I have a confession to make: I have not always been convinced about Ayushmann Khurrana. It has been a recurring bone of contention between my editor and I, and we find ourselves arguing over him and his performances quite often – until last year, when I acknowledged that I was officially bowled over by the man.
Khurrana is one of the few leading men in the industry who is making it without hailing from a film family. He has struggled, and I think he had the most significant mainstream debut that I can remember in a very long time. But after Vicky Donor, Khurrana’s magic seemed to have fizzled out. Although Nautanki Saala was a fine film, Khurrana didn’t seem to cast a spell, and the same can be said about Bewakoofiyaan and Hawaizaada. Khurrana was charming in those films, a natural performer with an alluring galli-da-launda vibe which is quite fetching when served in proper measure, but he was being handed weak stories that wanted to ride on his “common man formula” alone. It was Dum Laga Ke Haisha that saved him, and it seemed that he finally knew what his movie identity would be. In 2017, he delivered three sterling films – Meri Pyaari Bindu, Bareilly Ki Barfi and Shubh Mangal Savdhan, establishing himself as the mascot for slice of life, human interest and socially progressive cinema – with a generous helping of oddball humour.
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Khurrana reminds me of Andy Samberg – they seem to share the qualities of natural performance, good looks and a penchant for uninhibited, goofy humour, but also those of being modern, sensitive and socially aware. More importantly, like Samberg, Khurrana seems to be unaffected by toxic alpha masculinity, a plague that riddles movie actors. For a movie star, he feels quite grounded, which is a somewhat unusual feeling. Even when I sit across him in his trailer, after our long photo shoot, it’s like catching up with a buddy at a café.
Last year was one of your best years, and it has been a lot of fun to see you grow. We have discussed this earlier too, that you want to own a category, a niche…
Yeah! And I spoke to you before last year’s films released, that I want to own that genre and I am glad that happened.
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Absolutely. And what I like is that even though you are being genre-specific, your characters have been very different. The kind of films you chose and the kind of, well, balls you’ve shown is amazing.
The only plan is to choose scripts that are novel, unconventional and untold. I want to do something which I am really passionate about, and be able to balance music and film together. There is a bucket list to work with certain directors, of course, but having said that, you want to do different stuff. The same territory that I am treading right now, the tonality was set from the very first film, of being unconventional, off-centre, with a connect to the audience, especially the heartland, and I would love to continue doing that.
Having said that, where do you find the faith? Because, at the end of the day, these films don’t make the kind of money the industry aspires to. You still support the script rather than the commerce. Isn’t there a part of you that wants to be a part of “that” league?
I think I am a microcosm, while an Aamir Khan is the macrocosm – he does quality cinema that churns out that kind of big money. He’s the aspiring factor in every actor’s life, I think, but I just want to promise people that the films I choose will be different. You obviously aim for commercial success, a film should do commercially well. But that’s about it. I don’t obsess over numbers, I am really bad at math. I can understand art and have a connect with it. And my upbringing has been very desi, very rooted. So, if I can connect with a script, I am sure a common man will do so too.
You are working with Sriram Raghavan, very surprisingly. Was it a conscious decision to try something different?
In fact, this was the only time I approached a director and let things happen to me. I wanted to shift the gear. I have never done a thriller, this was new for me.
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But why did you choose to do so?
The common thread in all my films is that I have been playing the common man, doing slice of life cinema and working with taboo-related subjects. This is something different, and it was a conscious decision, because I wanted to explore that genre. Sriram Raghavan was on the bucket list, and I am glad I am working with him.
Who are the other directors on the list?
Shimit Amin, Shakun Batra, Riteish Batra, Sharat Katariya and Shoojit Sircar.
If you look at it, they are all very different from the kind of cinema you have been doing.
Shakun is not, I think.
He is not necessarily middle class.
Yeah, true, the same feel but upper class. The same sensibility in a Dharma setup. For me Dum Laga Ke Haisha and Kapoor And Sons are very similar in tonality. The families are slightly cracked, and the films discuss imperfections.
And how have you put together this deadpan humour of yours, that is becoming quite a trademark? I cannot put a pin on anyone else in this industry who has done that. It’s very Woody Allen.
It is, and I am glad you say so. I honestly believe that if the script is funny, you don’t have to try too hard. You just have to become the character that has been written for you. Woody Allen once said that comedy is tragedy plus time. Shubh Mangal Savdhan is quite tragic, if you think about it. Any guy suffering from erectile dysfunction wouldn’t be hyper or expressive. Hence, the deadpan comes naturally. And this schooling of becoming the character has come from Shoojit Sircar during my first film itself.
2017 has been the year of small films making it big and making money. Let’s be honest, if Bareilly Ki Barfi happened five years back, you know that it would have been a small film. You are working with the big guys like YRF, but you still back the small films. How do you see the industry changing?
I think the industry and the audiences are changing simultaneously. It is a great symbiotic relationship that we have, and 2017 was a very peculiar year. It is testimony to the fact that content is king. But films across the spectrum have done well. You have a Judwaa, a Golmaal Returns that have done well too, along with a Bareilly Ki Barfi or a Newton. Ultimately, it boils down to the entertainment value. If you are making people laugh, it doesn’t matter if it is slapstick or sensible, it will do well.
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But we are not talking about Varun Dhawan or Golmaal Returns. This year, we have been only talking about you and Rajkummar Rao.
I think it is all about the fine balance that we are trying to strike between critical and commercial success. While the others might not be getting critical success, they are making the money. That’s why actors of my ilk look up to Aamir Khan for this balancing act.
Because we are discussing commerce, have you felt like giving up and moving over to the glitzier side? You have never oscillated with your film choices and thankfully, you are reaping the right kind of rewards now, because the climate is conducive. If Vicky Donor happened today, it would be a much bigger film than it was.
I am always keen on the glitzier side, but it has to be the right script. I have grown up on David Dhawan and Govinda, laughed out loud with my friends and I would love to do that if the script makes sense to me.
There is a lot of conversation and friction in Hollywood presently, and the awards season has shown us that. Bollywood has never been political. Rarely do actors come out and talk on issues, even though we journalists, who interact with you, know that you are intelligent, invested and political people.
As an actor, you are like a blank canvas, and you don’t represent a specific religion or caste. I used to wear a kada like Punjabis do, but I stopped doing so. I don’t like putting a tilak when I go to certain hotels. I don’t want to belong to anybody. I want to be neutral. Then, if you are neutral, will you take a political stand? You have fans who are from different walks of life, who are extremists but also moderates, right and left wing, and you are catering to everybody. Your off-screen character should never overpower your on-screen character. In Dum Laga Ke, I was a RSS member, for example. If I am left-of-centre in real life, they will not believe that I can play a right wing guy. Of course, you have a social responsibility, so you should portray that through your film. You don’t have to be yourself and give a message – make a film on it.
“I think I am a microcosm, while an Aamir Khan is the macrocosm – he does quality cinema that churns out that kind of big money. He’s the aspiring factor in every actor’s life”
If you look at our commercial films, they are usually very apolitical, never deal with any ideology and are not driven by a cause. This year’s Oscar nominated films, from Call Me By Your Name to Three Billboards, are all driven by causes. In Bollywood, it takes someone like an Ayushmann Khurrana to talk about stuff nobody is talking about. You are in an industry where people are not talking about social issues, either through their films or in person, and political figures often state that actors should just stick to acting and have no authority to speak about what is happening in the administration or society.
I think everyone has the authority to speak their minds. I also believe that actors are the opinion leaders. Anybody who is in the public eye, an actor or a cricketer, will influence the masses with their opinion. But having said that, we have made films like Kapoor And Sons and Highway, where we have dealt with issues. Taking a political stand in a film is very difficult, because ours is a very fragile country. We are just somehow together. Look at the number of languages we have, for example. When people talk about making Hindi the national language, how can you do so? English can be made so, because everyone knows the language everywhere. How can you force a south Indian or north eastern person, who has never spoken Hindi in his life, to learn an alien language? So, some issues you can take a stand on – like with the national language issue, I even wrote an article on it – but with stuff like religion, you cannot go overboard. We are very fragile.
Do you believe everyone in Bollywood is obsessed with being nice?
I think that is a good thing. It is good to be nice. This generation has better work ethics, I think. They show up on time, they work well, they share better camaraderie with people they work with. Do you think they are putting on a façade?
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Yes. Let’s be frank about something: our award shows are scripted, our talk shows are scripted. None of that is live. So, what we are consuming are products most actors would want to project. It is squeaky clean, very God-like. For the masses, they are near-perfect. These actors could be people who are more normal, people we could connect with. For example, our actors never talk about drinking alcohol, or smoking up, because those are still seen as “wrong” things. But the more you perpetrate that image, the more you encourage that these are “wrong”, when in fact, they are not.
See, these things are wrong things for sure. I am a teetotaler, but I would probably have a doobie once in three months. As long as my family knows it, I am fine. But it is not right. There is no need for any judgment attached to it, as it is personal choice, but since you are an opinion leader and you influence a lot of people, you would rather not show it off. But you know, I have always played imperfect characters. I am not the one who is obsessed with perfection. I am very real on social media.
But even your “real deal” is that you are a good boy. We have never seen you be “real”, indulge in any vices on social media.
But I don’t have any! I don’t smoke, I don’t drink [laughs].
Everything is too hunky dory with you. Your Instagram posts are all about you, and your wife, and your family. Everything is so manicured. For starters, according to you, what is wrong with you?
[Laughing hysterically] I am a laidback guy.
Does not work for me.
It’s not a vice, I know. Being ambitious is a vice these days.
If you had to do a SWOT for yourself, what would you say are your weaknesses?
I am laidback, for sure. I wanted to live in Chandigarh and do theatre. My father packed my bags and made me become an actor. Log bhaag kar actor bante hai, mujhe bhagaaya gaya tha. Agar mera baap nahi hota, toh main kabhi actor banta hi nahi. I would have lived in Chandigarh, become a programming head at a radio station and done theatre. So yeah, one vice is that… and my other vice is I eat a lot.
What makes you angry?
I am blessed with patience. But if I don’t get food and sleep, I can kill a person.
Do you really mean that?
Have you ever been on Tinder? Have you felt the urge to?
No. I can’t afford to.
The nicest of Punjabi boys…
Aisa nahi hai, yaar. Listen, I’m attracted to women. I have crushes every day. I find women attractive, apart from my wife. But I just don’t act upon them. I am a normal guy.
Are you narcissistic?
Every actor is. But I am not self-obsessed, I am self-absorbed. There is a difference. Like, I need a lot of space for myself. That’s self-absorption. I’ll probably go out and live on my own for a few days. Just be with myself. Just yesterday, my wife was telling me that I live out of a suitcase, like a bachelor. But she knows me. I love my own company. Nahi toh shayari kaise aayegi?
“Aisa nahi hai, yaar. Listen, I’m attracted to women. I have crushes every day. I find women attractive, apart from my wife. But I just don’t act upon them. I am a normal guy.”
That’s true. Every time your stories come up on Instagram, I skip them. There is just too much of them.
Thank God you told me that. I will reduce them now. There was a phase of shayari. But I should write a script or a song now, and not put it up on Instagram. My creative juices should flow, but I will keep it on hold.
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