The Rise Of Varun Dhawan & Ranveer Singh
Bollywood is a star-driven system, and the stars who drive it are ageing. Of the hundred or so Hindi-language films released every year, the most revenue is usually generated by movies headlined by a small group of middle-aged male actors. Chief among this group are the Khans (Salman, Shah Rukh, and Aamir) and Hrithik Roshan, who, at forty-one, is the youngest of the lot. Roshan is also the last bona fide male superstar Bollywood has produced. A superstar, in plain words, is an actor who can consistently open his films, regardless of their quality, to major numbers.*
Roshan made his first film fifteen years ago. No “hero” (the delightfully hyperbolic term used colloquially to refer to male actors cast in leading roles) who began innings after him has had the kind of unvaried, major-scale success that he’s had. There has been an assortment of contenders and pretenders: his contemporary, Abhishek Bachchan, had a streak of success from 2004 to 2007, but is now making a career out of playing second lead in ensemble slapstick comedies. Vivek Oberoi had a brief moment before he became a national joke. Shahid Kapoor is popular, talented, and beautiful, but hasn’t had that one big hit yet.
Of the late 2000’s class, Ranbir Kapoor, despite his recent failures, still has a shot, given that he is the youngest leading man to have delivered two back-to-back 100-crore hits. (Even his recent flops. Besharam and Roy, opened strong before flaming out due to terrible word-of-mouth, which indicates that his name on the marquee had become a legitimate attraction for general audiences, but neither Bombay Velvet nor Tamasha opened big.)
It is too early to tell if they have the sort of loyal audience that will see them through the next twenty years, but at this moment in time, it looks like Varun Dhawan and Ranveer Singh are both on the cusp on the sort of superstardom that the Hindi-film business needs to keep it chugging along, at least until it gets to the juncture where it is less reliant on the star-ecosystem. Of all their peers, Dhawan and Singh have had the most consistent and spectacular levels of success.
Dhawan, who appeared in his first film only about three years ago, has made six films, and all of them have been money-makers (even the intense, off-mainstream Badlapur, in which he played a tricky part to great effect.) Dhawan is an “industry kid.” His father is David Dhawan, who directed several successful comedies in the nineties. He isn’t star progeny like Abhishek Bachchan, which means audiences weren’t curious about him just because they knew and loved his parents’ onscreen incarnations, but he has probably benefitted from growing up around films and film folk like Karan Johar, whom he assisted on My Name is Khan and who cast him in Student of The Year. But Bollywood is high-stakes business now, and nobody will go out of their way to cast David Dhawan’s son in the lead for A-list projects if he doesn’t have the goods.
Dhawan has the goods. His cheeky, arrogant pop-star charisma reminds one a young Salman Khan. He is also in possession of considerable talent (especially evident in Badlapur and Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania). He is a canny actor whose limitations of voice and diction are often obscured by the sly comic timing and unexpected spikes of sincerity and emotion in his performances. His acting wavers between knowing irony and old-fashioned heart-on-sleeve emotionality in a way that seems potently relatable to young Indians. His eminently gif-able dance performances and absurdly chiseled body have launched scores of Tumblr-blogs and fan accounts on Twitter. If there is an actor young Indians will go to the movies for, it is Varun Dhawan.
If Dhawan has been zeitgeist-ready from the get-go, Ranveer Singh has slowly and steadily bent the cultural moment to accommodate his own singular personality. Initially ridiculed for his unironic, unfiltered, brashly demonstrative public persona, he is now celebrated as an iconoclast. Singh is eight films and just over five years old in Bollywood. His most recent release, Bajirao Mastani, came out on the same day as Shah Rukh Khan’s Dilwale. Bajirao has significantly outgrossed the latter in India and won the young actor the sort of rapturous acclaim that is rarely directed by serious critics (of which there are sadly few) toward a mainstream leading man. He recently won the Filmfare Award for Best Actor. Bollywood awards have become, for the most parts, a bitter joke, but the Filmfare trophy is, due to its storied history, of some significance, especially for a young leading man. (The award mostly went back and forth between Shah Rukh Khan, who is nominated just about every year he headlines a film, Amitabh Bachchan, Hrithik Roshan, and Aamir Khan in the 2000’s.)
Singh has had two big hits so far, both with Sanjay Leela Bhansali directing and Deepika Padukone starring opposite him. He’s also had more moderate success with Zoya Akhtar’s ensemble dramedy, Dil Dhadakne Do, and Ali Abbas Zafar’s retro actioner, Gunday. He’s worked with a host of important and interesting filmmakers. (His next, Befikre, is Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge helmer and power player Aditya Chopra’s first directorial in seven years, and brings the actor satisfactory full circle, given that his first movie was produced by Chopra.)
Bollywood directors, always on the lookout for bankable talent that won’t triple their budget, placed their bets on Singh after his lovely performance in Band Baaja Baaraat. His third film was Lootera, a gorgeous period drama directed by Vikramaditya Motwane, whose Udaan had been one of 2012’s most praised films. Subdued and tragic, Singh made an impression alongside his co-star, Sonakshi Sinha. But major box office success came with Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram Leela, Sanjay leela Bhansali’s first box office hit since Black. Bhansali made canny use of the attributes that made Singh much more divisive than peers like Dhawan and Sidharth Malhotra, both conventionally attractive and uncontroversially pleasant.
Singh’s flamboyance, his lascivious-seeming flirtatiousness, and his manic energy (all on display in his notorious first appearance on Koffee With Karan; watch how both co-star Anushka Sharma and host and celebrity filmmaker Karan Johar seem alternately amused and put off by him) were written into Ram Rajadi, the protagonist of Bhansali’s bawdy, Gujarat-set adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, and the success of the film helped kickstart the process of alchemizing these traits into elements that constitute what has come to be regarded an entirely original sort of star-personality. Also helping: his on-screen and off-screen chemistry with Padukone - together, they form a relaxed, sexy counterpoint in media interviews and public events to other, pricklier are-they-or-aren’t-they star couples.
Bajirao Mastani has completed that process of transfiguration, and Singh is being heralded by the trade and the film firmament, always so slow to embrace outsiders, as a blockbuster-shouldering, clutter-breaking movie star. Salman Khan has said that it took him two decades and several human-sized roles in love stories to build up the kind of fervor among audiences that would inspire them to embrace him as the larger-than-life quasi-superhero he almost exclusively plays on-screen these days. Singh plays exactly that sort of role in Bajirao Mastani, and audiences are buying him in it only five years into his career.
Bajirao is a star-making turn for Singh not just because the film has become such a runaway hit. The film asks a great deal more of its lead actor than the standard big-budget Bollywood spectacle, and Singh unfailingly delivers. He acquits himself magnificently in the fantastical action scenes, the sexy love scenes, and in the moments of high melodrama. He makes his rigorous, thoughtful character study (complete with unsexy period hair and a believable Marathi accent) bristle with sexual magnetism and force of personality. Bajirao Mastani allows him to exercise so many areas of his considerable range that he’s effectively convinced people that he can do just about anything.
Singh is especially buzzy post-Bajirao, but both he and Dhawan are white-hot right now. Each has earned critical approbation and box-office success. I have a feeling that Dhawan still has the edge when it comes to sheer fan hysteria about him. He remains the prettier one by normative standards, the more easily digestible one. But not even the most avowed Singh-skeptic can deny his acting abilities anymore, and he’s become the pinup for the kind of Bolly-lover who likes their sex symbol just a little weird and unpredictable.
Singh’s range is more expansive, though Dhawan is hardly a one-trick pony himself, in spite of his sometimes-flat vocal affect. Both have worked across genres in their fairly brief careers, and have proven themselves in comedy and drama. Both can dance (though Varun is certainly the stronger dancer), and have had heat with the women they’ve acted opposite (though Singh makes much more memorable pairs with each one of his co-leads; he’s a generous, attentive co-star).
Singh has been in better, more memorable films so far, but he’s also had a head-start and made more films (eight starring roles to Dhawan’s six). Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions has thrown its weight behind Dhawan, while Singh has the Yashraj seal of approval, having slogged through a couple indifferent films for them. Dhawan has his brother Rohit Dhawan’s Dhishoom and Shashank Khaitan’s next on deck, but Singh has the upper hand here with Befikre.
In Dhawan and Singh, one can find echoes of superstars who came before them. Both have asserted their love of the unabashedly mainstream cinema of the nineties, and are not too cool for the singing and dancing and the full-blown sentimentality of those movies. Dhawan is, as I’ve mentioned, reminiscent of Salman Khan, who appeared in several of his father’s movies. Singh, on the other hand, has reminded many of Shah Rukh Khan. He is an outsider like Khan, and not from a film family (although he had friends in the industry before making it as an actor and is related to Anil Kapoor’s wife). He is a very attractive person, but not traditionally so. (SRK was regarded as the ugly duckling in the Khan triumvirate, while Salman was straight off the cover of a Mills-and-Boon novel and Aamir Khan, believe it or not, was the uber-twink.) Singh is known for his manic energy, just as Khan, who used to give wildly tongue-in-cheek soundbytes and broke several bones doing his own stunts, used to be. And Aditya Chopra, whose films had so far always featured SRK in the lead, has just cast Singh in his next, inviting further comparison.
But neither Dhawan nor Singh is an inferior facsimile of his predecessors. I would argue that Singh, in particular, manages to combine starry sparkle with an ability to disappear into his roles in a way that SRK never did. Dhawan, too, is a more versatile, careful actor than Salman Khan has ever been. The Khans became stars during the late Eighties and Nineties, an era generally considered Bollywood’s worst. (Shah Rukh and Aamir, to their credit, did much to redirect and revitalize it alongside the filmmakers they collaborated with.) Of course, Dhawan and Singh benefit from coming into Bollywood when it is having a particularly good moment. The Indian economy has been open for decades now, and the Internet has opened up a whole new worldwide mega-highway of information, knowledge, and media, thus exposing Indian content-creators to an endless-seeming array of cultural and artistic influences. The best Hindi-language films (and there are several more good ones every year than there used to be) possess the sheen of world-class craftsmanship.
Dhawan, Singh, and their cohort aren’t working on five movies at once, either. The Khans probably had more releases within the first couple years of their arrival than Singh has had in his half-decade in the business. Consequently, they can do better, more fully committed work in each project. Furthermore, the stakes are higher, the money is bigger, the competition more fierce. An ascendant Bollywood star can no longer make an indifferent film for a friend, say, or to pay for a sea-facing house. He has to make choices with assiduous levels of strategery and get them vetted by a keen-eyed management team. Dhawan and Singh haven’t been outright terrible in any of their films because they can’t afford to be. Their impressiveness is a response to a far more high-pressure environment than the one their predecessors were shaped by. (But this rationale, generous though it may be to the men of the eighties and nineties, doesn’t quite explain to me how their great female counterparts still hold up and are just as dazzling, if not more, than the women of today’s Hindi cinema. Perhaps actresses have been, throughout the history of Bollywood, expected to do more and be more while being paid far less and accorded far less significance, but I digress.)
At any rate, these are two skilled, hungry young performers coming into their own in spectacular fashion as the industry’s tectonic plates shift and realign under their feet. Their choices so far indicate intelligence and an exhilarating absence of timidness. Neither condescends to the traditions of mainstream Hindi cinema, but both are interested in the project of broadening and complicating, by the virtue of their growing star power, what that cinema can look like and be. Dhawan and Singh are charged with possibility and promise right now. I only hope they don’t lose their taste for risk and the elasticity of their talent or settle into self-satisfied complacency.
*A-list female actors are, alas, often viewed as added value to a project instead of stand-alone box-office draws. There have been exceptions for brief periods, of course, and the new trend of Bollywood’s top female actors headlining mid-budget features that open modestly but incur pleasing returns on investment (often more significant than male-driven vehicles, which are often more expensive just due to the exorbitant fee paid out to even the most middling leading man), is a heartening one.