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MW Cover Story: Decoding Kartik Aaryan’s X Factor

It’s been 10 years since Kartik Aaryan made his debut as the monologue-sputtering cute boy from Gwalior. Having charmed his way to the box office and into people’s hearts, Aaryan upgraded his dream from becoming a Bollywood actor to becoming the next superstar, and he has a slew of interesting films to back him up […]

It’s been 10 years since Kartik Aaryan made his debut as the monologue-sputtering cute boy from Gwalior. Having charmed his way to the box office and into people’s hearts, Aaryan upgraded his dream from becoming a Bollywood actor to becoming the next superstar, and he has a slew of interesting films to back him up on this

When I watched Pyaar ka Punchnama, I (like many others) found it pretty problematic. Went for the sequel, and found that problematic too. Then came Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety, and I didn’t even bother. It took me another year and two more movies, Luka Chuppi and Pati Patni Aur Woh, to warm up to the idea of Kartik Aaryan. By then, he was already a national sweetheart. The box office success of Sonu ke Titu Ki Sweety had propelled him on to the path of stardom. Clearly, it was difficult to resist the charm of this affable youngster with great hair and a goofy smile, for too long.

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It’s 2021. 10 years after Punchnama, the trailer of Dhamaka drops, and it introduces me to another Kartik Aaryan — one that is not just funny and cute and cashing on his boy-next-door charm, but one that means serious business, and is dressed for the part, quite literally. Aaryan is nuanced and restrained as he plays a suit-wearing bespectacled hardball television journalist in Ram Madhvani’s thriller drama. And if the trailer is anything to go by, this might just be a turning point in Aaryan’s career. In fact, his slate is now a smorgasbord of genres. Yes, there is Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2, a comedy that will see him playing to his strength once again. But then you have Freddy, the Shashank Ghosh-directed and Ekta Kapoor-produced dark romantic thriller; Shehzada, Rohit Dhawan’s hindi remake of the Allu Arjun blockbuster Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo; and Captain India, Hansal Mehta’s next that will see Aaryan play a pilot helming a gritty rescue mission. A definite departure from his earlier movies, Aaryan is embarking on the second phase of his journey, with a versatile slate of roles that will establish him as a more capable actor than he is so far given credit for.

I talk to his directors, and I’m happy to report that they unanimously agree on the potential that Kartik Aaryan, as an actor, possesses to turn a film around. Ram Madhvani, who had just served up the stunning trailer of Dhamaka at the time of this interview and has gotten everyone to take note of the more realistic and evolved actor in Aaryan, gives all the credit to him. “The beauty of him as an actor is that he can be both a method actor and a spontaneous one. It depends on the world his character is in. If you want him to prep for a role, he is all for it, and when the character demands a more spontaneous approach, he is good with that as well. He understands the world of the film. and where the director wants to go.”

The stereotypes created around Aaryan as an actor didn’t work as a deterrent for Hansal Mehta either. “People might have this perception of him as an actor who is only good with comedy, I don’t. We had been meeting for years, but there was nothing that both of us could see doing together. This script finally gave us that opportunity. It is a film that needs a certain amount of mounting and scale, and it needed somebody with his kind of a track record. That was the first reason why I cast him,” says Mehta about choosing Aaryan for Captain India, which is scheduled to go on floors mid next year. 

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However, the main qualities that seem to have gotten this Gwalior boy, a rank outsider, to this point, is his perseverance and proactiveness. Landing in Mumbai to become an actor under the pretext of pursuing his higher studies, he had no one to show him the ropes. He knew he needed to audition for roles, but had no clue where those ‘clandestine events’ were being held. He made optimum use of the resources he had, albeit online, which, back then, meant Google and Facebook. In fact, he landed the audition of his debut movie through a Facebook post (Yes, he might very well be the brand ambassador of Zuckerberg’s Meta world). And he was constantly meeting directors, engaging with the right people. “Kartik and I wanted to work together, and Dhamaka happened while we were pitching stuff to each other. A lot of collaborations between directors and actors actually happen like this — out of faith, relationships, shared conversations, like-mindedness and light-heartedness,” says Madhvani.

Talking about what makes Aaryan an interesting actor to work with, Imtiaz Ali, who directed Aaryan’s last outing, Love Aaj Kal 2, points out, “I find him very intelligent — he understood what I was saying, we connected well, and he seemed genuinely interested in the project. During the making of the film, I found him to be a very hardworking actor, not just physically, but also emotionally. Also, he is congenial and very easy to work with; he never says no to anything. An actor is different in different projects. I can’t categorise him as a spontaneous actor or a prepared actor, I found him to be a mix of both.”

His Luka Chuppi director, Laxman Utekar, shares his opinion, and an anecdote. “He is a very smart and hardworking actor, and he would not compromise in a single frame. Also, once he takes up a character, he approaches it with utmost conviction. To make a scene or a character believable to the audience, the actor needs to believe first that this could happen. For example, there is a scene in Luka Chuppi where Aparshakti (Khurana) is getting Kriti (Sanon) and Kartik married, with the shaadi ka mantra playing on his mobile phone. On paper, it is a cliché. Nobody would do that in real life. But the way Kartik has performed in the scene, the way he projected the desperation of this guy to get married, the audience bought it.”

In cinema, If the ’80s were about stories about the aam admi in Bombay, the ’90s about NRI Punjabis, and later about posh teenagers living in an unrealistic or aspirational world, the focus of Bollywood today has shifted the focus on stories set in the Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities of UP and MP. Hailing from Gwalior, Kartik Aaryan is the Hindi heartland small-town hero Bollywood is today smitten with. 

“He is not a Juhu boy or a Bandra boy; he has seen the small-town world. I think today, when stories are increasingly set in those cities, it is the best time for actors like Kartik, who understand the masses, especially the masses living in these cities and towns, as that’s our 80 per cent audience right now,” adds Utekar.

 Another unanimous vote of approval goes to his smile. “He has this certain innocence about the way he smiles, woh apni hasi se logo ko apna bana leta hai,” says Utekar.

But who better to decode the charm of Kartik Aaryan than the actor himself? We sit down for a conversation with the man of the moment.  

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You’ve completed a decade in the industry. Standing in 2021, how do you look at the person you were when you made your debut?

When I look back, I honestly feel like I’m dreaming with my eyes open, because this is something I have wanted for as long as I can remember. The journey has been incredible. I started off struggling in the truest sense — there was so much uncertainty. I gave numerous auditions, faced tons of rejection, changed at railway stations, and stayed in a small, shared apartment with 12 people. It was all sweat, blood, and tears. And then things changed and suddenly, there was this pouring of love and appreciation that made every bit of the struggle worth it. 

You had come to Mumbai to pursue your engineering degree, so how did movies happen? 

No one in my family or friend circle knew that I came to Mumbai only to pursue my Bollywood dreams. I was very clear about my goal since childhood; it’s just that I thought people would feel that Koki (Aaryan’s nickname) has gone mad if I would share it, because when you are sitting in a small town like Gwalior, it looks impossible. In fact, the day I landed in Mumbai, I was outside Mannat, waiting to catch a glimpse of Shah Rukh Khan. My eyes met his for a moment, and everything changed in that second for me. 

What were things you found different about the industry (from your idea of it) once you started working here — things you weren’t really prepared for?

I knew breaking into the industry was tough, but I didn’t anticipate those many rejections, which took a toll on my self-confidence. I didn’t know how tough it would be and how you need to have a thick skin to take the criticism, and not let it affect your self-worth. I assumed things would be smooth once people knew you, and once you deliver a hit film, but I kept giving auditions even after Pyaar Ka Punchnama 2, which was my second blockbuster. I realised the only thing that pays off is patience and hardwork.

Coming from Gwalior, how has it helped in understanding the pulse of the masses, especially since a large part of the masses that form the audience base of Bollywood are Tier 2 and Tier 3 of the Hindi heartland?

Coming from that background did help me understand the sensibility of the masses to an extent. I feel that’s one of my plus points. It has also, in a way, kept me grounded. Since I was never surrounded by yes-men, I always had a reality check. I don’t fear failure, nor do I let success go to my head. Being an outsider has allowed me to never take things for granted, and give every film I work on, my best. 

How did you cope with the rejections and disappointment during those initial days? What was your biggest takeaway from that phase?

It was not easy for sure. Running from audition to audition, going through my share of lows and living in a small apartment with twelve guys, the only thing that kept me going was this belief that I need to keep moving ahead and not give up on my dream. My biggest takeaway from that phase is that one should never lose their morale, hope, and just keep looking ahead.

Your initial movies, especially those with Luv Ranjan (apart from Akaash Vani) faced quite a lot of criticism for its women-bashing content. Were Luka Chuppi and Pati Patni a conscious effort to break away from that kind of content, and pave a way for more woke choices of roles?

When I read both the scripts, I loved them, And I didn’t overthink it. It was the story that gripped me. The fact that it had strong social relevance was a bonus. As an actor, I want to work in different genres, tell different stories, and play different characters. I want to be many people on the big screen and hopefully, I will have the opportunity to play many more in the future. 

Your first few movies were famous for their monologues. Looking back, do you find the content of those films a tad problematic?

When Punchnama happened, the audiences’ reaction to the monologue was unprecedented; it had gone viral. People started calling me ‘the monologue boy’. Those monologues, in a way, changed my life, and I feel grateful. So it’s very hard for me to judge it as a third person. I hope it’s always taken in jest and lightly, as I would never intentionally disrespect anyone.

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You were so far known for your comedies. Apart from Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2, all your other upcoming movies — Freddy, Dhamaka, Shehzada, Captain India — are different genres. Will this new decade see a new Kartik Aaryan?

These films really explore a different side of me as an actor that the audiences haven’t seen before. I’ve tried to venture into versatile genres, push myself as a performer, and test the waters. All these films are quite distinct from one another character-wise, look wise, and hopefully, my fans will indeed get to see a different side of Kartik Aaryan and who I am as an actor, and like it.

Are you consciously trying to reinvent yourself as an actor? Do you now have a strategy, or is it just a case of success opening new doors and interesting offers coming your way?

My aim is to be Number 1. All my thoughts or strategies are in that direction. As an actor, doing different roles and showing different shades is something I am doing consciously. See, I want all the directors and producers to see my work, and make me their first choice for any role.

What kinds of movies and characters excite you as an actor?

I enjoy characters that are relatable. It’s about bringing that simplicity to the screen, and yet making it both relatable and entertaining for people. I’d also love to play a real-life character or take on a biopic. If someone is planning to make Virat Kohli’s biopic, I would love to do that.

How do you decode Kartik Aaryan as an actor? What are your strengths and weaknesses?

My strength is my relatability, especially with the youth. And my speed of work. I’m also very eager to learn, and that allows me to not be stuck in a particular box. Success hasn’t changed me, and so, I don’t get carried away. On the flip side, I’m a workaholic. I’ve wanted this so much that I want to work every day, every second of my life. I want to entertain people as much as I can.

What makes these stories so endearing and such crowd-pullers, according to you?

I think they are great stories. They are real, relatable, and endearing. Now that our boundaries blur and the world becomes closer, we’ve become accepting of these worlds, and are embracing them like never before. These are definitely good times for different storytelling.

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You are a shining example of a rank outsider who has made it big on his own. How difficult was the journey to land that first film?

It takes a lot of patience and hard work. Film auditions were rare to find, especially when you have no contact. Oftentimes, one would not even come to know of a movie audition at all. I used to search online, on Google, on FB, for auditions. In fact, it was through FB that I found out about the auditions of Punchnama. I had no money to make a portfolio. So, I cropped my pictures from the college album and sent it. I was called for the audition, and the process took six months. Before the film went on floors, I met with a bad accident, and my biggest fear was that I would lose the film. However, fortunately, they waited for me, and the rest is history.

How is your journey different from that of an actor who came from a film family? Can you point out the advantages and disadvantages?

It would be unfair for me to judge another actor’s struggle irrespective of whether s/he belongs to a film family or not because everyone comes with their own baggage and their own set of issues. For me, entering the film industry was like landing on a new planet. It was difficult to explain it to my parents. I didn’t know the right people to speak to, had no one to guide me on what to do, and how to go about it. Plus, there was no extra money to struggle. Everything was limited. Those were the biggest disadvantages. The advantage though was that I was prepared to struggle, work hard from scratch, and never take anything for granted.

Given the change in conversation and the accountability that people now place on celebrities, do you feel today it is a blessing to not be a star kid?

Again, it’s hard to say. Would I want to be born into another family? Never. To me, in my head, my parents are stars in their own right. I feel extremely grateful for their love, support, patience, and constant encouragement. And I’m sure even actors who belong to film families feel the same way about their families. You just have to play the cards that life deals out to you.

With the focus shifting to small-town stories, does having a lived experience help while attempting such roles? 

Definitely. In some ways, I’ve lived those roles. They were, at some point in my life, everyday experiences. I understand the dialect, the body language, the psyche, and that allows me to live the character and not just play it. Having said that, I think the mark of a good actor is even adapting to situations that he/she isn’t very familiar with or native to and yet making it believable — that’s my humble attempt with my upcoming roster of films.

What is the discreet charm of Kartik Aaryan — that X-factor that has made you a darling of the masses?

I think the overwhelming love has come from the fact that people know a brother, a friend, a neighbour, a colleague, a boyfriend, who is just like Kartik Aaryan. It’s that relatability that’s the strongest connection. When I had just entered the industry and only had a handful of releases, I would often have people tell me that I seem like someone they’ve known for a long time. It’s that familiarity that has fortunately worked for me, and I feel extremely grateful that my fans have embraced me as their own.

Personal Style 

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Describe your style in three words?
Young, cool, and relatable.

Three essentials you don’t step out without?
Sunglasses, my earphones, and my smile.

A gadget you aspire to own?
Not a gadget, but I want to own a yacht.

What was your last luxury purchase? 
My dream car, a Lamborghini Urus.

Which is your favourite destination for a holiday? 
Any place in the mountains.

Who is your favourite fashion designer? 
Manish Malhotra.

Which is your all-time favourite sneaker?
Yeezy or Jordans.

Pick one style: printed everything or head-to-toe black? 
All black.

If you were to drive one luxury cars all your life, which would it be?