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Ayushmann Khurrana unveils his success mantra

‘I’ve just stopped taking advice from people. i just went back to the basics’, says Ayushmann

By Karishma Upadhyay

  • Published 16.09.19, 9:03 PM
  • Updated 16.09.19, 9:03 PM
“I am not a party person. I was with my family. My parents are also in town. We had a quiet and simple dinner,” Ayushmann says.
“I am not a party person. I was with my family. My parents are also in town. We had a quiet and simple dinner,” Ayushmann says. Source: Agencies

He was barely 18 when Ayushmann Khurrana tasted ‘success’ for the first time. Though he didn’t make it to the finals of Channel V’s Popstars, people had begun to recognise him. “I lost my mind then,” he remembers. Today, about 17 years later, when he’s been named the Best Actor for Andhadhun at the National Awards, he is hesitant to even talk about how he celebrated the win. “I am not a party person. I was with my family. My parents are also in town. We had a quiet and simple dinner,” he says.

Less than three months ago, Ayushmann delivered a much-claimed sleeper hit with Anubhav Sinha’s hard-hitting Article 15. His second release of the year — debutant director Raaj Shandilyaa’s Dream Girl — hit theatres on Friday. In the film, he plays a character who plays Sita in his local Ramleela and can speak in both male and female voices. He insists this is his most ‘masala film yet’. “I’m known for subtlety, but I’ve channelled my inner Govinda for this one. This one is for the naysayers who think that I can’t go OTT (over the top). This film will reach out to the single-screen audience. I have made funny films but I don’t believe in gags but this one has them. It’s slapstick funny and requires suspension of disbelief,” he explains.

He recognises that this could be a risk but Ayushmann is in a place where he believes he can push the envelope for himself a little. “Immediately after Dream Girl, I’ll have Bala, Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan and Gulabo Sitabo, which are all in the middle-of-the-road cinema zone that I know well.”

Ayushmann has been on a hell of a hot streak. He’s been the face of five back-to-back box-office hits that have also been critically appreciated — Bareilly Ki Barfi, Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, Andhadhun, Badhaai Ho and Article 15. Each film has been radically different and his three releases after Dream Girl are equally diverse. Bala is about premature baldness, Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan is a same-sex love story and Gulabo Sitabo is a comedy that pits him opposite Amitabh Bachchan.

The Telegraph sat down with the actor earlier this week at the JW Marriott Hotel in Juhu in Mumbai. Ayushmann took a week off earlier this month for a quick holiday in Austria with his family. It was their first vacation in over a year —during which as a family they’ve rallied around Ayushmann’s wife Tahira Kashyap as she battled cancer and celebrated his career highs. While it was a much-needed break, it’s meant that all promotional activities have been cramped into the week before Dream Girl hits theatres. This interview was scheduled for late in the evening but Ayushmann has his trusty bananas by his side for a quick boost of energy. He took a quick five-minute time off to eat the bananas and approve photos and then it’s time to chat. In a freewheeling conversation, we talk about everything from handling success to why his children think it’s odd their father talks to strangers and why weird and quirky stories catch his attention.

How was the Austrian vacation?

It was great. I like going to places away from the hustle-bustle, where there are less Indians and people don’t recognise you. You get time for yourself. So, there’s this place called Altaussee near Salzburg in Austria... it’s beautiful. We loved it so much that I think we’d want to go there every year.

What kind of a traveller are you? Do you like hitting all the tourist spots or do you just chill?

It’s better to be a traveller than a tourist. As a tourist, you’re always in a hurry to go everywhere and tick mark places off your itinerary. I’m not like that. I’d rather stay in one place and feel and be one with that place. Tahira’s like that as well, but she’s more energetic on vacations, she’s more proactive. She’s the one who’ll book tickets and take charge — hotel reservations, cabs, everything. She used to expect all that out of me but got really disappointed. After the first 10 years, she realised that I can’t do this... I’m a very bad planner. I can only focus on my work and beyond that, I’m very lazy (laughs). I’m so consumed at work that I don’t get time to just stand and stare. So, I just go into a very lousy and hibernating mode when I’m not working. I’ll probably only shower in the afternoon and I don’t think about timelines and deadlines — I don’t want to go anywhere, I just want to sleep or do nothing... like a log. So, she takes charge and plans everything.

You finished two films in recent months. You’ve also released another two. How insane has your life been?

Quite insane. Apart from the one week in Austria, it has been quite crazy. I’ll be having my first break after a long time on my birthday (September 14) and then for Diwali. After Diwali, I’ll be working until November 22. I really have no breaks.

Is that a function of you wanting to work that much more or are there external pressures?

No external pressures. It’s just that initially I would do just one film a year. I’m like that — I want to take it slow, have a balanced life. But I’ve been getting these great scripts and I know that may not happen if I wait for another year. I don’t want to be satisfied with just a decent script... I need something extra. There is a dearth of good scripts but I’m just fortunate to be getting the good ones. There was never any aspiration to do four films back-to-back. Now my slate for next year is also ready, with Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan and Gulabo Sitabo. So, now I’m in no hurry to sign another film. I’ll be finishing Shubh Mangal by the second week of November and after that, I start shooting in the summer of 2020, not before that. So, that will be a good, long break.

Do you have plans for what you want to do during that break?

No plans, I’ll just chill. I’ll go on a long holiday, concentrate on my music, jam with my band, write poetry and spend a lot of time in Chandigarh, spend time with my parents and do nothing.

Sperm donor, erectile dysfunction, premature baldness, man who speaks like a woman — your characters keep getting weirder. Is the mantra ‘the weirder the better’?

(Laughs) When it’s bizarre, it’s interesting. The idea is to come up with a trailer where people go, ‘What is this?’ And they should just laugh out loud with the bizarreness of the situation. That’s what intrigues me and our country is full of taboos, it’s full of material. There’s no dearth of quirky, taboo subjects in our country. We’re blessed to live in a country with such a complex society and there’s a lot of fodder for cinema.

"There’s no dearth of quirky, taboo subjects in our country," says Ayushmann Still from the film

After the runaway success of Vicky Donor, there was a period when your films weren’t working. You had three consecutive duds. What changed?

I’ve just stopped taking advice from people. Earlier, during my learning curve, immediately after Vicky Donor, I would take advice from a lot of people, all following conventions. They had a basic rulebook. But I signed three unsuccessful films and they were all conventional. After that I decided to do just what I wanted to do — it’s what I used to follow during my theatre days. I just went back to the basics. Firstly, the subject should be the first attempt in Hindi cinema. Secondly, it should hold the audience for two hours. Thirdly, it should have some kind of value creation by the end — people should take something back home.

Of late, when you’ve been shooting back to back, how do you then prepare for a role?

It depends on the film. You don’t have to be hyper-prepared for a role. Andhadhun needed preparation, but Article 15 was empathy more than preparation. It comes from observation, mostly. I’ve been in touch with a lot of IPS officers, they’re close friends of mine, my wife’s grandfather was an IPS officer. Reading literature about Dalits and the underprivileged was my homework for Article 15. With Dream Girl, I’ve played pranks on radio during my first job and that helped me. I’ve also spoken in a girl’s voice while calling my first girlfriend’s parents when I was 14. So, preparation is also a sum of one’s experiences and I’m fortunate to have got such diverse experiences in life.

You’ve seen degrees of success at different points in your career. Is how you react to it different now?

I’ve seen a lot between 2002 and now. I have learnt my lessons since then, I think. I’m a realist, very practical like that and I’m never too happy or too sad about anything. I’m always in between — I think I now have a wise head on my shoulders. I got married early... I’m a young parent, so that makes me more balanced in a way.

But this kind of success that you are experiencing right now has got to be heady...

(Pauses for a while) It is actually, I agree. But you can’t surround yourself with ‘yes men’. People around me are hypercritical, from my father to my wife and even my manager. I remember having a dance number in Bewakoofiyaan and she told me I can’t dance to save my life. And just to prove her wrong, I worked harder in Dream Girl and asked for an extra day for rehearsals. I think I did decently well in Radhe Radhe and Dhagala lagli, the film’s dance tracks. So, now she says this is decent — just ‘decent’ is the word. She’ll never say she loves something... she’ll just say she likes it.

You mentioned your father and he was the one who always pushed you to showcase your talent and do more. How does he see all of this success that’s coming your way?

He becomes very emotional at times. When I got the National Award, he called me and was almost choking and went silent for 10 seconds. I told him I’d call him back in five minutes, take a break. So, I’m the practical one, not emotional like him (smiles).

And he is really critical of your work?

Oh absolutely! He always pinpoints mistakes and how I could have done a shot better, which I think is the perfect take. I don’t watch my films with him because if I sit with him, he’ll keep giving me notes and words of wisdom. So I let him watch the film and we talk about it later (laughs).

The last time we spoke, you said your biggest fear is striking a balance between your personal and professional lives. Have you had any success with that since?

I try, it’s still not easy. When I get back home, my kids (Virajveer and Varushka) are sleeping and when I get up in the morning, they’re off to school. They’re seven and five, so I’m missing out on their younger years and they’re going away fast. I don’t want to do that, that’s why I just need to take a break after November. When I am out of town, we do video calls all the time, every day. They come over for my shoots once in a while and we have a yearly vacation, that’s about it.

Do they have a sense of what’s going on in your life?

(Takes a pause) Kind of. They now know that their father is famous and they see strangers taking selfies with me. The elder one is really proud of me, the younger one doesn’t know what is happening.

How do they react when you get accosted by fans?

Earlier they would be intimated and would wonder why people are touching their father like that or why I’m taking selfies with strangers. Because we’ve taught them to not talk to strangers. They’re still figuring it out but at the same time, we’re trying to give them a normal upbringing, where they’re away from the arc lights. Thankfully, they’re not being papped yet.

You’ve always had a Plan A and a Plan B, in terms of things you wanted to do. What is the long- term plan?

I’d love to write, direct and produce at some point in my life. As of now though, I’m just having fun because my career’s peaking. Eventually I will, of course write, direct and produce. I don’t know what kind of stories I’d want to tell. It could be slice-of-life which is a genre I am most comfortable with. Things are changing so fast and what’s relevant right now might be irrelevant five years from now. Even when I came to Mumbai to be an actor, I thought the coolest roles were Shah Rukh’s Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa or Aamir’s Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar. I never thought I’d become a sperm donor one day, so things are always changing! (Laughs)

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