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Big Break!

Varun Shashi Rao, who makes his Tamil and Kannada debut with Paris Paris and Butterfly, respectively, remakes of the Bollywood hit Queen, talks to Padma Iyer about his journey from engineering to ads to films

How did your journey into films begin?

Like most boys in South India, after I fared well in the Std XII exams, I ended up opting to study engineering, as I didn’t know any better. I studied Computer Science and worked really hard. Yes, I was also into dramatics and did chota-mota modelling assignments in Bangalore. But by the time I finished engineering, I was certain I wanted to pursue films.

First, I wanted to pursue Tamil cinema. I went to Chennai and tried that for a bit but I was told that I look like a NRI groom and that I speak Tamil like a North Indian! I was heartbroken. I moved to Bombay and, luckily, ads worked out for me. In the last six to seven years, I have done a hundred ads. So, that was pretty much what I was doing but I had a burning ambition to work in films. And, as luck would have it, one of my friends knew the people who were making the Queen remakes. They were looking for the boy who would play Rajkummar Rao’s character.

After my referred me, they looked at some of my ads and called me to audition. I went to Bangalore to audition for the Kannada film. After the audition, Ramesh Aravind, the veteran actor-director, said I was selected for two films. I was like, ‘Wow, that is great!’ I had waited for a long time to work in one film and now I had two!

How did you prepare for this role? Did you watch Rajkummar Rao’s performance?

When Rajkummar Rao had played this role in Queen, it was one of his first big commercial successes. He is a phenomenal actor. For my audition, I was asked to do the scene where he dumps the girl, in Kannada. I did go through that scene to see what he had done. This character is a generic guy who is not a very open-minded person. He is the kind of guy who woos a woman, promises to fulfil all her dreams and aspirations and then drops her like a hot potato.

I believe that men in India need to change in terms of their conduct, their etiquette and the way they treat women. There was no dearth of examples and I incorporated that. As much as Rajkummar was amazing in this film, I felt that the character could have been more layered. I have tried to do that.

How did you ensure that while you were playing the same character in both films, it did not appear repetitive?

That is a very pertinent question. While making this film in all four South Indian languages, the makers have based these films in specific regions. The Kannada film is based in Gokarna while the Tamil film is based in Virudhunagar. Each of these places has its own regional dialect and they have tried to get the nitty-gritty right. In terms of how I have played it, I have been very lucky that Parul (Yadav) who plays the lead in Kannada and Kajal (Aggarwal) who plays the lead in Tamil, are seasoned actors and established names. They played the character in their unique style. Acting is all about reacting and they were accommodating of me, a newcomer. I have tried to add a few quirks and nuances to the character.

For a debut film, an actor usually chooses a film where he is the centre of all the action. Why did you choose such an unconventional debut film?

When this film happened, I was burning inside to work in feature films. I had been wanting to qualify for feature films for a while. The ads I have done have given me this ‘sweet boy, good husband, nice guy’ image. And, for me, a feature film debut would give me shades of grey, playing a character that was different from what I had been doing was a big challenge.

We have all seen actors like Rajinikanth and Shah Rukh Khan begin their careers with characters that had shades of grey. I am an actor who is hungry to do varied roles and characters. And for a boy who ten years ago had been told in Chennai that he looked like North Indian, debuting in such a role was a big thing. Also, I am working opposite Kajal Aggarwal, a top actor, in a film directed by Ramesh Aravind. This was a great opportunity. And being directed by an actor-director is a blessing in disguise for a newcomer like me.

As an actor, what are your expectations from the films?

I have always believed that a film is bigger than those who are working in it. I want all four films to release with a bang and for them to do well for everyone involved. Personally, in Tamil and Kannada cinema, I want to work with the best people in these industries. After the teasers went big, there have been queries from people showing interest. I hope things work out for the best.

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