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Ayushmann Khurrana on his knack for picking light-hearted yet taboo-breaking films

Illustration: J.A. Premkumar

Illustration: J.A. Premkumar  

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‘I fear scripts that are too vanilla,' says the National Award-winning actor

One of Ayushmann Khurrana’s best-kept secrets is how impeccably he sings in the voice of Lata Mangeshkar. It’s no gimmicky impersonation — Khurrana does it with seriousness and sincerity. “You are the only one who has witnessed it,” he smiles.

His latest on-screen avatar in Dream Girl taps into this unique talent. The film is about a man who plays Sita in Ramlila. “The character is gifted with voice modulation. He can talk in two voices, both male and female,” says Khurrana. Yet another unusual addition to a filmography that, in a short span of eight years, is spilling over with unconventional themes and subjects.

 

It was infertility and sperm donation in his debut Vicky Donor in 2012 — which fetched him Filmfare awards for best male debut as well as best male playback singer for the popular song ‘Paani da Rang’ — body shaming in Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015); erectile dysfunction in Shubh Mangal Saavdhan (2017); and middle-aged pregnancy in Badhaai Ho last year.

Khurrana is on a roll. After five back-to-back critically appreciated box-office hits — Bareilly Ki Barfi, Shubh Mangal Savdhaan, Andhadhun, Badhaai Ho and Article 15 — each radically different from the other — he has four equally diverse projects ready to unspool over the next 12 months. Bala is about premature balding; Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhaan is a same-sex love story; and Gulabo Sitabo, he says, is “Vicky Donor meets Piku,” light-hearted in tone but substantive in what it’s exploring.

He looks for something out of the box in the scripts he chooses, he says. “Every actor has his or her own staple. This is mine. Taboo-breaking, light-hearted, slice-of-life cinema. Once in a while an Andhadhun or Article 15 will come to disrupt things. But this is essentially my zone and I love it.”

Stamp of approval

I am with the friendly and ever-smiling Khurrana at the Yash Raj Films office in Andheri, just a few days before he bags the National Film Award for Best Actor for Andhadhun. It’s a decisive stamp of approval for the 34-year-old, establishing him as as the indisputable star-actor of young Bollywood. He has been based in Lucknow for three months, he says, and is heading back there for a shoot. We joke about how the Chandigarh boy, after playing the Delhi lad, has of late become a UP citizen in film after film.

How does he land such unusual scripts with such regularity? “It works both ways. I get attracted to the scripts and scripts get attracted to me,” he says. While other actors are floundering to be a bit hatke, Bollywood speak for different, Khurrana has made it his calling card. “I go with my gut and intuition. I consume a script the way the audience would. I don’t take opinions from people. I just keep the basics right,” he explains.

And in his case, out-of-the-box doesn’t stray into arthouse zone either: “It’s always good to have that middle-of-the-road cinema thing going because you get love from both the critics and the box office. It’s a great space to be in. I love to marry both.” It’s the film that counts rather than his role in it, he says.

“There’s no desperation to play different parts or change genres in every film. I think actors are very self-obsessed; people don’t want to see a different you, they just want to see a different story.”

Surreal rise

Khurrana studied journalism, worked in radio, won the second season of MTV Roadies and anchored shows on television before venturing into cinema. As RJ and anchor he remembers interviewing stars; now he finds it “surreal” to be on the other side.

He attributes much of his success to the theatre he did at school and college; it gave him discipline and focus. Unlike the average, middle-class young man he is identified with in his films today, in his theatre days he only played alpha males and negative roles. It’s different now. “Only in Article 15 was I alpha, otherwise I’ve always played boyish, vulnerable characters.” Often these are characters with complexes and issues, who bend gender stereotypes and renegotiate ideas about masculinity. Not the kind of thing the typical Indian hero does. Doesn’t it scare him? “The fear is of taking a character that is straitjacketed. In that there is no elbow room for an actor to perform or give something to the audience. I have fear of scripts that are too vanilla,” he retorts.

Khurrana is excited about how the quality of writing has been improving steadily. “Yesterday, I heard three narrations and all three were brilliant. At the same time, ‘good’ doesn’t attract me anymore, it has to be great.”

Despite the phenomenal success he’s seen, Khurrana remains one of the most unassuming and grounded stars in Mumbai. Perhaps because he doesn’t take his stardom for granted. “I have seen people rising and falling. What is the point of being pompous?” It’s important to maintain vulnerability and freshness as a performer, he says. He ensures that he meets people from outside the industry regularly and has friends from across the spectrum. In Lucknow, he goes for an early morning cuppa at a chai ki tapri (roadside tea stall) and jams with students at Lucknow University. Clearly, even in keeping stardom at bay, he has chosen to be a bit hatke.

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2020 6:22:46 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/ayushmann-khurrana-on-his-knack-for-picking-light-hearted-yet-taboo-breaking-films/article29109053.ece

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