The Midas Touch

Q&A with March Edition Cover Boy Ayushmann Khurrana.

Seven hits back-to-back. What would you attribute This crazy success to?
I guess choosing scripts is my thing. It is again scary because content is changing every year. If you donít move or evolve with time, youíll be lagging behind. I donít want to get stuck in time. That is why I make it a point to interact with people on the sets and around it. Like when in Benaras, Iíd talk to the paanwala, the cab driver, the pandit. I did that earlier too. But today it is agenda-driven. If I remain distant from the person, whoís the consumer of my film or whose life Iím portraying on screen, how will I portray that correctly? I donít understand numbers. But I understand a good film and a bad film. When Vicky Donor released, producer Ram Mirchandani explained to me that Monday is bigger than Friday. After Dum Laga Ke Haisha, Adi sir (Aditya Chopra) told me that make a promise to the people that youíll do good films. Then youíre home.

Your last three releases have all been different from each other…
Doing Article 15 immediately after AndhaDhun and Badhaai Ho was a risk. It wasnít a commercial film. It was my first film in the dark zone. AndhaDhun was a dark comedy, not a dark film. I believed Article 15 would make decent money. But I didnít expect it to make 65 crores. That was a defining moment. Multiplex audiences watch my films. But I feared Dream Girl was risky as it was slapstick. Fortunately, Dream Girl ushered me towards the single screens. Bala was middle-ground. It was safe. Iím glad to have done these three different films.

Weren’t you nervous about Article 15?
Article 15 was a surprise. I expected it to win critical acclaim. But it won commercial success as well. A top actor would have hesitated to do such a film. Heíd look for a commercial angle, add songs… But I believed it was my responsibility to do such a film. I said we shouldnít dilute the message and do an unadulterated film on casteism, hinging on satire. But Anubhav sir (Sinha, director) said, No, we have to show this as a dark film because it is a dark film. So far, no film has presented things so blatantly. I also applaud Gaurav Solanki, whoís co-written the film with Anubahv sir.

Were you advised not to do such a hard-hitting subject?
Initially, Iid look for suggestions while signing films. But now I follow my gut. If I like a script I go ahead and do it. During AndhaDhun, some people werenít happy with the remuneration I was getting. I was like, Sir (Sriram Raghavan) aap jo marzi de do. I want to do this film and work with you. I told myself Iíd earn money by singing at gigs if needed. But Iíll do movies for myself. I surprised myself with Article 15. I loved the scenes towards the climax, particularly those with the CBI officer. It was both subtle and respectful.

Many believe that Bala is a better film than Article 15.
Bala was a wholesome experience. It gave me so much elbowroom to perform. In Article 15, it was all internal. To show internalised emotions is difficult. You need to show the internal struggle on camera with just your eyes, without saying a word. With Bala, I had the arsenal to perform. Amar Kaushik based the character around me. He wrote it with Niren Bhatt. He said, ìTu bata kya karna hai?î I suggested that we shouldnít make Bala into a gullible, back-footed character. I said I could mimic. So, he made me a stand-up comedian. He said mimic Shah Rukh Khan, mimic whoever you want. Bala is my most satisfying performance.

Dream Girl… what appealed to you about it?
I was laughing throughout the narration. The director, Raj Shandaliya, has written Comedy Nights With Kapil. People cautioned me saying that heíd not directed before. But the way he narrated the script, I wanted only him to direct it. Who would understand comedy better than him? Instinctively, I felt the film would be a blockbuster.

Have your films impacted people’s lives?
After Badhaai Ho, I got so many DMs on Twitter thanking me for doing the film. They said now that the film has normalised it (middle-age pregnancy), no one will make fun of it. I have a friend in Canada. His father is my grandfatherís age. His eldest brother is my fatherís age. So such things do happen. Then a friend of mine told me that he wants to take his parents for Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan for them to come to terms with his homosexuality. The dialogue in the film is path-breaking. Without being preachy, weíve explained everything to the common folk. But some things weíve left blurred. Like whoís the guy in the relationship. People believe being effeminate is part of being gay. But here, heís being himself.

Your son Virajveer is now around eight. How does he react to your films?
He loved Dream Girl. But the kind of realism I portray, the joke is always on me. As a son, you want your father to be a hero. When I appear vulnerable on screen, he doesnít like it. When he saw Sanjay Mishra beating me with a chappal in Dum Laga Ke Haisha, he was sad. He was just four then. He said, ëPapa, youíre not strongí. I explained to him that itís just acting. He was happy watching Dream Girl. I was taking peopleís case there. I was making people laugh. In the first half of Bala, he walked out of the theatre. He couldnít watch it. My daughter Varushka, whoís six, is cool. She loves films. Sheís desi. The older one is a bit anglicised. He listens to Beatles. Recently, we visited the Bahamas. We were staying at a luxury hotel. Paul McCartney, who was part of Beatles, was in the room next to us. Naturally, he got excited. Virajveerís learning to play the piano. His teacherís a Catholic. So heís imbibed those influences.

How did your parents react to the trailer of Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan?
They were extremely happy and proud. I have noticed a shift in them too. Theyíve become accepting. Times are changing and they get it.

What was the experience like working with Amitabh Bachchan in Gulabo Sitabo?
He Ìs a little reserved. But if youíre able to break that wall, then heís like a friend. I realised that if youíre reserved with him then even he remains so. You need to take that step. He comes on the sets prepared. He knows his lines, my lines everything. If something is going wrong, heíll tell you aise karke dekh. Of course, you get nervous in front of him. I get star struck every time I see Amitji (Bachchan), Shah Rukh (Khan) sir. But Iím glad he wasnít looking like himself in the film. So it was less intimidating. He plays the landlord, while Iím the tenant. It is a light, slice-of-life film.

Are you confident about Gulabo Sitabo as well?
Yaar, whatever Shoojit (Sircar) sir offers me, I’ll do. He Ìs my mentor. Iíll even do a passing shot in his film. Gulabo Sitabo is a good film. Generally, the tonality of his films is subtle. This is in your face. I loved sirís Piku. It is spiritual. How can you make a film, based on digestion, which connects with you spiritually? Unbelievable! Piku is his best film. The film becomes even more beautiful when the narrative shifts to Kolkata.

King Of Content – does the title given to you make you feel proud?
Surprisingly, Iím being offered better content now and with established directors. I never got that in the past. Apart from established filmmakers like Sriram Raghavan and Shoojit Sircar, Iíve worked with Sharad Kataria (Dum Laga Ke Haisha), Ashwini Iyer Tiwari (Bareilly Ki Barfi) and Amit Sharma (Badhaai Ho). Our country is plagued by social stigmas and taboos. We just need to pick these subjects. People remark why my films are mostly set in middle-class North India? Middle-class means the janta. That section faces the maximum conflict. Humour too stems from there. Hindi cinema is mostly set in the North because itís the Hindi belt. The flavour is best captured there.

The region does become a character in your films.
It all depends on the subject. I love Zoya Akhtarís versatility. I always thought she was a Bandra girl. But she understands the marginalised segment (Gully Boy) as well as she knows the upper segment (Dil Dhadakne Do). I try to choose a film with a new setting each time. Iíve not done subjects set in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Gujarat…. Hawaizaada had a Maharashtrian backdrop but it didnít work. Also, Meri Pyaari Bindu, set in Bengal, didnÌt work. So, I can do those again. Having said that, the flavour of Uttar Pradesh can never go out of fashion. You relate to it because it has a pan-India vibe.

How do you acclimatise yourself with your diverse characters?
I’m not someone, who reads the script a thousand times. I soak in the back-drop.I read literature on the subject and interact with people belonging to that background. I was always sensitised about the lower sections of society. I support an NGO called Gulmeher. When I mentioned this to Anubhav sir, he was excited. He said no one thinks about caste and other issues in our fraternity. My upbringing has exposed me to various sections. Some members of my extended family live in the villages of Punjab. While some are rich, living in Canada, the US and Delhi. Iíve grown with a good mix of people around me. So, I can adapt easily. Also, while Iíve schooled in English, Iíve done theatre in Hindi. That gives me a balance. You incorporate these experiences in your performances. Maine Ramleela bhi ki hai. As kids, weíd be part of the vaanar sena (monkey army).

Would you call yourself a natural, spontaneous or method actor?
During my theatre days, I was a method actor. But over the years, radio and television have made me more natural. Also, your method changes with time. I believe method acting could be dangerous. You need to come out of the character. Itís important to preserve your sanity. Of course, I imbibed a certain method for AndhaDhun. I met a lot of blind students. Method chahiye hota hai when the subject is alien for you.

When you started off, did you expect this kind of success?
After Vicky Donor… yeah. I believed it would happen. But when three films after that flopped (Hawaizaada, Bewakoofiyaan and Nautanki Saala), it left me shaken. Iíd often ask my wife (Tahira Kashyap) whether IÌd ever become a star. You do aspire for the stars. At the same time, I was realistic. I was like theek hai yaar nothing is permanent. Then Bareilly Ki Barfi and Shubh Mangal Saavdhan happened.

Is this kind of success scary?
Of course, itís slightly scary. But it has also taught me detachment. Normally, I donít do things, which leave me overwhelmed. I donít watch my film with the audience. I watch it in the edit or with the cast and crew. I had to watch Bala in Benaras because I hadnít seen it. It was an overpowering experience. When you get used to the love and suddenly if youíre left devoid of it, you can go mad. Earlier Iíd roam around without security. When I shot in smaller cities, Iíd walk from the vanity van to the car. Now, there are people around. Thatís the difference. Iím aware the industry is fickle. So, I stay close to my college friends and family. It keeps you stable. I know theyíll be there even if Iím no longer a star.

Does the pressure increase with each film?
Yes thereís pressure to excel with every successful film. Par mujhe mazaa aata hai. This credibility has given me courage to play unsafe. I donít know whether I was ready for Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan four years ago. Success just gives you the balls to take more risks. Actually, Iíve built my entire career on risks. For me, not doing a risky subject is a risk. People want me to do conventional cinema. They say do a film, which steers away from taboo, something not necessarily socially relevant. They want me to do what is being done by others. While that would be different for me, I want to give something thatís different for the audience. Now Iíd like to attempt an action thriller. I havenít signed it yet but have zeroed in on it.

Will you be able to handle a flop now?
I really donít know. But when you see adversities early in life, youíre more equipped to deal with them later on. I donít follow the big names or big banners. I go with the content, even if itís coming from the freshest of directors or scriptwriters. Big names donít overwhelm me anymore. Usse farak hi nahi padta.

Vicky Kaushal, Rajkummar Rao… you’ll have established the ‘common man’ as a hero?
We just take ourselves too seriously. Larger-than-life heroes will never go out of fashion. Ranveer Singh ne jaise Simmba kiya woh hit ho gayi. War was also a huge hit.

But star power alone cannot make a film work…
As long as itís entertaining it will work. You can be a common man or a larger-than-life hero. A film should be engaging and entertaining. ItÌs all about the script.

Are the actors of the ’90s still stuck in there?
Yeah, maybe. Actually,
I donít know. Akshay sir (Kumar) is trying to do good stuff. He Ìs an expert. He has the sixth sense. He marries content and commerce.

Critical acclaim or box-office success?
A mix of both. Audience love is the most important to survive. Like Filmfare reviews a film like an audience, not a purist. IÌm not a rocket scientist. Iím an artiste. Eventually, the film should make the audience happy. You should be able to entertain them for two hours. Just one-liners wonít work.

Do you get time to concentrate on your music and poetry?

Iíve taken a break. Iíll be shooting in April now. Gulabo Sitabo will release after two-three months. I have just two films this year. Also, I can write anywhere, anytime. I just need to get an idea.        

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