Let’s be honest about something: we might act all progressive and cool, talk like millennials, discuss Berlin and Cannes, Oscars and indie, but in our hearts, we are still unabashedly nostalgic about the ‘90s — a few drinks down and we happily move from Shape of You to Dhak Dhak Karne Laga. The Nineties kids are still hung up on QSQT, DDLJ, JJWS and KHKN, films that defined their puberty and introduced them to “romance”. Pehla Nasha and Tujhe Dekha Toh Yeh Jaana Sanam remain the country’s quintessential love ballads even today, and that’s saying something, because these songs are over 25 years old.
Look at our mainstream cinema today. We are back to remixing songs, bringing back kitschy plotlines and good ol’ north Indian ‘90s masala. What the Nineties best did was cash in on India’s middle-class, and their aspirations and ambitions. This, paired with the likes of Kumar Sanu, Abhijeet and Udit Narayan belting out sing-along tunes, resulted in a product that was both relatable and enjoyable for the vast majority. And if you look back on it, our heroes did not look like heroes in the Nineties. Other than Salman Khan, everyone looked like regular people — and that is what Ayushmann Khurrana has brought back.
He looks like a regular guy — a strapping lad with a big, bright smile and a certain galli da munda vibe. When you talk to him, he doesn’t come across as a celebrity — he feels more like the dude who will strum a guitar and sing Do Dil Mil Rahein Hain for his girlfriend on V Day. He reeks of cassette tapes and tuition classes, snatching meaningful glances across college classrooms, secretly meeting on terraces and stealing kisses, holding up a boom box outside the girl’s window, playing “our song” (because the Nineties were all about being “inspired” by Hollywood too) — and the Nineties kids, who are today’s most important influencers, are lapping up these heavy doses of nostalgia. In India, after sex and Shah Rukh Khan, nostalgia is the third most profitable commodity — and Ayushmann Khurrana is serving up oodles of it.
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“I think it is very important to own a niche,” he says, as we chat after our shoot. He is very easy to work with, and not fussy at all. He is flitting in and out of cities, shooting and promoting Meri Pyaari Bindu, which releases this month. Khurrana is evidently sleep deprived, but he can’t stop giggling throughout the shoot, with an almost childlike combination of enjoying being shot but also being embarrassed by the attention. He is affable, charming and exudes — like in his films — a regular guy quality, which is refreshing in this industry.
“It is good to have that niche,” he continues. “See, I feel that your roles will be an extension of your personality. I might not be as extroverted as Vicky from Vicky Donor, but neither am I as simple as Prem [Dum Lagaa Ke Haisha]. But there are parts of me in both of them. And yes, they are very middle-class characters and at the same time, people are also accepting cinema that is more rooted and real, and that is also the kind of cinema I enjoy personally.” And what is the kind of cinema he enjoys watching? “To begin with, I don’t watch a lot of cinema. I have a background in theatre. I have done a lot of theatre in college and I formed two theatre groups in Chandigarh, and they are still doing pretty well. Apart from that, I love watching international films more than Bollywood or Hollywood. I enjoy Majid Majidi a lot, and Turkish cinema — also Indian regional cinema. I really like Majidi’s slowpaced, languid style of storytelling. I also loved Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox. I am lucky that I started with Shoojit Sircar. He is one of the few directors in the industry who is following his heart and is also getting commercial success. His stories are content-based and I think he is brilliant.”
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We start talking about Meri Pyaari Bindu, and I ask him what about the script interested him. “I think it was the nostalgic chord. I began my career as a radio presenter in 2006-2007 and I used to make my own playlists, and these were songs I connected with, songs I have been listening to since I was a kid. Probably they were my parents’ favourite songs, but I started relating to them as well. The film is about that — a story about songs that someone connects to. And it revolves around playlists and mix tapes, which is something that I could immediately connect with.” The Nineties kids will definitely love that, but what about today’s generation, which has grown up with digital media? How will they grasp the romance of these objects? “See, at the heart of it, it is the story of a relationship between these two people and the journey they make from the age of five to thirty-five. I think the story is very fresh and everyone can relate to it.”
And you are playing a Bengali this time? “Yeah! See, Vicky was easy because I belong to that region. Dum Lagaa Ke was hard work because I had to work on the dialect, because I hadn’t stayed in that region. Grasping Bengali was the toughest, but I have a penchant for Indian languages, so when I went to Kolkata — which wasn’t the first time; I have a bunch of friends there — I really enjoyed myself. I love Rabindra Sangeet and Bengali food, of course. It comes from within, you know? If you have an interest in certain things, like culture and languages and food, you will enjoy yourself.”
What does he think of Parineeti Chopra? I ask Khurrana to list three qualities that she has that her contemporaries don’t. “Her simplicity, the intuition she has as an actor and her musicality. She does not need to prep for a scene. I have seen her perform so naturally all the time. Also, our sensibilities in music are very similar. She understands music well. Music is how we clicked, actually. We have had a similar upbringing, hailing from relatively smaller cities. She is also an incredible singer, a classically trained singer, and no one knows about that — I think her song is proof of that.”
It is not hard to gauge why Khurrana and Chopra make for a great team. For starters, their innate Punjabi-ness makes them effervescent on screen. Chopra might not be the best of actors in India, but she has that on-screen charm and presence which makes her a darling with the masses. The Nineties never cashed in on actresses’ acting chops, which is why a Raveena Tandon and even a Kajol were mostly wasted at the peaks of their careers. In today’s yuppy bunch, only Alia Bhatt stands out for exceptionally balancing performance and commerce. The likes of Chopra, Shraddha Kapoor, Sonam Kapoor and Sonakshi Sinha make cautious experiments, but happily run back to the warm safety of the formula. In Bollywood, the road most trodden is, often, the road to success.
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Khurrana tells me that he is extremely critical of himself. “I am not self-obsessed — most actors and artists are — but I am self-absorbed. Every actor is born with a certain sense of vanity, which I don’t have. I think I have a long way to go. I can’t watch my films more than twice. It’s so awkward. During screenings, I generally usher my guests in and mostly don’t sit through them.” And who are the critics in his life? “My wife, my father and brother. They tell me where I have goofed up and where I could have done better.” Who are the actors whose work he admires? “Ranbir Kapoor. I know he is a contemporary, but I think he’s one of the best superstars we have ever had. He is so natural and instinctive as an actor. For someone to do a Barfi! and a Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani or a Rockstar proves how versatile an actor he is. Among the women, I really like Alia, Deepika and Parineeti.” What if you had to pick three films you wished you had been a part of? “I’d say Rockstar, so that I could sing my own songs. Then Aamir’s character from Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar and Shah Rukh’s character from Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa.” An out-and-out Nineties boy —why am I not surprised?
Vicky Donor came as a pleasant surprise for the country. It definitely goes down as one of the most daredevil risks any film-maker has taken in the last few decades. A mainstream comedy-drama about sperm donation in India, with two debutant actors as leads? Wow. Tell me something scarier. For Khurrana to find the strength in himself to choose such a film for his debut is commendable. The film soared, winning both critical and commercial acclaim, and announced the entry of an offbeat leading man, someone who was not hero-like. As the Khans became larger than life, and the next crop of actors became glossy, Photoshopped celebrities, we stepped into the 2000s believing that “reality” was a component of art cinema alone. Khurrana brought reality back to the mainstream. He did not enjoy successes after Vicky Donor, with films like Nautanki Saala, Bewakoofiyan and Hawaizaada (which was an interesting concept) tanking. It was DLKH that redeemed him. Khurrana is coming back after that success with Meri Pyaari Bindu, cashing in heavily on the nostalgia drug.
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Is he an exceptional actor? We haven’t seen enough of him to say that. What he is, though, is refreshingly natural. One could compare his acting style to Abhay Deol and Rajkummar Rao, although both Deol and Rao have made much better film choices and have tried to be more versatile. Khurrana, unfortunately, has not explored that side of his talent. While he might fiddle with accents, he has played variations of himself, and what doesn’t help is the fact that Aditya Chopra recently advised him to just “be yourself on screen”. “
He said that your characters are an extension of your personality, and that is why you are so natural — don’t eye anything that is beyond your character, as of now, until you realise you have changed as a person. I think that was the best advice I have got,” Khurrana gushes. He should take Chopra’s advice with a pinch of salt, though, because you don’t want anyone to whisper “stereotype.” Hrishikesh Mukherjee would have been very fond of Khurrana, but then again, Mukherjee would have given his “character” enough meat to go with his “characteristics”.
What advice did he give Aparshakti, his younger brother, who debuted in a supporting role in Dangal? If Aparshakti’s publicists are to be believed, the Khurranas seem like a new film family in the making. I remember that they approached me to do an interview with Aparshakti, and along with the portfolio shots to be carried with the story, they also sent photos of the two brothers, dressed in white, with Ayushmann’s hands bada bhai-like on Aparshakti’s shoulders. But, with a YRF on his side (both his hits have been YRF films; MPB is also a YRF film) and a book to his name, pompously titled Cracking The Code: My Journey In Bollywood, maybe Khurrana does feel like a bada bhai, who has the wisdom to hack it in the big bad film world. “I told him not to try too hard,” he says. “Do whatever comes naturally to you. The best part is that he got a character in which he could show off his linguistic skills. He has been the captain of the Haryana U-19 cricket team, and he is equally good with both Punjabi and Haryanvi, and you can see that in Dangal. He auditioned for the character and everybody loved him in the film.”
As I mentioned earlier, Khurrana has been one our easiest cover stars to shoot. He is not fussy and narcissistic, but he does keep tabs of what’s happening in men’s fashion. He follows a bunch of men’s grooming and style handles on Instagram (his Instagram bio reads “Eyebrows are bushy” — make what you will of that). I ask him why. “I am not narcissistic, but I like to keep track of what’s happening. I am fascinated with fashion. I don’t go overboard with fashion but I like to add a hint of quirk with classic attire.” Do you dress yourself? “I have a stylist, of course, she is really good. But yeah, I do dress myself too.” The man is level headed when it comes to his appearance. He definitely takes care of himself, works out (he might not have abs, but has a beach bod, enough to make people drool over him in swimming shorts), and has good taste in clothes. “I live to eat,” he laughs, when I ask him whether he loves food and the process of eating. “I am thankfully blessed with a very good metabolism. I am really desi at heart, and I love desi food, so anything from Punjabi, Mughlai, Bengali, Gujarati or Konkani food, I am always game for anything Indian.”
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Featured image: Liquid cotton polo by Calvin Klein; Italian made selvedged denim by Calvin Klein Jeans
Art Director: Amit Naik
Junior Stylist: Neelangana Vasudeva
Hair: Team Hakim Aalim
Make Up: Hinal Dattani