Dishoom: what Varun Dhawan thought about being at the heart of the action in Abu Dhabi

Varun Dhawan tells us about the joys and challenges of shooting his new movie, Dishoom, in Abu Dhabi, the creative benefits of being directed by his brother, and the bond he forged with co-stars John Abraham and Jacqueline Fernandez.

Courtesy Eros International
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Unlike many of his contemporaries, Bollywood star Varun Dhawan is reluctant to describe himself as a “director’s actor”.

It is an expression that was once a respectful appreciation of talent that generated feel-good sound bites at promotional events. But it is now so overused it borders on sycophancy – even when the director, as in the case of his latest film, is his older brother, Rohit.

“I am my own person and my own actor,” says Dhawan. “I have my interpretation of a character – after all, I am the one bringing him to life on screen.”

While the brothers have similar filmmaking sensibilities, Dhawan says that they had their share of creative differences on the set of Dishoom, which was largely filmed in Abu Dhabi.

“We grew up watching the same cinema,” he says. “In fact, Rohit introduced me to many films so, yes, we have similar views. Even so, there were some arguments – but I think that’s a good thing. A creative collaboration where everyone is a yes-man would be very boring and one dimensional.”

The 29-year-old actor says he also shares creative chemistry with his Dishoom co-star, John Abraham.

Dhawan plays Junaid Ansari, a police officer in Abu Dhabi who teams up with Kabir (Abraham), a cop from India, to find India’s top cricketer, who has been kidnapped shortly before a crucial cricket match. “Most of my scenes in this film are with John,” says Dhawan. “Junaid and Kabir don’t agree on anything, which is shown quite comically. It’s constant banter between a rookie and a seasoned cop, between a boy and a man. Kabir thinks Junaid is too headstrong for his age, while Junaid thinks Kabir’s methods are outdated. Even in real life, John and I have different takes on most things. But we are great friends – I call him Jonathan Rossi because he loves bikes.”

So how did Dhawan's character end up living in Abu Dhabi? "Junaid's parents moved from India to the UAE when he was very young, and like any typical NRI [non-resident Indian], he's fascinated by Bollywood and the culture back home," he says.

“I love how witty he is, and when I read his one-liners, that decided it for me. That said, my character follows an interesting boy-to-man arc, as Junaid and Kabir get more involved in the case.”

The film also stars Jacqueline Fernandez as double agent Pakiza/Parvati.

“The dynamic was very cool,” says Dhawan. “Both John and Jacqueline are such professional team players.”

The trio spent plenty of time together in Abu Dhabi, where much of the film was shot at familiar local landmarks.

“Since my character has grown up in the UAE’s capital and works as a cop there, we spent a lot of time – 40 days – filming all over the emirate,” says Dhawan. “I swear, I could be an Abu Dhabi tour guide now, since I’ve visited almost every place.”

Given the list of filming locations – including Yas Marina Circuit, Ferrari World, Etihad Towers, Zayed Cricket Stadium and the Corniche – he could be right.

One of the most exhilarating scenes, shot at Reem Island, involved Dhawan hanging off the side of a helicopter. In a film packed with action and stunts, Dhawan admits the chopper scene was the one that made him most nervous.

“All I had for support was John’s hand, which I was hanging off of,” he says. “And since we were filming over a residential area, there was little by way of safety below except our super-experienced team from South Africa.

“Even John was worried because my life was, quite literally, in his hands. But I think we managed to pull of the most gutsy and breathtaking sequences ever shot without stunt doubles in Bollywood.”

For all the explosive action and "bromance" banter, Dhawan says Dishoom is careful not to insult the audience's intelligence.

"We've tried to put together a film that has both a heart and a brain," he says. "Dishoom has a dose of healthy humour and Bollywood-style masala, but at the same time we have thought through the plot very seriously. It's not just joke, explosion, song – visually, Rohit has gone all out, shooting in some of the most stunning locales in Abu Dhabi, Mumbai and Morocco."

The film has already earned praise for its song-and-dance videos, a common indicator of the Bollywood entertainment Dhawan refers to.

"Sau Tarah Ke is the most popular track with listeners, but my favourite is Jaaneman Aah with Parineeti Chopra, which got more than six million YouTube views in six days," he says.

It has now racked up eight million views.

Another big draw is Akshaye Khanna, the hugely talented but notoriously publicity-shy actor, who plays the villain.

“Akshaye Khanna is the USP [unique selling point] of the film,” says Dhawan. “It was always Rohit’s plan to get him to agree to come on board.

“Akshaye trusts Rohit and is quite fond of him – which I don’t think Akshaye would be able to say he feels about a lot of people.”

With Dishoom about to debut, what is next for Dhawan?

“I am looking forward to doing more serious films, and would love to do a really dark thriller in addition to love stories and coming-of-age dramas,” he says.

“But one thing is for sure: commercial cinema is evolving in Bollywood, and I plan to grow with it.”

Dishoom is in cinemas now

pmunyal@thenational.ae