The Gujju pin-up

09 June,2024 07:49 AM IST |  Mumbai  |  Junisha Dama

Digital creator-turned-actor Viraj Ghelani’s latest Gujarati film is seeing sold-out shows. What about this debutant is drawing crowds to theatres?

Viraj Ghelani; (right) With co-star Mansi Parekh and director Umang Vyas on the set of the film

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A record-breaking, Rs 2.42-crore opening weekend. Jhamkudi, a comedy-horror has seen one of the biggest openings for a Gujarati film. With 100 shows in Mumbai and more being added, we are asking, what's pulling crowds to theatre halls in the city?

Is it Viraj Ghelani's comic timing and his ‘ame to aava j chie' (we are like that only) attitude that Gujaratis stereotypically tend to have? Perhaps, it's the sheer authenticity he brings on screen.

But Jhamkudi is not Ghelani's first appearance on screen. He first played a part in Vicky Kaushal's Govinda Naam Mera (2022) and later shared the screen with Sanjay Dutt in Jawan (2023). But for even longer, he has been a YouTube creator starring in Dice Media's videos, many of which were viral. After quitting the media company, he continued creating content on his Instagram and YouTube channels.

Recently, Ghelani was at the Cannes Film Festival. For him, it was about watching films, networking, and talking to producers, directors, and content creators. What the audience saw on his Instagram was very real. It was all about fan-boying over Chris Hemsworth, getting a shoe bite, and enjoying thepla while abroad. "As a creator, I was aware that I would get a lot of hate. I was aware that if I am not real on social media, I will be flagged off. So, I made sure I put up real-life stories. And, I made sure I carry my thepla and talk about it," he says.

On his Instagram bio, he proudly writes that he is from SoBo, meaning South Borivili. He's always a cutie around his nani and features her in several reels. And, at times, is found comically complaining about the traffic in Mira-Bhayender.

Jhamkudi is Ghelani's debut in a lead role. And for him, "it's a dream. I had no idea something like this would come into my life. Imagine, one lakh people are watching your film and praising it. I don't want to wake up!" Although, he says it has ben hard personally for him to watch himself on screen.

In the film, Ghelani plays Baablo, a real estate agent from Ahmedabad who is called to the village of Raniwada to overcome a curse spun by the witch Jhamkudi. It's the romantic scenes that he foud most challenging to pull off with Mansi Parekh, a seasoned Hindi television and Gujarati film actor. Ghelani could not stop blushing. "All the romantic scenes have been enacted in front of a tree and not with her; I was blushing. I kept saying, ‘I can't do this'," he says.

But how did Ghelani rise to bag the role? He says the producers were not looking to cast a well-known face. Any doubts Ghelani had about being right for the part were put at rest. "They said this is what we wanted. The character is a chubby boy who comes from Ahmedabad. He had to be relatable."

The challenge for him, despite being Gujarati, was speaking in the tongue. Mumbai's Gujarati population tends to pepper it with Hindi, Marathi or English words. The result is a bastardised language that is easy to understand and speak but not suitable for a film. "In Mumbai Gujarati, we say loka [people]. There is no word like that, it's loko. There were so many things which I mixed up. I thought, ‘Oh my God, my Gujarati is pathetic'." Although at times, he could keep the language casual in the film, as the director wanted it to be relatable to the youth. Ghelani did not take formal coaching, and instead, spent time with Sanjay Goradia, a well-known theatre actor, Ojas Rawal and Nisarg Trivedi. "I made sure that I sat with them, talked to them, listened to them, got their feedback about my art, my acting and performance. So, for me, whatever they said, I blindly trusted. I was the baby on set. These guys said, ‘Don't worry, you are doing this or that right…' So, for me, they were confidence boosters." What the film has done is made him a new appreciator of the language.

Moving from acting for the phone screen to a cinema hall also meant that he was learning new facets of the craft, including not flinching the eye when a scene is intense. "On Instagram, I have a second; if you don't attract them [the audience] in a second, they'll scroll up. Here, the responsibility is bigger, spanning two and a half hours. The audience cannot feel like I have left the character."

Earlier this year, he even tried his hand at stand-up comedy in Gujarati and the tickets to the show were sold out. It's not a route many digital creators typically take. "I always wanted to do stand up, but I was shying away. Then I realised that with the movie coming, this is a good way to promote it. Second, I wanted to check what the ROI of my audience is if I put up a show, will they come, buy tickets and watch the film? It's a good way to tell brands that there are people who will pay and come," he says.

Ghelani has tried it all: podcasting, acting in films, creating reels, sketches on YouTube, and stand-up comedy. Where does this spirit to keep trying new things come from? "It's because I dropped out of engineering," he jokes.

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