After a career resurrection of sorts in 2017, Ayushmann Khurrana knocked it out of the park last year, delivering two smashing performances (Andhadhun, Badhaai Ho) in films that won over critics and the box office. From the ‘common man’ representative to becoming one of the poster boys of quality — and commercially viable — cinema, Khurrana has proved that he has enough acting muscle to shoulder solo projects. This year, he has a number of releases, making him possibly the busiest actor in the industry. He’s bringing in the new age of Bollywood — intelligent, socially conscious and dedicated to the medium.
From winning the second season of MTV Roadies to starring in one of the highest grossing Hindi films, what’s the journey been like?
I always wanted to be an actor since childhood. Roadies happened by default. I never thought I’d fit in that prototype of a Roadie, but I was in the final year of college at that time and I always wanted to be an actor, and suddenly I just gave the Roadies audition. It happened, and because of it, I got so many triggers in life. I became a VJ and from a VJ I became an actor, so things happen for a reason. Roadies really helped me to move forward in life. So it was all planned, it was all destined. I really worked hard towards it, I was very regular with my theatre and academics also at the same time, because my dad was very strict about it. He was like if you don’t top your college, I’ll not let you do theatre, so he kept that condition which worked in a way, so I began journalism out of that. Then radio happened after Roadies, and then anchoring on television and VJing, and then Vicky Donor happened.
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Even after all of this, do you feel like you belong to the inner coterie of Bollywood?
I don’t know what that is, seriously. I guess you make your friends inside Bollywood and outside Bollywood. Yeah, you are accessible and the opinion leaders of the industry are accessible to you. They are just a phone call away, but I also believe that things change every Friday, and this world is fickle. You just need to take it easy and be with your close friends, and be loyal to them. If your friendship is agenda-driven, it will not last forever, because the other party also knows what the agenda is. So if it comes naturally to you, for example, if there are some common things between you guys and the other guy is also successful and you want to be his friend, you talk about things like movies or books or whatever, but if you’re forcing your friendship on somebody, it won’t work. If you are successful, you by default become part of the inner circle, but the idea is that they should also be with you when you’re not doing well. That may or may not happen.
How has fame changed you?
You know it had changed me back in the day when I had won Roadies. I was 19 or 20 then. I didn’t have the wisdom to digest fame, so I’ve seen that quite young and have come a long way from there. I had my first break up during that time, I started getting attention from other women apart from my wife, so I’ve been through that phase where my head went bonkers after tasting fame. So I’m quite balanced now.
Is this something you’ve just learned, or have you had to make an effort?
I learned. Because you don’t expect a teenager to be sensible or taking fame very easily or lightly. They don’t, because coming from Chandigarh, Punjabis are loud and we want to show off. Coming from that mindset, it was difficult for me at that time but over the years, I realised when I was doing radio and interviewing celebs as a VJ, so I’ve seen the industry as an outsider, I’ve asked questions, and now I’m answering questions from this side. So it gave me a great perspective, I saw a lot of actors doing great and suddenly perishing. So I’ve seen that happen, I used to review films at the same time, so I feel I have quite a balanced perspective because of the life situations I’ve been through.
I started getting attention from other women apart from my wife, so I’ve been through that phase where my head went bonkers after tasting fame
The industry can be incestuous, and we don’t see you at a lot of gatherings – is that because you’re a private person, or are you socially awkward?
I am a private person but I’m not socially awkward. It’s just that if I get time, I go for it, but this is an unusual year for me because I’m shooting four films. I’m not getting any breathers. It’s like I’m finishing one film today and starting another tomorrow and, in the meanwhile, in the car, I’m reading scripts of other films. So this year, I’m slightly busy with these films, so no, I’m not socially awkward. Normally, I would do two films a year, like Andhadhun and Badhaai Ho last year, but this year it’ll be three or four releases.
Speaking of Andhadhun and Badhaai Ho, last year content driven cinema was the norm. Did you expect these movies to do that well?
I always knew they’d do well, but I never expected that they’ll do this well. I had a certain number with both the films, and frankly speaking, the numbers were doubled, but I always thought that they will be commercially successful films. I’m glad that people are making good content and that they are creating blockbusters out of these films. I’ve seen that happen with Vicky Donor and Dum Laga Ke Haisha — they are successful films, but they’re not blockbusters. I’m happy and quite overwhelmed by the situation.
Suit by Paul Smith; shirt by Kenzo available at The Collective; On the Wrist: Classic Baywater watch and classic cuff in rose gold by Daniel Wellington; Car Audi S5 Sportback
Before doing a film like Vicky Donor, did you ever feel like yeh chalega ki nahi chalega?
When you’re doing a first film, you’re wondering about the credibility of the film and your character. Before my first film, I’d said no to a lot of films that were offered to me. As a VJ, I’d seen that your first film as an outsider is very important, because you’ll not get a second chance. So I was just cautious about the first film and wanted to work with a credible director, and Shoojit Sircar is a very credible director. But Sircar was not this big before Vicky Donor, he was known as a very credible director in the ad world. He had made a film called Yahaan, which got a national award, I think. I loved that film and I saw another film of his called Shoebite, which never released. I saw the film in the edit and think it’s one of his masterpieces, but ab niklegi nahi, I think it won’t be released ever. So I was convinced that this guy is a genius, and with this conviction and respect for Shoojit da, I went ahead with Vicky Donor, and the script was entertaining. I never thought a script for a sperm donor would . . . Of course, it would be entertaining for sure, but also very palatable for the masses and the family audience. So that was a big surprise when I read the script and was very confident with the script. I did not understand numbers at that time and still don’t, but I’m glad it did well.
Even after Vicky Donor, the roles you’ve picked up have dealt with taboo topics, but have also been palatable. How does that happen?
I think it has to be a mix of everything. If you’re not making a film for a family audience, then what is the point? I don’t believe in films which are too dark. I think films are meant to entertain you, like you have enough darkness in your life and you need to see films that make you happy. We celebrate cinema in our country. But at the same time, you need to hit the middle of the road, where it has to be entertaining and also has to have some value. So I like the combination of both.
And value creation is important to you…
Very important. Even entertainment is very important. If it’s just value creation, it could be a documentary also, but if value creation is with entertainment, it can be a successful film.
I don’t believe in films which are too dark. I think films are meant to entertain you
What are the other things you look for before you sign a film?
The script is of the utmost importance, the story has to make sense, it has to be entertaining and the director has to be credible. It doesn’t matter if you are a fresh director or a known name. Even a short film can show the credibility of a director, by the way. I’ve worked with a lot of new directors like Sharad Kataria and Ashwini Tiwari. As I said, Shoojit da was not as big as he is now before Vicky Donor. And Amit Sharma of Badhai Ho, he made a Tewar before that. Look at his work in the ad world, it’s brilliant. He has found his voice now with Badhaai Ho. The same goes with Anubhav Sinha, I’m doing a film with him called Article 15 which deals with discrimination and equality. I just feel that after my success I can afford to do a film like Article 15, which is slightly off centred.
Can you tell us a little more about Article 15?
Nobody does the topic of the caste system in India bluntly and honestly. So it deals with that. It only happens in India that we have separate utensils for our maids and house help. Nowhere else in the world, only in this subcontinent, only India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. So it’s about basic human rights, which we take for granted. It is normal for us. So this is an eye-opener. Normally, we don’t let our chauffeurs sit next to us and have lunch with us, that again only happens in India and nowhere else. So it just touches the basics of human nature in India especially.
So aren’t you afraid? Because in India, people normally run away from these topics.
But I’ve always been doing that since my first film, so if I will not do it, then who will?
Still, you’ve seen what happens when films have touchy topics, and producers who face a political backlash and the movie is held up.
Again, it depends on the script and the tonality of the film. You can make it controversial, and all my films are dealing with taboo subjects that are cringeworthy. People find it cringe-y, but we serve it in a way that you will just fall in love with the script. So it depends on the script, and how you present it.
Shirt, knit, bomber jacket, joggers and Shoes by Gucci; On the Wrist: Classic Baywater watch and classic cuff in silver by Daniel Wellington; Car Audi S5 Sportback
Do you think producers and directors see you as a certain kind of actor?
They do, in fact, if they have certain subjects that other actors may find risky, or may not be able to carry off because they don’t believe in it. But I am just an open-minded person. And Anubhav Sinha realised it when we were meeting for Article 15. We were on the same page. I was heavily into the literature of Dalits and the caste system, and I have felt strongly about that. He was surprised, but then we worked towards it and finally Article 15 happened.
We know you can do the role of a common man, the people’s actor, the slice-of-life kind of kind. Do you ever feel like branching out of this comfort zone?
In fact, in Article 15, I am not playing a common man, I’m playing an IPS officer who is posted in UP. So I am the outsider, not the common man. I am the upper… actually, I will not say that. I am urban India’s representation in rural India, where the caste system is rampant. How I deal with the situation is the crux of the story. So I’m clearly not the common man in that. But at the same time, films should be about the common man.
2018 was a bittersweet year for you. On the one hand, you had such back-to-back successes, and on the other, your wife was diagnosed with cancer. How did you deal with that?
It was not easy. It was very challenging, but it made us better human beings who were more equipped to deal with certain situations. It is only because of her, because she is such a strong person and she took it so strongly. She took it like a challenge and was never bogged down by the situation. I was promoting two films during that time, but there was not even a single moment when she broke down. So she gave me the strength, and it was not the other way round.
How does she influence the roles you take up? Because from what I’ve read, it seems like you both share a very good partnership.
Yes, she reads all of my scripts and we’re almost always on the same page. Our likes and dislikes, as far as cinema is concerned, are the same. We’ve known each other since we were kids, we’ve done theatre together. She used to write for a theatre group and I was the actor. So we’ve always seen life together. So yes, it is a great partnership, personal and professional both. She is a part of the decision-making when it comes to my professional life.
Jacket, blazer and trousers by Ermenegildo Zegna; shirt by Paul Smith; shoes by Salvatore Ferragamo; On the Wrist: Classic St Mawes watch and classic cuff in rose gold by Daniel Wellington; Car Audi S5 Sportback
What both of you have is extremely rare, considering she used to write your scripts and you’re still here together. How does that make you feel?
Unbelievable. Because I remember, immediately after completing our post-graduation, there was this family pressure of getting married. And I was not earning at that time, and she was the first person that I confessed to that I wanted to be an actor. She started laughing and said you can’t be an actor just like that, and how will you earn money, because you’re really not the conventional guy or the right candidate to be a superstar, because those times were different, the mid-2000s. It was not easy. So she’s seen me grow from there to now. We’ve come a long way.
When you meet people now who perhaps didn’t give you the kind of access you wanted, despite the fact that you had the talent, how do you feel about them?
I don’t judge them like that, because there will be hundreds of people like me around them. And you can’t just gauge talent like that from their face value. I get a lot of messages from different scriptwriters, and I can’t just message back because I don’t have that kind of time or energy because I’m just concentrating on my craft and my films. So it’s the rule of the world, I guess. I have no grudge against them, because that’s how it works.
We’ve [Tahira ] known each other since we were kids, we’ve done theatre together. She used to write for a theatre group and I was the actor. So we’ve always seen life together
You seem to have a very interesting role in Dream Girl. Tell us a little about it.
This guy (the character) has got a unique talent. He can essay the female voice, so he is playing with the voices. In most of our mythological plays and dramas, it’s the guy who plays Sita in the interiors of the country, so I’m that guy. Nobody tells the story of that guy. Though it’s a straight guy in the film, it’s not dealing with crossdressing or homosexuality — this is just to do with the voice modulation and the acting part.
What does a good film mean to you?
As I said earlier, a good film is about creating value, bringing about some kind of change and giving entertainment. It’s a mix of everything.
Do you feel like you succumb to the pressures of being a celebrity? Are there many things you want to say, but can’t?
It’s difficult to be political when you are a celebrity. I also feel as an artist, you should be apolitical, because you’re playing different characters on-screen. If you are heavily political and leaning towards one side in your life, and have to play a character from the other side on celluloid, it won’t be acceptable. So you have to be a clean canvas to portray different characters. I used to wear a kada, a holy thread in college, but I stopped doing that. You have to be non-religious, apolitical as an artist, because you have the audience on the left, the right and the centre. And entertainment is beyond that.
But is it easy to do that?
It’s not easy, but through your films, you can make a commentary. Make a statement through your art, because otherwise you don’t have time for these things, these arguments or these discussions. If you want to make a change, make it a social change. Deal with the subject of homosexuality, or erectile dysfunction, or skin colour or body shaming.
You have to be non-religious, apolitical as an artist, because you have the audience on the left, the right and the centre
I can’t see you starring in a horror film, for some reason. Can you see yourself doing an action movie? Article 15 has some action, it’s not action driven. I’m playing a cop, so there’s some amount of alpha male. Even Badhaai Ho had a little bit of bullying issues here and there. I would love to do action. In fact, in college, I played Ashwathama. It is a masculine, alpha character and I got many awards for it. In fact, in films, I’ve never shown that side of me.
What is the one movie you can watch any time?
3 Idiots or Rang De Basanti. Recently, I loved Gully Boy. I love Notebook, and La La Land
What do you do to de-stress?
It has to be music. I’m glad it’s part of my professional life also. If you put on music, I’m just fresh. It’s a mood uplifter.
Shirt, joggers and t-shirt by Diesel; shoes by Jimmy Choo; On the Wrist: Classic Baywater watch and classic cuff in silver by Daniel Wellington; Car Audi S5 Sportback
Can we expect something from you in the digital space?
I would love to. If there’s something that’s too radical for cinema, I would love to explore the digital side also, but as of now, we are running a contest on the digital space called ‘Jam Sessions with Ayushmann’, trying to discover eclectic talent. Because there’s no platform for lyricists and composers and musicians. You have mostly vocal driven shows, so we are trying to collaborate with new talent.
Do you think the digital space will ever replace the big screen?
It’s almost there. It’s a big threat to bada purdah, because you can go more radical, more edgy. The censorship issues are hardly there, but the charm of community viewing will never go, just like watching a cricket match in a stadium will never go.
What would your last meal on earth be?
I’ll have Rahim ki nihaari from Lucknow, chelo kebab from Kolkata and I’ll have Dakshinayan ka masala dosa .
Interview and cover story by Mayukh Majumdar
PHOTOGRAPHED BY TARAS TARAPORVALA | ART DIRECTION BY TANVI SHAH | FASHION EDITOR NEELANGANA VASUDEVA HAIR BY TEAM HAKIM AALIM | MAKEUP BY HEEMA DATTANI | CAR AUDI S5 SPORTBACK