Possibly the most memorable — and significant — hattrick in a very long time, Ayushmann Khurrana changed the game this year with three releases, all superhits, and has established himself as the most important leading man in the industry who is entertaining, reliable and outrageously talented.

During our chat for this cover interview, Khurrana tells me a story about how he was a triple threat in school — he was one of the few boys who could act, sing and dance. At that moment, I knew what my headline would be. It is also coincidental that, this year, Khurrana has been nothing less than a triple threat in the industry. A certain resurgence that kicked off two years back with Shubh Mangal Saavdhan gathered momentum last year with Andhadhun and Badhaai Ho to finally create fireworks and shatter records this year with Article 15, Dream Girl and Bala. The man might have, single-handedly, changed the personality of mainstream Bollywood cinema.

The Bollywood Hero has always had a Sophie’s Choice to make — aspirational or relatable. Stars like Amitabh Bachchan to a Hrithik Roshan and even a Tiger Shroff are aspirational, too-good-to-be-true. They are kept alive by myths and gossip, because very few people have been able to be up-close-personal with them. Even with social media ruining private lives, you can clearly see that what you consume is a manicured, calculated product.

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Someone like Salman Khan traversed the curve from one point to another. He was aspirational at one point with his bikes, biceps and bevy of women, to becoming a middle-aged, supposedly wise, older brother, who was one of the masses. So, the Bhai-loving fandom went from wanting to be him to realising that he has become like them. Khan wasn’t a rich Barjatya brat anymore. He had become Chulbul Pandey.

Khurrana is as relatable as it gets. From his choice of films to his homely familial vibe on social media, he is that good boy every mohalla has — and that makes people warm up to him even more. Movie stars lost their aspirational value the day Instagram happened — swiftly followed by Snapchat and Dubsmash/TikTok. As people were given avenues to explore their innate narcissism, they refused to worship anybody but themselves. So, if they saw a celebrity wear something, they wanted it too — and easily got it, thanks to increased purchasing power and, well, easy fakes — not because they wanted to pledge allegiance to a fandom, but to tell people that “I am as good as he is”. Hence, when I DM a star or drop a comment on a post, I expect a response.

When I see you at the airport, I expect you to agree to a selfie (sometimes, I hand my phone over to you and ask you to click it). Because you might be famous, but you are not better than me. So, while people still huddle outside Amitabh Bachchan’s house on Sundays, a Varun Dhawan doesn’t enjoy the same. Khurrana, on the other hand, has been able to clearly make the point that he is one of us. From his choice of films to how he presents himself, he has intelligently been able to establish that nothing can beat realness anymore. People love authentic. They love to see actors work hard to gain the audience’s trust, love and ticket prices.

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When actors pick scripts and deliver films that are paisa vasool, the audience finds faith in them. Interestingly, Khurrana has been able to change the meaning of paisa vasool too. Earlier that would mean mindless potboiler entertainers with no brain food. Today, they are relevant and engaging social commentaries that are entertaining as well as conversation starters. He has upped the relatability quotient by picking anti-hero roles who are as beta as they can get. Can we imagine a mainstream leading man pick characters with ED, grapple with a pregnant middle-aged mother, dabble in caste politics, be an adult hotline operator impersonating a woman and battle baldness? It takes an extremely sensitive and skilled artist and a grounded and secure man to be able to do that. Khurrana has been able to make us fall in love with vulnerable men, weak men, broken men, and has created an inspirational journey to root for every time he comes on screen.

I have known and interacted with Khurrana for a while now, so interviews become too formal a setup for conversation. I have asked all the difficult questions, have gushed about his performances too many times — I think I bore him now — and I had to really scratch my head about what this interview should be about.

Would it be a good idea to talk to the man who has empowered masculine vulnerability on screen about his own vulnerabilities?

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Do you believe in god?

I was a borderline atheist. But as a kid, I was a firm believer in god. I used to go to the temple every day with my mother but that was conditioning again, right? I was born into a staunch family. Then I came to Mumbai and I was doing everything on my own. So, I started thinking that I have control over my life and I don’t think there’s any god. Because I have decent talent and I am cracking every audition and I did pretty well for myself. When you stay alone, you make your own moral compass, which guides you towards godly things. But I remember four years back, my wife started chanting Nichiren Buddhism. I started chanting and it transformed my life, and from a non-believer, I went on to becoming a believer. My faith became stronger. I felt like I have this superpower and I felt like I could do anything in life. And it happened. Everything started moving towards me and that was the time when Bareilly Ki Barfi and every other film started doing well, magically. I got a sense of clarity also and started speaking my mind. I started choosing films with content and the script and what felt right in my gut. I was being true to myself. When I started doing that, things started working for me.

 

Single-breasted jacket in jacquard fabric, logo print T-shirt, drawstring trousers and pure silk jacquard optical-effect pocket square by Emporio Armani; Platinum rings by Men of Platinum

You have a new sense of confidence in yourself. Even the way you are talking right now is very different. You seem to have found your centre. But how are these fantastic scripts happening? John Abraham has been quoted as saying that the best scripts come to Ayushmann first. Is that true?

Not really. I was not the first choice for Andhadhun, and neither for Badhaai Ho. Dream Girl as well. For Bala, yes, I maneuvered that project. There was a writer from Kolkata and he had this script about a bald guy and a dusky girl. I took the script to Dinesh Vijan and we developed the film. I was the one who coined the title Bala and I wrote the copy for the first teaser communication. But it’s not that I have a Midas touch and I am turning anything into gold. In fact, the scripts are gold. It’s all in the scripts and I am just choosing those projects. I always thought Dream Girl was very funny. I always wanted to do something slapstick. I wanted to increase my audience base. I have a loyal multiplex audience and it was time to go beyond that. And Dream Girl is the only film I did not allow Tahira to read, because she would have distracted me. She would have told me not to do that film because it’s not to her taste. I just went ahead with my own conviction and it worked for people.

 

Single-breasted jacket in animalia jacquard wool blend, all-over logo knit with chenille details and dress pants by Emporio Armani ; Platinum chain, rings and bracelet by Men of Platinum

We’ve seen you go through a phase where your films were not working out. And we are seeing you right now when you are ruling the industry. What does that do to you as a person?

I think I am a different person altogether. I was confused back then and was all over the place. I was very underconfident and used to think way too much before signing the film. I was really unsure and there was no clarity. Six months before Bareilly Ki Barfi, I started getting clarity. Because while watching the edit of Meri Pyaari Bindu, I knew this is not going to work. People around me were sure that it’s going to work. I like that film but I knew that it wouldn’t work somehow. I was very indecisive at that time. I started taking my decisions immediately after reading the script. I started speaking my mind and telling people what I feel.

I used to be a critic while I was a VJ on MTV. I used to review films. Mujhe lagta tha ki main tab toh samajhta tha films, ab kyun nahi samajh raha? I just thought about the confidence I had while I was VJing as a reviewer. I started consuming the scripts like a reviewer. I became more critical and analytical. I started reading the script like an audience member, ki main paise de raha hoon, aap kahani sunaao. I dropped the garb of a star or a leading actor. Mujhe role nahi karna hai, mujhe kahaani sunni hai. I started concentrating on the story as a whole. I never thought as a leading actor ki mera kitna role hai, mere kitne lines hai. If your film works, you will get the credit. I just changed my game plan and things just started falling into place.

Did you ever think, if not this, then what?

Immediately after Hawaizaada, when it bombed, the next day, I started making phone calls and decided to start a band. I thought, I am a singer and I can sing and I’ll start a band. I can perform at weddings, I can perform at concerts. That was the time I started doing shows and earning money when my films were not around. After Dum Laga Ke Haisha, for one year, I didn’t shoot any films. I would perform at weddings, events, earning my bread and butter and I was very happy touring with my band. That was my plan B because I thought who will cast me as a leading actor after Hawaizaada?

Characteristic animalia photographic print on a velvet background crewneck sweatshirt and scarf with jacquard lettering and logo by Emporio Armani; Platinum bracelet by Men of Platinum

Have you become more aware of how you look now?

I have become more fashion-conscious for sure. I have evolved over the years. When Vicky Donor happened, I didn’t know that there was a person called a stylist. At that time, John’s manager was my manager and John didn’t have a stylist. He didn’t need one. He is a head turner, 6 feet 2 and can wear a t-shirt and cargos and flip flops. I was not that guy so I realised I need a stylist. I had no idea, I used to repeat clothes. I still remember, before going for events I didn’t have a make-up artist or a stylist. I used to just do my hair and go.

While the message of Bala is really strong, how much of it resonates with you when you are in an industry in which appearances matter so significantly?

To say that looks don’t matter is not right. Of course looks matter, but we went beyond that in the film. It’s always good to evolve, whether its looks or fashion. At the same time, you have to be comfortable in your own skin. You can’t be a complex person deep inside. It’s your decision whether you’re going for hair weaving or wearing a wig — whatever gives you happiness and confidence. At the same time, “badalna kyun hai” [the climactic dialogue of the film] was meant in the sense that you can’t change your core. We know actors who’ve undergone weaving, worn wigs in the past but as I said, you have to play different characters as an actor and look a certain way as an actor. Hats off to a legend like Rajinikanth Sir who is not averse to looking like himself off camera and is different on camera. “Badalna kyun hai” is a line that is dedicated to someone like him.

What’s next for you?

Right now, I’m just taking a break to recharge myself and feel the excitement of going on a set. I won’t be shooting for three months. I’m just reading scripts. I need to feel that childlike excitement of going on a set. When I read a good script, I can’t sleep. I want to shoot the next day. Till then, I’m not going ahead with any script. And I know that film is around the corner. Now, the best directors are approaching me. But I go with the material. For example, I trusted Raaj Shaandilyaa, who used to write for The Kapil Sharma Show, with Dream Girl and I’m so glad this collaboration worked. Same goes with a lot of directors. Like Amit Sharma’s last film was Tevar. Sharat Katariya’s last film was 10 ML Love, which had a small release. So I have taken risks and gauged talent with my instinct. And I’m glad these collaborations have worked out. Let me tell you, Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan is going to be a milestone in Hindi cinema because you have not seen any film in commercial mainstream cinema talk about homosexuality in such a bold manner. Because otherwise you will just be preaching to the choir.

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Three of Khurrana’s directors answer some questions about the actor.

RAAJ SHAANDILYAA, Dream Girl

Three qualities that Ayushmann Khurrana has that you haven’t seen in his contemporaries?

The three qualities that make Ayushmann stand out are his observation skills, his risk-taking ability and his music sense.

What kind of an actor is AK, in your opinion, and what was your experience directing him?

Earlier, he was in the classy zone and now he’s in the massy zone. Earlier, people used to like him, now people love him. Earlier, people would ask, ‘Have you seen Ayushmann’s new film?’ and now they go ‘How come you haven’t seen his film?’. The perception has changed.

 

AMAR KAUSHIK, Bala

Three qualities that Ayushmann Khurrana has that his contemporaries don’t?

Ayushmann began the trend of taking up roles which other actors were scared to attempt, be it about thinning hair or erectile dysfunction or sperm donation. Everything that would make our heroes superheroes, he went exactly in the opposite direction. He understands his characters very well and is a director’s actor. He would also never make you feel that he’s a star on the set. It always felt like two friends are out for a picnic and ended up making a film together.

The role was quite challenging and required AK to be out of his comfort zone. How did he prepare for the role and how did you help him become the character?

Would you believe that he wanted to shave his head for the film? But the quality of his hair is so thick that by no chance would it look like he’s losing his hair.

If you could remake a classic with Ayushmann, which would it be and why?

Ram Lakhan. He will play Ram and Rajkummar Rao will play Lakhan.

 

ANUBHAV SINHA, Article 15



Three qualities that Ayushmann Khurrana has that you haven’t seen in his contemporaries?

His three qualities are his instinct, his belief and his sincerity. He has an instinct of what he thinks will work, which is very much in sync with reality. He has this complete belief in his instinct, which helps him decided his next step and he then follows it up with his complete sincerity with which he gives his all for his belief.

Tell us your most memorable anecdote with Ayushmann.

I had met him for another script and not Article 15. He had seen Mulk a few days before we met and he said if I can do something similar, something intense, something socially relevant…And I had Article 15, which I was planning to put on the backburner as I was not getting the right actor for the film. I ended up telling the story to him and he jumped at it. He wanted to do it right away and he told me he wouldn’t let me make it with anyone else. I told him I don’t see him in the role, he told me to try to see him in the role and I bought into his enthusiasm and conviction to be part of the film.

Photographed By Tarun Khiwal



Art Direction By Tanvi Shah

 Fashion Editor Neelangana Vasudeva

Fashion Intern Bhavya Bhutani

Hair By Team Hakim’s Aalim

Make-Up By Hinal Dattani

All Clothing By Emporio Armani

Jewellery By Men of Platinum

BTS Video By Ritik Singh