Varun Dhawan at a crossroads

Bollywood actor Varun Dhawan (C) performs during the song launch of the upcoming Hindi dance film 'Street Dancer 3D' in Mumbai on December 26, 2019. (Photo by Sujit Jaiswal / AFP) (Photo by SUJIT JAISWAL/AFP via Getty Images)



In 2018, Varun Dhawan, one of the most successful stars of his generation, who never really witnessed a flop, chose to shift gears with Shoojit Sircar’s October. The lacklustre response to October (2018), an unconventional love story by typical Bollywood standards, somewhere put the breaks on the experimentation as well as the variety that Dhawan might have wanted in his filmography. As a result, films such as October or Badlapur (2015), a grim action thriller that struck the right chords with the audiences as well as the critics, took a backseat. Soon, the young star reverted to what the industry terms “safe” subjects. Yet the abysmal performance of Kalank (2019), a big-budget period extravaganza from producer Karan Johar, and now the average response that Street Dancer 3D (2020) seems to have generated, Dhawan finds himself at a strange crossroads. 

As the son of filmmaker David Dhawan, Varun is more than aware of how the commercial Bombay film industry functions. Although he might have debuted in a Karan Johar film, Student of the Year (2012), Varun, at some base level, gives the sense of being more comfortable doing the kind of cinema his father made with stars such as Govinda and Salman Khan. The only instance where Varun diverted from the ‘plan’ could be Sriram Raghavan’s Badlapur, but in hindsight, labeled an ‘action’ film it became a part of the grand plan to showcase an affinity to all genres. Varun Dhawan managed to strike the right kind of balance between being associated with the crowd-pleaser films like Main Tera Hero (2014), and at the same time, featuring in films produced by marquee productions such as Karan Johar’s Dharma Films or Yash Raj Films. 

In many ways, Varun Dhawan, beautifully transformed into the link between the David Dhawan-Govinda-Salma Khan kind of cinema and the indie-minded filmmaker as well as the corporate mindset driven producers. Unlike a Ranbir Kapoor, he did not seem lost when it came to switching roles or limit himself to a particular level of production style that came to define Ranveer Singh. It’s not rare for a commercially viable star to opt for a role that is different from his or her usual roster but for Dhawan to attempt an October where his character deviated from his screen image at a stage where many of films had raked in over 100 cr at the box office might not have found the approval of many including his father. Dhawan went from playing a cocksure, young man that had made a connection with audiences beyond the standard urban multiplex crowd thanks to films such as Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania (2014), Dhishoom (2016), Judwaa 2 (2017), Badrinath Ki Dulhania (2017) to a hotel management trainee who takes unconditional care of his comatose fellow intern. 

The reason behind Dhawan to delve into October was simple — industry dictum warrants most young male stars to partake in the romance genre to broaden their audience base. When juxtaposed with the fact that the comparatively unconventional love story penned by Juhi Chaturvedi was a departure from typical romance fare, the challenge increased manifold for Dhawan. During the making of October, Dhawan was also shooting for Sui Dhagaa: Made in India (2018), a film about a small-town couple that dream of setting up their own small-scale clothing business. The two films together showed the scope of Dhawan’s experimentation and his ease of getting into characters not cut from the same fabric as the ones that made him a star. Moreover, Sui Dhagaa was a film that was supposed to feature Ranbir Kapoor, and replacing him also suggested that Dhawan was ready to step up. 

Sui Dhagaa’s collections soared past the 100-cr mark, however, Dhawan’s inability to get his fan base to accept October might have changed the plan for the path ahead. The next films that Dhawan picked up were Bollywood to the core — Kalank and a remake of his father 1990s hit Coolie No. 1. Keeping Varun Dhawan’s pedigree in mind, the failure of Kalank, where Dhawan shared the screen with Alia Bhatt, Sanjay Dutt, Madhuri Dixit, Aditya Roy Kapoor, and Sonakshi Sinha could have probably come across as a further reality check. Consequently, Varun Dhawan’s upcoming projects can be defined as commercially more viable projects. At the moment, it appears that the young star is not in the mood to push the envelope. After Coolie No. 1 he would be seen in a sequel to Dhishoom and an action-comedy called Mr. Lele, that reunites him with Sriram Raghavan and a military biopic where he would portray Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal, PVC, the hero of the Battle of Basantar  during the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971.