varma has acted in several films, including Monsoon Shootout and Pink. (All images: Special arrangement)
He says his phone has become a ‘hot tawa’ from ringing constantly ever since Gully Boy released on February 14. It’s been a week, but Vijay Verma, now Moeen for everyone, is still processing what’s going on. The love that’s coming his way for playing Ranveer Singh’s weed-peddling, car-stealing confidant in the Zoya Akhtar directorial is subliminal for the actor who has had an interesting journey himself.
In a free-wheeling conversation, Varma talks about it all — from his awe for Amitabh Bachchan to his love for Irrfan Khan, working with Zoya Akhtar and finally finding himself in the spot he’s been vying for over a decade now.
You’ve done films before—Chittagong, Monsoon Shootout, Pink—but Gully Boy is being called your breakthrough performance. What do you think worked for your character?
I have never been given this kind of attention before and it is very heartening. I think it’s the various layers and the grey shades that my character has. If you show the human side of a person with all their flaws, the terrible things they can do and show why they do it, it kind of connects because we have all known a Moeen in our lives. That kind of relatability happens only when you show a three-dimensional character.
How did you land Moeen’s role?
Through an audition. But I was called again for a meeting with Zoya, who shot me in a couple of more scenes. Though they took forever, but I finally did get the confirmation call.
You are from a Marwari family. Your parents didn’t want you to be an actor. But now that the film is such a major success and people are talking about you, do you feel validated? Are they on board now?
My family is completely alienated—no smartphones, no internet—they are just very basic people in Hyderabad. It’s my nephews and nieces who are coming back home and telling them about me. They are so proud of me. I am feeling very good.
Did you, at some point, have a conversation with your father like Murad did in the film?
I did, many a times. I have had physical confrontations with my father.
How important was it to do a film with a popular mainstream director like Zoya Akhtar?
It was very important because I had been doing good work, which was getting appreciated but in very small pockets because it never got seen widely. I am not the kind of person who can really show what he has done. My presence is really inwards, I guess. It never really reached out to a lot of people.
But when you do a film which has a very wide reach, more people start seeing you differently. Right now, I think a lot of filmmakers will start seeing me in a new light.
Did you have any apprehensions before you began shooting with a star like Ranveer Singh?
None at all. If you look at Zoya’s filmography, she has always had ensembles and she has always dealt with every character so beautifully. So I knew that she’d take care of it. I knew that my character had some definite contribution to the story which can’t be compromised, that he has his own graph. So I was not scared at all.
In fact, I was only pleasantly surprised to find how accommodating Ranveer was. He has given me key inputs and it was sheer joy to feed off each other’s energies.
Your chemistry with Ranveer in the film is so palpable. How did you guys reach there?
Murad and Moeen are two very different kinds of people and their friendship is very unlikely. It happened because both of us were working so beautifully with each other and because of Zoya’s clear insight into who Moeen and Murad are and what their exchanges will be like.
Workshops and readings also helped. Major insights happened during them. We would all brainstorm over what and how we were finally going to shoot.
What’s the one thing people do not know about Ranveer and Zoya?
Zoya doesn’t usually give that vibe but she is a deeply political filmmaker—not the government or party kind of political but more like social political in how she wants the world to be seen in her films. Her films are sharp social commentaries. She doesn’t talk about it because she feels her films are doing it for her.
As for Ranveer, he is an extremely anchored person. I have seen him video-calling his sister, FaceTiming Deepika. He is constantly in touch with people who are his support system. He finds great strength from them and that’s how he is able to give strength to so many other people.
Though your scenes with Alia Bhatt aren’t too many, how was it working with her?
We had a couple of moments together. She is like one of those really sincere student kind of a person. She comes on time, is fully ready, carries a pen and a paper, wants to make notes and she wants to go first. She is just so correct and beautiful.
There was this understanding among all of us that this is your moment to shine and that mine, of who can do what within the frame. There is no way you can do anything if your co-actors are not vibing on the same plane. There was space for everyone to have their moment and we all had ours.
Your journey to recognition has been long and hard. What were your biggest roadblocks during your early days in Mumbai?
I came to Bombay in 2008. My biggest turmoil was having something but not being able to crack how to say it, not having a voice and not having a chance. The second turmoil is when what you do doesn’t reach or release in time or connect with people. But then you learn. I have been course-correcting myself throughout.
I knew that I had to work with good filmmakers and I have maintained that. I have worked on two films with Tigmanshu Dhulia, I have worked with Shoojit Sircar, Zoya, Priyadarshan Sir, Nandita. I am now working with Imtiaz Ali. Then there is a film that’s being produced by Anurag Kashyap.
Do you think it would have been easier for you had you been an insider or known someone from the industry?
It would have definitely helped because I am a little cuckoo. I am just clueless in life because I only know what I can do. I have no idea about the business and industry’s functioning and I barely manage to find out anything about it.
It would have been great to be given insights. I don’t think people can take or make my talent but key information would have been really important at that time. When you come from outside, you don’t know even simple things like being presentable for an interview or wishing people on occasions.
You mentioned being choosy about the directors you work with. Who are the actors on your wish-list?
Once you work with Amitabh Bachchan, you’ve achieved half of it. You feel like you know half the industry. But I really want to do a film with Irrfan Sir. He has been very supportive of me ever since he saw me in Pink. He is one of my key inspirations in life. What a journey and what a phenomenal talent! I also want to work with Tabu and Sriram Raghavan. I am in love with both of them.
Now that you are being seen, talked about and appreciated, where do you want to go from here?
I am not really seriously planning anything. I would really like to get surprised and get thrown at an opportunity which makes me go ‘Oh man!’ When people saw me in Pink, they were surprised, as they were when they saw me in Monsoon Shootout and now in Gully Boy. I want to be able to create more surprises for myself as well as others.
What’s the best compliment that you’ve got for Moeen?
I have been getting loaded compliments, ‘I had a lump in my throat’ kinds. But there was a beautiful piece written about Moeen which said something like ‘to be an outsider among outsiders.’ That’s who he essentially is—an outsider even within outsiders.
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