This article is from Open Magazine.
By Divya Unny
Ayushmann Khurrana is far from the quintessential Hindi film hero. He cannot flash six-pack abs or fight 20 goons at a time. His debut on the big screen had him essay a role that could have been the death knell for an aspiring actor--a sperm donor. It was a daringly non-conformist choice. But as the wise-alecky Lajpat Nagar boy who donated sperm to fund his dream of owning a flat-screen in Vicky Donor, Ayushmann won hearts all around with his charm and chutzpah. It was an honest performance, and the film became one of the biggest talking points of 2012. His recent turn as Prem Tiwari--a good-for-nothing cassette store owner from Haridwar trapped in a marriage with an overweight and overqualified wife--seems an extension of his defining debut. It wasn't a part that glorified the hero, also the reason a role many young actors would let pass. And now with director Sharat Katariya's Dum Laga Ke Haisha, Ayushmann has again chosen not to play safe.
2013: Ayushmann plays a theatre actor in his rather forgettable second film, Nautanki Saala!
"When the film came to me, I was in a good space," he says, "I was receiving all the Best Debut awards for Vicky Donor, and Nautanki Saala! had just released. Aditya Chopra gave me the script to read, and the next morning I called him asking when we can start rolling. He was really surprised. He wasn't expecting that I will do the film. This was such a non-hero character. But I was so impressed by the writing, the Khadi Boli in the film. It was so pure... you hardly hear lines like 'grahasth jeevan ka gurutvakarshan' in films these days."
Straight out of a pre-Holi press conference, dressed in a crisp churidaar kurta, Ayushmann looks every bit the shudhh desi boy he plays in Dum Laga Ke Haisha. Only that he smiles a lot more, and is really not nearly as conservative. "My first crush was a plump girl," says the Chandigarh boy with a grin, "I was in class five and I was completely fascinated by her. I've always fallen for women who are far more intelligent and well-read than I am. All the women I have liked--including my wife--would speak far better English than me. I'd just watch them talk and think, 'Yeh toh bahut sahi hai yaar (She is really so cool) '."
2015: With Dum Laga Ke Haisha, the actor floored audiences with his nuanced portrayal of a dimwit husband
Dum Laga Ke Haisha, about an odd couple winning an equally odd running race and their journey in between, is being hailed as the best film to come out of Yash Raj Films in many years. The banner, which is used to churning out big-budget designer blockbusters, is being lauded for putting its might behind a small idea for a change, and that too, set in a small town. "Prem is probably as ordinary as every other guy from a small town in this country. He lives in the shadow of his father, is highly under-confident and dreams of a thin wife who will nod to his needs. The milieu of the film is so real that it reminds you of where you come from," says Ayushmann of the character he's worked the hardest on so far in his career.
Interestingly, much like Prem, Ayushmann too was an underdog growing up. As the lanky bespectacled kid with braces in Chandigarh, he would be that one boy standing in the corner of his classroom trying hard to fit in. "I was not a good-looking kid. Even as a boy I used to get rejected from a lot of plays because of my looks. But I was talented and my father would always try to nurture that talent to build my confidence. He would constantly be encouraging me to take part in stage shows, plays, musical programmes." As a child, Ayushmann remembers watching his Punjabi grandmother as she zealously mimicked the superstars of the 50s. "My first observation of acting was when I saw my grandmother mimicking Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor," he says, "I was fascinated. I had never seen a woman of that age mimicking. She was 60-65 then. She was a complete film buff, and my grandfather was the exact opposite. He'd hate films. They never got along because of this. But when I confessed to her for the first time that I wanted to be an actor, she slapped me. I was five at that time."
2014: In the biographical Hawaizaada, he essayed an eccentric 19th century scientist to mixed reviews
In those days, there was little dignity in the ambition of becoming a professional actor. The 90s proved better, though. From a very young age, Ayushmann took to doing everything one could possibly do on stage. Here was a multi-talented kid, always hungry for a platform with an audience. "My first play in school was The Merchant of Venice, where I played Shylock and somehow slowly started getting noticed as an actor. I won many awards during competitions, especially for the part of Ashwathama in Andha Yug in college." He used to train in Hindustani classical music but never took it seriously. "In college, I had to choose between the music club and theatre club, and I chose theatre. I thought it was more wholesome as an experience because we used to compose for our own productions." He hated math, but he was at the forefront when it came to spearheading jam sessions at intercollegiate competitions or writing and directing his own theatre productions. "When I was in DAV College, Chandigarh, I formed two theatre groups Aghaaz and Panchtantra. I remember when we'd travel by Punjab Mail to perform at IIT-Mumbai's Mood Indigo, we'd go from bogie to bogie singing songs on our guitars and dholaks. The passengers would give us so much money that our trips to Goa would get sponsored after the festival!"
Soon he was thrown out of his house. "Normally log ghar se bhagke actor bante hain, mujhe ghar se bhagaya gaya thha (people run away from home to become actors, but I was thrown out). My father thought there's no wrong time to do the right thing: 'You want to do it, just go for it.' He pushed me and said, 'Go to Bombay.' I was given a train ticket from Chandigarh to Delhi and an air ticket from Delhi to Bombay. He had faith in me and it somehow worked."
Ayushmann spent his first few days in Mumbai at KEM Hospital. "I was living at KEM with a student friend who was doing his MBBS there. I used to go to the gym in the hospital. I'd eat in the mess there, I'd wear a lab coat and just get in," he says. He describes those days as his most adventurous, till he found a job as an RJ with Red FM in Delhi. "They asked me if I could speak Hindi, and I knew I could do a better job than anyone else because of my upbringing. My mother is an MA in Hindi. At home we'd only speak in Hindi or Punjabi, so my language was better than most."
Photo: Ritesh Uttamchandani
From the time he won the second season of MTV Roadies to being India's first radio jockey whose face appeared across hoardings in Delhi to becoming a popular VJ and the highest paid TV show anchor in India (for India's Got Talent), Ayushmann had been out wooing audiences long before his first film. He was known as a spontaneous speaker and someone with a strong youth connect. "As an anchor, I got the opportunity to build my own identity. I loved speaking to large crowds. It was a turning point for me," he says. "Even then I'd be offered roles in films, but it was never for the lead. I had to either play the heroine's brother or the hero's best friend, but I knew if I'd be patient I would find the right part."
Ayushmann did not audition for Vicky Donor. The part almost felt like it had been written for him. "I suddenly got a call from Shoojit Sircar, and he said, 'I don't want you to audition. You are there in my film; I just want you because you are Vicky'." It helped that he was already a TV star. But what also worked was that Ayushmann did not try too hard to prove himself as a performer. His comic timing was impeccable, it turned out, and it went well with the vulnerability he projects, which is all his own. "He is capable of giving an internal performance as opposed to many who try to show their emotional turmoil. That's his biggest strength," says Sharat Katariya.
2014: A slice-of-life romantic comedy, Bewakoofiyaan had him playing a pink-slipped MBA 2015
Even in films like Nautanki Saala!, Bewakoofiyaan (both romantic comedies) and Hawaizaada (which had him in the role of inventor and aviator Shivkar Talpade), none of which clicked at the box office, Ayushmann's performances were earnest. "He did not have an inflated ego, never behaved like a star," says Katariya, "That's what I appreciate in him."
The actor chooses to do only one film a year and tries not to get too affected by success or failure. "Picture chalti hai toh main zyada khush nahin hota, naa chale toh zyada nakhush nahi hota. (I'm not too happy when my film works and not too unhappy when it doesn't). That's very important to maintain some sanity." But he likes to do all he can for a film, including composing and singing a track if he can, like Paani Da Rang in Vicky Donor. He has recently co-written a book with his wife Tahira, Cracking the Code, on the entertainment industry. It's easy to imagine it becoming mandatory reading for Chandigarh youngsters who have been flocking to Mumbai for roles in films or TV shows. "It's about people who pack their bags and come to Bombay, who have dreams in their eyes, and join the army of strugglers of Aram Nagar," he says, "It also shows how much the industry has changed. In the 70s and 80s, nepotism used to rule Bollywood. But now things are much more democratic. Outsiders can be directors, actors, writers, producers."
Ayushmann's experience of shooting his latest film has him dreaming of living the modest life once again. "When I was shooting in Haridwar I'd sit on the banks of Ganga with Sanjay Mishra and listen to Pink Floyd. It was the most beautiful experience. I have a laid-back self within which is the real me. So now if you ask me what I want, I'll say I want to live in Haridwar forever. I want to do a morning show there. That's it. Mujhe zindagi mein itna hi chahiye. (That's all I want from life)."
All images have been provided by Open Magazine.