Ayushmann Khurrana is talking about his next film. “It’s this Yash Raj project with Sonam and Rishi Kapoor. It’s very realistic; a Habib Faisal script, it’s about love in the time of recession. I’ve also shown my six-pack. People will see me in a different light.” A different light? It surely has to be among the most hackneyed phrases in Bollywood. It’s hard to say if Khurrana is joking or if he’s serious. “I’m serious ya,” he says, with a laugh. “I’ll be showing my body for the first time, I’ll be taking off my shirt for the first time. It was very demanding, yaar. It was the first time I went off sweets… I can’t live without sweets. And the first time I followed a diet: high-protein, low-carb etc, that was the most difficult part.” We’ve been talking a while now and you believe Khurrana when he says that. It’s not just because he has been wiping out several Melody toffees during the interview, but also because Khurrana’s concept of difficult and easy seems to be a bit different from the rest of us. Land in Mumbai from Chandigarh to make it in the movies? No problem. Camp out in hostels with friends while trying to make it work? It’s fun. Play a sperm donor in your first film? A piece of cake. But stay away from sweets? You get the drift.
“I love my journey, yaar,” says Khurrana, of his road to the big screen. His debut film, the National Award-winning Vicky Donor, directed by Shooji Sircar, was suceeded by the recently released Nautanki Saala. He has signed a three-film deal with Yash Raj Films. He’s going to be a part of another Sircar film, tentatively titled Hamara Bajaj. “It was very fruitful… there were no lows, though I have faced rejection in the past, because I got rejected in Indian Idol and on a Zee reality TV show. I’m also a Popstars reject on Channel V, so I’ve been rejected a lot of times,” he says. “But I’m a happy kid and I never felt dejected, so people might say, kya struggle kiya hai, yaar. When I was doing radio I was happy doing radio; when I was doing television, I was happy. Even when I was doing theatre, I was pretty known in Chandigarh, so there was no struggle. I was not struggling anywhere.”
Theatre performer, MTV Roadies winner, radio jockey, television actor, video jockey, singer, composer, TV anchor, and host and film actor — Khurrana has been all of these, and it is difficult to figure out how he manged to inhabit so many different avatars. But when you hear him talk, it seems like a natural progression. He won the Roadies when he was about 20, but knew that it didn’t mean he had arrived and that he should try his luck in Bollywood. He went back to college, did more theatre and then, when he felt he was ready, came down to Mumbai.
He became an RJ, then tried his hand at TV shows, and then became a video jockey. At that point, he knew that he could get a shot at Bollywood.
“When I joined MTV, I had tears of joy, because when I was doing radio and when I was doing the fiction show on television, I was, like, okay, I’m not doing films but I’m doing decent, I’m doing okay, and I was pretty okay, I’d accepted the fact that I’m okay with television fiction, I’ll do it, and I’ll give it my best shot. But then, MTV happened and I knew for a fact that this would be my ticket to Bollywood. I remember I was staying in Malad (in north Mumbai) alone, I was drinking coffee at night and I was crying out of happiness.”
Khurrana says he’s a mix of his daadi’s talent, his mother’s easy-going nature and his father’s “pushiness”. He remembers how his daadi used to mimic actors, and how his father made him perform everywhere. “I was very shy. My dad used to encourage me to… he used to force me to stand on stage and act, and dance. Because he had discovered that I had a certain talent and that if I was shy, I could come out of it,” he says. “As a kid I used to always think papa mujhse kyun dance kara rahe hai, why am I singing, yaar. I’ve performed at annual functions, in the middle of the street, at birthday parties, I’ve performed everywhere — even in a restaurant. There was a live band performing and the guy was singing a Raj Kapoor song and I was mimicking Raj Kapoor — right next to the person who was singing. And people are eating food.”
Khurrana took up performing and acting seriously in high school and college. “There was always an aspiration but there was no overconfident streak in me that one day I would become a star. I’m very contented as a person. I’m not very ambitious, I just follow my passion. So it was; it just happened. It happened because I wanted to be an actor and there was no desperation, that’s why it happened, I think.”
But it takes a certain kind of confidence to play a sperm donor in your first film, and a certain kind of charm to endear yourself, as that character, to not just the youth, but to families and elders and aunties. “He was looking for out-of-the box stuff,” recalls Sircar. “And I was looking for a guy next door, but someone who was charming enough to carry off the sperm donor scene… it could have looked repulsive, too.” In an industry where everybody is doing different things, this, according to film critic Maithili Rao, was much more radical than many other recent debuts. “It was a brave decision,” she says. Though Khurrana was initially a bit shocked, (“I was, like, why me? Do I look like a sperm donor? So what is the demography? What does a sperm donor look like?” he asked Sircar) when he read the script, he says, he agreed immediately. “A lot of actors rejected the film. But, in fact, when you read the script, though it was a taboo subject, it was not cheap or vulgar; it was a sweet story about a guy who was a sperm donor. It’s lighthearted in the beginning and the second half was serious without being preachy.”
While they were working on Vicky Donor, the team also decided they would do Hamara Bajaj. And then, director Rohan Sippy rang him Khurrana to congratulate him on his role, and the conversation turned to work and they were soon doing Nautanki Saala, a comedy about a theatre director who decides to put a suicidal depressive’s life back on track, and the situations that follow.
“It’s very difficult to get a theatre act on screen, because you have to be balanced. You don’t have to be too subtle but you can’t be too loud, because you are playing for the camera,” says Khurrana. “The best part is I’ve done theatre in the past so I know theatre actors have a certain body language, they have a certain poise… it was different in Vicky Donor because Vicky was a vulnerable good-for-nothing Delhiwala. Vicky was slightly passive because he was outmaneouvered by Anu Kapoor’s character. He was reacting more than acting, whereas in my recent film, my character was acting more than reacting; he was making things happen, and that’s why this one was more difficult for me.”
Sippy says, if someone has done comedy, he can tackle any genre. “He’s two films old but he’s on a really good wicket.” “He’s also extremely watchable,” says Raghu Ram, executive producer of MTV Roadies, who remembers Khurrana as an enthusiastic, sorted youngster. “He holds your attention with his personality. You will watch a movie for him. And that is a star.” Rao agrees: “He has an easy, comfortable body language. And he has that certain kind of engaging quality, he’s easy to like but not in the boy-next-door kind of way. He is a little more sophisticated than that.”
Khurrana’s background in radio, theatre and TV has been a plus and there’s also the fact that he’s a singer (he has sung a song in both his films, each of them composed by him during his college days). Though he hasn’t had much formal training (“I wish I’d taken it seriously,” he says), his voice has a certain texture. “His dialogue delivery is one of the most pleasing sounds to the ear. It has something to do with his singing… as a singer you have a tone, singers have that and he brings that to acting,” says Sippy.
We are in a BMW, driving past Juhu, with its huge Bollywood hoardings, towards Yash Raj Studios, in Andheri, Mumbai. There is always a point in every aspiring actor’s life when he sees a hoarding and thinks of what it would be like to be on it. Khurrana had one of those moments, too. “I used to work out in a gym opposite Infiniti Mall. There was a hoarding right across, of Kaminey, I think, and I thought kabhi meri bhi aisi hogi. And a hoarding of Vicky Donor was right there.” It happens.