After working close to a decade in the advertising industry and being the face of several popular brands, model-actor Varun Shashi Rao is all set to take a giant leap forward as an actor. Apart from making his Bollywood debut this week with ‘Bala’, Varun will soon be seen in ‘Paris, Paris’, the Tamil remake of the Hindi film ‘Queen’ (2014) and ‘’Butterfly’, the Kannada remake of the same film. In this interview, the actor talks about his long and eventful journey as an artiste, working in the modelling industry, that one ad which changed things for him, the long wait for the right film to arrive and more.
You had studied engineering. How did the shift to acting happen?
I studied software engineering in Bengaluru. Basically, I am from Karnataka and have grown up all across the country as my father was working for a government bank and would get transferred quite frequently. Back in the day, if you were a science student and got decent marks, you ended up doing engineering or medicine. Now, things have changed to a great extent but back then, we did not have too many options. While I was studying engineering in Bengaluru, I had done a bunch of assignments as a model and had also done a bit of theatre. Because of that, I had started getting inclined towards the field of modelling and acting. I finished my engineering course and got placed in a big multinational company but by then, I had sort of realised that my heart lied elsewhere. I still do not know where I gathered the courage from but I finally managed to tell my parents that I wanted to pursue a career in films. I have always admired Tamil cinema, so I decided to go to Chennai and there, I assisted a director on a film. There was this small role in the film which they needed an actor for at a short notice. The director knew I was interested in acting, so he asked me to play that role and I did. That was the first time I faced the camera as an actor. In Tamil, there is this particular term called ‘seth payyan’ which roughly translates to people belonging to the business community who live in Chennai. There is this particular category in films which is called the ‘NRI son-in-law’ category. I was told that I would fit very well in this category and can comfortably play such roles in films since I looked very suave and polished. An actor’s biggest fear is that of getting stereotyped. I did not want to be slotted in a particular category at such an early stage of my career. I packed my bags and arrived in Mumbai. Here, I got very lucky with ads. In 7-8 years, I did more than 100 ads. During this process, I also learnt a lot about the technicalities involved in filmmaking.
You have produced ads too.
I have been a producer for four years, from 2013 to 2017. I produced a lot of ads during that period. The company’s name is Alam Ara Films. In Persian, Alam Ara means light of the world. The name was suggested my me as I thought it represented something very beautiful. I am not an active partner in the company now though. Acting and production cannot go hand in hand at this stage of my career. When you are a small production house, you do everything yourself. I realised I was suffering from anxiety because of all the pressure I was going through. My focus should solely be on acting at this point. If I make it big as an actor, I might get into production again and would even like to produce feature films.
You have done so many memorable television commercials. The Cadbury ad is one of your most popular commercials.
Yes, the Cadbury ad came during the 2011 World Cup which India won. I did a series of 4-5 ads together for Cadbury. Those commercials were directed by Vinil Mathew. I feel extremely grateful about the fact that I got to do those ads. They played a big role in helping me get constant work.
You are a part of the two remakes of the Hindi film ‘Queen’ (2014).
Yes, very rarely does it happen that an actor makes his debut in three different languages in the same year. The director of both these films is Mr. Ramesh Arvind. He has directed Mr. Kamal Hassan in several films. He is also a prominent actor in Karnataka. My family and relatives are huge fans of the work he has done. A friend of mine, who is a line producer, was in touch with the producers. He informed there were auditions happening for the two films. I went and auditioned for the part. After the audition, Mr. Ramesh Arvind told me that I will be the lead hero in two films. I waited for so many years to get the right opportunity and all of a sudden, I bagged two films as a lead actor. In my final year of engineering, Mr. Ramesh Arvind was the chief guest at our college festival. He gave a speech which I still remember. He said this incredible line “acting was his aeroplane and engineering was his parachute”. It feels surreal to think that I got to work with him so early in my career.
‘Queen’ was such a popular film. What was the thought behind remaking it in three South-Indian languages?
Initially, I was also wondering why they were making it different languages. ‘Queen’ is a very successful film but a lot of people down south have still not watched it. The producer of our film is one of the staunchest feminist men I have known in my life. ‘Queen’ is one of the most powerful women-centric films in India. The film industries in the south are largely male-dominated. It is very brave for them to remake a film like ‘Queen’. The makers have made a lot of effort to localise the content in the right way. The Kannada remake is shot in Gokarna which is a town in North Karnataka. Similarly, the Tamil film is set in a small town in Tamil Nadu. All the four films are very region specific and have a distinctive local flavour to them. In the Malayalam film, the lead characters are Muslim.
You are also making your Bollywood debut this year with ‘Bala’.
Yes. I feel the first time you make an appearance on screen matters a lot. When I was doing ads, I wanted people to notice my acting skills and what I was bringing to the table in those 30-40 seconds. Ayushmann (Khurrana) is going through the most golden period of his career. He has making a lot of brave choices which is very rare for a commercial actor to do. ‘Bala’ is a very well-made film and I am happy the Hindi cinema audience will discover me through this film.
You had to wait for a long time to get a good break in films. Was it difficult to wait for that long?
Yes, it was difficult but I was sure about one thing that I wanted to good work as an actor. I do not think there has been a better time for an artiste or a technician. When I started out there was no digital space. The digital boom has changed things in a lot of ways. There is enough work out there for people who are competent. I really wanted to make sure that the first time I am on screen it is for a significant film. Now, I have three films coming one after another. Hopefully, now a lot of doors will open for me. Actors like Madhavan are working so wonderfully across mediums and industries. I want to be a part of the best films across different industries.
Why did you stay away from doing television? There must have been offers.
Yes, there were offers. It was a personal choice not to do television. It is about sensibilities. Though I did a lot of TV commercials, there were a few big ads I chose to let go of as the content did not resonate with my sensibilities.
What are you doing next?
As of now, the ‘Queen’ remakes have been slightly postponed. The new release dates will be announced soon. ‘Bala’ is releasing on 8th November and I am very excited about it. At this point of time, I am work on sharpening my skills. I am waiting for people to watch these films and give me their feedback. I am hungry to do roles which are as varied as possible. Somebody told me once that an actor is best remembered for just about five characters. I hope I also get to play those five characters in my life.