Cinema and by extension, actors, being in the realm of the arts, defy boxed verdicts. You may well hate a film I loved, and that’s how it is. But if you are even minimally clued into the Hindi film industry, you would agree that 2018 has been the year of Ayushmann Khurrana. The everyman of Bollywood has been surprising and delighting us with every film, be it Vicky Donor, Bareilly Ki Barfi or Shubh Mangal Saavdhan.
But this year, he has broken new ground again. I mean, again. Not only did Ayushmann deliver a wholesome, sensitive entertainer with Badhaai Ho, he even scrambled along the bloody trails of the noir with AndhaDhun. And knew exactly how to hit it home.
As the year draws to an end, the gifted 34-year-old speaks to The Quint about his strategy in Bollywood, why he never watches his own films, why box office and social media matter, and how he’s on a collective journey with wife, Tahira.
It’s been a phenomenal year for you professionally. How important is box office validation vis-à-vis critical acclaim?
Ayushmann Khurrana: Box office validation is paramount. It keeps the entire equation happy, the producers feel safe producing a film with you. Most of the industry talks numbers more than anything else. Having said that, I have been following middle-of-the-road cinema which has the combination of critical and commercial success. You get the best of both the worlds. You get the critical acclaim and you get certain numbers in the box office. But yes, box office numbers are most important.
Looking back now, is there any bit of your performance in Badhaai Ho and AndhaDhun that you later thought you should or could have done differently?
AK: No at all! More than anything else, I go with choices of the scripts. I believe we actors should be less self-obsessed, we should keep the script above us. We should never become bigger than the story. If you think you are bigger than the story and the script, that’s the time you should be worrying about.
As for differently… I worked very hard for AndhaDhun in fact. Badhaai Ho was challenging as well. I am really proud of both the films. And I don’t watch my films to begin with. I would probably watch it once during the edit and then cast and crew screening, when you are mostly busy ushering in guests.
I think you don’t grow if you are obsessed with your own craft and your own films. As an actor of course you are always self-critical. You think this thing could have gone this way or you could have added this layer. But that’s never-ending.
So you actually never watch any of your older films?
AK: No, you know, I don’t actually.
You are quite a gambler. Not many Indian actors would dare to do a Shubh Mangal Saavdhan. And then you go and do an AndhaDhun. What’s the strategy in your head as far as your acting career goes?
AK: The strategy is to choose subjects that are novel, unique and which have no reference points. And it should be entertaining. That’s the most important thing – it boils down to entertainment. It’s about marrying entertainment to uniqueness with a certain value addition to cinema – that’s the collaboration to aim for.
With films like Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, Bareilly Ki Barfi and Badhaai Ho, you have become the new everyman of Bollywood. How difficult is to ensure that your characters don’t become carbon copies of each other? As an actor, how are you working on building each of them?
AK: As I said, we actors are very self-obsessed. More than changing yourself and trying to portray a different you in every film, you should be concentrating on picking a different story every single time. Every actor has their own style of acting – that you cannot change. A lot of superstars in the past – they have one way of acting. Of course, you see them in different avatars, but you will add a lot of you in it at the same time.
The idea is to be true to the milieu. It’s that basic and simple. And as long as your films are working, nobody will question you. That’s the rule of the game.
People are not interested in a different you. They are interested in different stories, and how you change yourself in the realm of that different story depends on you. But you can’t transgress the milieu. If the film is based in Delhi or Agra for example, you have to imbibe the mannerisms of those places. They may overlap with some other films also, but you don’t have to worry about it till the time the story and the film is working and you are being true to the character.
As an actor, how challenging is it for you to find your kind of team to collaborate with in film after film?
AK: It’s always challenging but you need to make sure you are on the same page as the director and proprietor. If they are not, you need to talk about it or may be discover that sweet spot between the three of you.
Have the people you have collaborated with always approached you, or has it been the other way around also?
AK: With AndhaDhun, it was an exception because I approached the director. I knew about the subject and I was really intrigued and I approached Sriram Sir. I was not on his radar at all because I have been doing slice-of-life films and he’s a different genre altogether. We met, jammed together and shot a couple of scenes. It was a kind of a screen test but he will never say that! But I am proud I took the test and took that decision. It’s one of my favourite films.
Do you regret your music career taking a backseat?
AK: Not at all. It’s a conscious effort to keep my music secondary to my acting. I would always bill the actor more than the musician. People listen to my music because I’m an actor… probably poetry too, which I do on my social media. I have more takers for the poetry because I’m a successful actor. It’s a ripple effect – the actor in me will always overshadow the poet or the musician.
How important is social media if you are a celebrity today?
AK: There are a lot of actors who are not on social media because they want to build that mystery around themselves. But in my case it works because I am that relatable guy – that’s my USP.
I can’t work without social media. I am part of progressive and real cinema and they need to see the real me, what I do in real life. For me, there’s no agenda to portray a certain persona. I need to be as real as possible because if I am acting on as well as off screen, I think I will go mad.
And trolling doesn’t bother you?
AK: I don’t get a lot of that but if there are positives and negatives, it’s okay. More than anything else, you get their perspective. People are blunt and frank, I think you need to know those opinions to grow as an artist.
How is 2019 looking for you?
AK: It’s very exciting. Both the films I have announced are very unique and entertaining. There’s Dream Girl with Balaji, and the other one, Bala with Stree director, Amar Kaushik. In Bala I play a guy who’s undergoing premature baldness. It’s so relevant because 30 per cent of males suffer from it! It will be amazing to work on that subject.
On the personal front, both you and Tahira have been talking about the treatment she’s undergoing. The initial days must have been super difficult. Where do you find the strength to put aside your personal troubles and go and smile for the camera and fans?
AK: The strength entirely comes from her. She’s a fighter, a trooper. She hasn’t questioned even once “why me?”, she’s always been so positive. Right now, she’s on a recce for her first film. She’s also conducting a lot of sessions with cancer patients, meeting a lot of cancer survivors. She’s amazing!
And you know, we have also made it a point that it should be a collective journey. To battle cancer is our journey. And my success is also her success. It’s a collective professional high and a collective personal battle. If you tread the middle path and you don’t deal with extreme happiness or sadness, then you are probably in that spiritual state where you are just moving ahead in life with positivity.
Are you spiritual?
AK: I am very spiritual. More than anything else I think it’s also because of the experiences you have in life that make you a certain kind. I was never an extremist, never extremely happy or sad. I am always in the middle. But yes, it’s your experiences that make you who you are.