He is the toast of the season and has earned a tremendous amount of affection, respect and love from fans in the Middle East. He has also performed in Dubai several times and his films have been lapped up and lauded. Winning the national award (Ayushmann and Vicky Kaushal were named the Best Actors at the 66th National Film Awards for Andhadhun and Uri: The Surgical Strike respectively), admittedly, has been his most humbling experience. The poster boy of contemporary, progressive Hindi cinema of taboo-topics, is on a spree. Right from Article 15, to Andhadhun to Badhai Ho, Dream Girl, Bala – each film retains a realistic portrayal of a common man thrown into uncommon situations. Manju Ramanan speaks to the versatile Ayushmann Khurrana.
Your films are an extension of your street theatre days?
Yes, they are. I started doing street theatre but made it entertaining and funny so that people could get the message and participate in it. The same was extended to my radio days and films have become that world platform to express the same ideas. I love to create content which prompts people to stop on their tracks and watch something unusual.
The poster boy of films with taboo topics. How do you react to that tag?
Not all of them are about taboo topics. Vicky Donor, Shubh Mangal Saavdhan etc are but I also did a Hawaizaada and a Bareilly ki Barfi. But I do like films that have a social conscience at its heart and these kinds of scripts have come to me. Dream Girl though is none of the above. It is totally a masala film and you can leave your brains at home to watch it.
Do you attribute your success to your stint in radio and live performances that help you tap what really works with the aam janata?
No one can claim to have cracked the formula or be cocky about it. Yes, radio gives you the one to one connect with audiences and you have an instant response to whether an idea will work or not. Radio is a medium where the attention span is very less and in one minute you connect to the diaspora and get a quick insight in what is the deal. You can’t be over confident. There, music is the story. In films, the narrative, the visuals and the music are part of the story. As for live performances, the audience reacts instantly.
Your performances in Dubai have been very well received?
Yes, they have. I like to do what no one else does. In my performances I sing Govinda songs and the 90s era which had some really peppy numbers. This grounding comes from being in the radio. So you see, how one experience feeds off the other.
Your voice modulation for Dream Girl is on point? Did you train?
I have voice modulated all my life. In fact, as a 15-16-year-old, I have made crank calls to my girl-friend and if her dad picked up the phone, I would change my voice to resemble a girl to escape embarrassment. Also, at that age, your voice is just about breaking, so you have a hormonal advantage too. Voice modulation is handy as an actor, performer and radio jock When I signed the film, we were debating if I should use a known female voice instead of mine but it wasn’t sounding right. So, we went with my own voice and then the studios did the rest. It does sound as a legit as a seductive woman’s voice.
You looked so comfortable in a saree during the launch?
Yes, it was so much fun. Today everything is gender fluid and we live in such times. The saree was very heavy but I was happy wearing it.
How do you deal with your massive success?
More than the pressure, there is a happy expectation from people. It gives me power and courage for taking up roles that I feel from my gut. I simply go with the content matter.
Do you see rural India has stronger stories?
A story is a story and the power is in the narration. Stories from the heartland are rooted but I loved Dil Dhadakne Do too and Kapoor and Sons too. They were both stories that were chic and urbane.
How do you rejuvenate?
I live to eat. My creative juices flow best when I have had eight hours of sleep and some good food. I cannot cook but recently my brother Aparshakti has discovered this talent of cooking. I am a desi at heart and love home cooked food. Be it the simple rajma-chawal, the North Eastern or South Indian cuisines, I love it.
What has been your most humbling experience till date?
My recent National award win has been the most humbling experience for me. I was an ambitious guy when I did Vicky Donor and thought I would win the National award. I didn’t. Annu Kapoor won the award that year. I realised that there is no point in doing films with that agenda. So, when I got it for Andhadhun, I wasn’t expecting it. It humbled me no end.
What do you think about your contemporaries?
I shared the National award with Vicky Kaushal and I have worked with Rajkummar Rao. Both are phenomenally talented. But I am a Ranbir Kapoor, Ranveer Singh fan. I am a huge fan of their off-center films.
Would you agree to do a role that is not progressive, feminist and liberated?
It depends on the script. I am all aggressive about the fact that the message given out should be right even if my role in the film is regressive. The bigger picture matters.
Do you see yourself writing and directing your own film?
I would love to. But right now, I am in the acting space and write poetry as and when I am inspired.
Your poems have been well received?
Yes. I write as and when I can. There is no pattern. Right now, I am not getting the space to write. In between films is the time I wait to write.
Tell us about working with Naezy. You shot a commercial with him.
Naezy is one of the best new age rappers in our country, his lyrics are motivational and they create a stir. So, it was fun working with him, because that campaign was very motivating, it was about being yourself and that goes with my thread of films, it was a good collaboration.
Would you and your brother Aparshakti collaborate in music and cinema?
We are actually hunting for a script which does justice to the collaboration. We want to do something really really special together but we are still looking for a script where we play brothers. Of course, we have collaborated in music in the past but I think in terms of music and cinema, it has to be something special. I really respect my brother as an artist, he has made a mark on his own and it would be great if equal weight is given to both the brothers in that collaboration
Did you surprise yourself with the tough cop role in Article 15.
In most of my theatre days I’ve played tough roles, I’ve played alpha males, it’s only in cinema I’ve played vulnerable characters. So, I was actually looking for that script and Article 15 provided me that elbow room to portray an alpha character, a tough cop character, on screen. I’m glad that Anubhav Sinha gave me that beautiful script.
The stars you look up to?
I really look up to both out of the contemporaries; normally people don’t talk about their contemporaries but I would love to say that I’m very fond of Ranbir and Ranveer and I look up to Amitabh Bachchan as an icon, as a megastar. I studied journalism because of Shah Rukh Khan sir. My film choices are inspired by Aamir Khan and yes these are my inspirations.
Are you venturing into the web series space too?
It has to be very radical if I venture out in web. Web gives you that space to fly, or maybe go beyond censorship and it would be fun doing that if I get the right opportunity.