(Every year, I do one particularly special interview. Winning over audiences and critics with unusual films Andhadhun and Badhaai Ho, 2018 was the year of Ayushmann Khurana. Here’s my story from last year.)

I walk down a clinically white corridor, looking for Room 114. The doors next to me are deceptively nondescript. Names of occupants are printed on bright pink slips of paper and slid under plastic — as if neither doors nor names dare be permanent — and they belong to people we know: Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Katrina Kaif. Going through the halls of Yash Raj Studios in Mumbai feels like being on the set of the most ambitiously cast movie of all time, or in the ultimate asylum. Some may say it’s the same thing.

Room 114 is currently allotted to an actor who has stolen a march on the first few doors. Ayushmann Khurrana has two of the year’s best reviewed films in Andhadhun and Badhaai Ho, and together the films have grossed more than 300 crore, enough to shame Yash Raj’s gargantuan recent failure, Thugs Of Hindostan. Releasing in October within a fortnight of each other, these are movies made on roughly 30 crore each, and their success has catapulted Khurrana into the definitive A-list.

“One of my writer friends came up with a great name the other day,” Khurana laughs. “He texted me saying your films are doing commercially well, you’re a star, gaane bhi hai, and you’re a natural actor. So you’re not Farooque Shaikh, you’re Shah Rukh Shaikh!” 

As Hindi cinema’s current on-screen everyman, Khurrana has steadily emerged as an actor the audience trusts. This is a rare covenant — something Aamir Khan occasionally enjoys, particularly in China — where the audience willingly risks ticket-price and time because of faith in the actor’s ability to choose an interesting film. It takes actors time to build this credibility, but Khurrana, who made his feature film debut six years ago, seems already to have won us over.

“It’s great that my choices are working and resonating with people,” says the actor, “because I believe I’m one of them. I am the public, a boy from Chandigarh who’s bought tickets in black and revered films since childhood, and when I choose scripts I take out the garb of an actor-slash-star and I become the audience, and consume the script as a layman.” This instinctive reading has led to profoundly interesting choices, from emasculated to insecure characters, not to mention films other actors may not have pursued owing to their subject matter.

For instance, a film about a sperm donor. His 2012 opener Vicky Donor happened because Khurrana actively pursued a clutter-breaking debut. “There were five good VJs in the country and I was one of them,” he says matter-of-factly about his stint at MTV, which involved hosting shows and even reviewing movies. “So I thought this is it, by default every VJ gets a chance in a movie, and now it depends on me what to choose.” His approach was strikingly pragmatic. “I couldn’t be a conventional commercial actor without being a star-kid. That kind of a big film needs a certain mounting, a little paraphernalia around you. And nobody would give me that. So it was only practical to be part of a film where the content was so unique it would raise a lot of eyebrows.” 

Beech mein bhaag toh nahin jaayega?” One of the first things director Shoojit Sircar asked Ayushmann was whether he’d desert Vicky Donor midway. “That sperm angle scared many prominent actors,” says Sircar. “Ayushmann was quite determined. He did a three month workshop with my theatre group, run in Delhi by MK Raina. He worked hard, plus the character fitted him. It was a Punjabi character, a streetsmart guy, and being an RJ and VJ, he could use his own one-liners. It’s a very Delhi role, and he was really just performing like himself.” 

This idea of acting “like himself” has proved boon and boundary, with Khurrana repeatedly cast as a middlebrow, middle-class leading man. “It’s hard to play the Delhi guy for the fourth time,” Khurrana admits, doing so in Vicky Donor, Bewaqoofiyan, Shubh Mangal Savdhaan and the recent Badhaai Ho. His other notable characters have been from Haridwar (Dum Laga Ke Haisha), Bareilly (Bareilly Ki Barfi) and Pune (Andhadhun).

Over the last decade, Hindi cinema has witnessed a return to localised flavour and dialect, after the hyper-glossy cinema of the 1990s and 2000s made with the diaspora in mind. As someone who plays the common man beset by problems mainstream cinema doesn’t usually concentrate on — Shubh Mangal Savdhaan, for instance, is about erectile dysfunction — Khurrana has emerged as a pushback against the aggressively slick Tommy Hilfigered heroes, and the public has embraced him.. 

This positioning has led to comparisons with our great naturalistic leading men: Amol Palekar from the 1970s, Farooque Shaikh from the 1980s. Khurrana, however, always wanted to be a commercial actor and appears slightly wary of being mentioned alongside parallel cinema. “One of my writer friends came up with a great name the other day,” Khurana laughs. “He texted me saying your films are doing commercially well, you’re a star, gaane bhi hai, and you’re a natural actor. So you’re not Farooque Shaikh, you’re Shah Rukh Shaikh!” 

As nicknames go, that’s a bullseye.

Nothing is accidental

According to Khurrana, this rise has been by design. He single-mindedly chased the dream of becoming an actor since he was five, inspired by his grandmother “who used to imitate Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar, and also sing at the Gurudwara.” He told her he wanted to act, and it scared her. “Coming from that middle-class background, it was too scary for her that at 5, this boy wants to be an actor. He may not concentrate on studies, he may lose his path. After that I never confessed my dream to anybody till I was 20, when I told my girlfriend.”

“I wanted to get the habit of facing the camera but without getting noticed, so I chose a channel like Zee Next which nobody used to watch.”

Tahira Kashyap, now his wife and then his theatre collaborator, writing and directing plays in their Chandigarh-based college theatre groups, didn’t take it as seriously. “Don’t make this the day job,” he remembers her saying. On the other hand, Khurrana’s father propelled him from the start. The astrologer P Khurrana is responsible for the distinctive spelling of the actor’s name — “It’s on my Admit Card in Class Ten,” he swears — and was convinced of his son’s eventual stardom. 

“I was very nervous as a child, and had stage-fright,” Khurrana says. “But he knew I could perform, so at every birthday party he would make me sing, dance, act. Every fancy dress competition, every theatre competition, he used to push me. He was more ambitious about me. I was a little laidback, nervous, introverted. Suddenly, he’d made me into a people’s person. I didn’t even realise it.”

This didn’t stop even as Khurrana found success as a radio jockey. “I was doing very well as an RJ in Delhi. I was the youngest to host a morning show, which is the most primetime slot on radio, and you need experience. I was hosting a show at 22, I had a flat and a car. I was very happy. Then my dad calls and says, ’Get out of here, it’s time to go to Bombay.’” This level of affirmation can create unyielding self-belief, and Khurrana kept eyes glued to the prize.

One of his first acting roles, for example, came in 2007, a minor role in the Balaji Telefilms soap opera, Kayamat, on Star Plus. Khurrana hungered for a lead role and the experience of playing a protagonist, but didn’t want to create a poor first impression on audiences. Therefore he intentionally signed a major role in a show called Ek Thi Rajkumari airing on an obscure channel. “I wanted to get the habit of facing the camera but without getting noticed, so I chose a channel like Zee Next which nobody used to watch.” 

“I’ve seen the industry from the outside,” he says of his MTV days, “which has now given me a good amount of perspective,” I’ve always believed that the unrealistic energy of a VJ ensures a performer finds their limits, and can later tone down their pitch because they are aware how much is too much. “It is an unnatural energy, yes, because you’re talking to the camera,” he explains. “There is a lapel-mike visible. You’re talking to the person across the screen, and you’re shouting. In cinema you have to make that person believe that this is happening for real, and you’re ignoring the camera.”

The actor has co-authored a book with his wife about his cinematic journey, a breezy read called ‘Cracking The Code,’ a self-help book aiming at helping aspiring actors get their basics right. He isn’t quite ready to write a script himself, but has huge respect for screenwriters. “They are the real superstars of my films,” he asserts. “We have great writers in India. We need to revere them more.” 

Playing it blind

His most challenging role came in Sriram Raghavan’s Andhadhun, where Khurrana plays a pianist who initially pretends to be blind and is later really blinded. It was a role he sought out, hearing that Raghavan hadn’t found a lead actor. “I texted Sriram that I wanted to meet him,” he says. “He’s the most approachable director, ever. He’s so un-filmy. He’s one of those guys who goes early in the morning to buy vegetables. He’s that guy. And he’s a nerd. I met him, I told him I want to work with you.”

“You know na, this is not a slice of life film?” Raghavan’s initial response was skeptical, given Khurrana’s filmography. “Frankly speaking, you were not on my radar.” This is when the actor insisted on auditioning, which surprised the director — “You’re an established actor,” he asked, “Why would you give a screen test?” — but Khurrana was firm about proving himself.

The scenes they tested are the film’s most slippery: one where Khurrana goes to a police station to report a murder, involving a pivotal twist; then a scene where a policeman accompanies him to his flat to see if he’s truly blind. “Immediately, he started discussing dates,” reports Khurrana about his successful audition. “He was just excited about my excitement, I think. And that I could probably learn the piano faster and better than most actors, being a musician.” 

Raghavan’s film ends with a delightful montage of cinematic piano players down the years, from Balraj Sahni to Dharmendra to Shatrughan Sinha. None of them actually play the instrument, but for three months, six hours a day, Khurrana trained. “It was not easy, but we just concentrated on those specific one-minuters in the film,” he says. “I wanted to learn, and he didn’t want to use a body double. Cheating would not have been that easy. He wanted to keep the camera on the piano and on the face.” 

The role demanded workshops with the blind, and the actor wore white contact lenses to block his sight. “They got them from London, and they not just covered my pupil but my entire eye,” he says. “They were very difficult to wear, and blinded me 70-80%. This changed everything! When I was wearing those lenses, I was so skeptical, even while walking, that I used to look like a blind man. The ambiguity comes in your gait.”

He may not be ready to write a script yet, but Khurrana pitched a scene to Raghavan as they filmed the climax. “It was only in Sriram Raghavan’s head that the film will be funny. We were all playing it real serious,” he says. “In the end, I wanted to close the loop: He can see, he has taken Tabu’s eyes, it’s done. But Sriram wanted to keep it open ended, and wanted me to hit the can in a way that it could be a mistake, that there’s a ten percent chance he’s hit the can accidentally.”

“This was my idea: The character walks, all alone, in a dark lane with a stick. He’s walking, walking, walking, sees a puddle. He stops, he jumps, starts walking again. The camera stays on the puddle, on which the words appear: ‘A Sriram Raghavan film.’ 

Raghavan called this a good idea, but laughed it off. As Khurrana attests, he knows what he wants.

More than the Delhi guy

Despite all that work, the Andhadhun applause rang louder for one of his co-stars, Tabu, as a scheming femme fatale. This isn’t new. A cocky Rajkummar Rao stole the show in Bareilly Ki Barfi, the feisty Bhumi Pednekar was the highlight of Dum Laga Ke Haisha, and, most recently, Gajraj Rao walked away with Badhaai Ho, playing Khurrana’s father. “In theatre, you learn the story is more important than the actor,” Khurrana says, secure and glad to let other performers shine. “I recommended Gajraj Rao for his vulnerability. We needed an actor you will not believe has had sex with his wife. He’s so simple he almost looks asexual in a way.” 

“In Badhaai Ho, I dabbled with three accents,” he says about keeping the ‘Delhi boy’ role challenging. “I spoke in Haryanvi with the bullies, a Western UP accent at home, and was slightly anglicised in my office space, and with my girlfriend’s mother. The character is also slightly more aspirational than his family, the bridge between an upper strata and his middle class family. So I was better dressed than in previous films, and had languages to play with. So I think I’ll always look out for certain aspects of the character if I have to play a Delhi guy again.”

That may happen soon — Khurrana admits that one of his upcoming projects is very much in his wheelhouse — but what he’s really dying to do is play a dark, negative role. “My most challenging role was in a play, Andhayug by Dharam Veer Bharti, where I played Ashwathama. It was a mythological, aggressive, dark character. I won Best Actor for that character eight times in various college festivals. That’s still an unexplored side on screen. I’m just waiting for the right script, so that I can do an aggressive, alpha role.” 

He is also unafraid of family audiences, who consume his films like comfort food, being turned off by him going evil or alarming. “If they start hating you after that, it just shows you were great in the film,” he says. “I would love to do a dark film, but we should budget it right in order to account for a smaller audience. It should be a successful venture for my producer. That’s my concern.”

“I would love to work with Shimit Amin, who’s been lying dormant for ages. Where is he? What is he doing? And can he do it to me?”

Producers I spoke with in the industry are generally pleased by Khurrana’s lack of airs, and they largely believe that the actor will engage with their material regardless of the director’s pedigree, the size of the banner, the star-value of the heroine. If the story is different, Khurrana, they feel, will at least hear it out. 

I ask which filmmaker tops his wish-list, and the answer is immediate. “I would love to work with Shimit Amin, who’s been lying dormant for ages. I just want to find him and ask him what he’s upto? He’s given gems like Rocket Singh, Chak De India and Ab Tak Chhappan, films that are so different from each other. So where is he? What is he doing? And can he do it to me?”

Amin might just get a text soon. Shoojit Sircar — who the actor refers to as his mentor, alongside Aditya Chopra — says Khurrana sends him new photographs of himself every time Sircar announces a new film. “He says he wants to keep reminding me he’s there,” the director says, hoping to join forces with Khurrana again soon. “I keep telling him I want to see something really magical as an actor from you, that your entire talent has not been tapped.”

For now, here is an actor rightly proud of his filmography. “Even ten or twenty years from now, people will watch a Badhaai Ho or a Dum Lagaa Ke Haisha, or a Vicky Donor. There’s a legacy being maintained. Sometimes,” he says, leaning forward, a wicked glint in his eye, “I feel Badhaai Ho is a prequel to Vicky Donor, because the ‘talent’ of the sperm comes from the father, maybe. The healthy sperm count or whatever.” Like his films, Ayushmann Khurana’s laughter rings warm and true.

~

(First published Mint Lounge, December 6, 2018)

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