A Political Artiste
Interview: Ayushmann Khurrana, actor, singer, writer, poet, Bollywood

With two back-to-back hits at the box office, Ayushmann Khurrana is Bollywood’s star of the moment. The actor, who has built a career by green-lighting unconventional scripts on once taboo topics such as sperm donation and erectile dysfunction, has now hit the jackpot at the box-office in the same month with ‘Andhadhun’, in which he plays a blind pianist, and ‘Badhai Ho’, a film which raked in Rs 200 crore worldwide and made it okay to accept the radical idea that your parents are also human. In this freewheeling interview with Sharla Issar, the multi-faceted Khurrana — actor, singer, writer, poet — talks script selection and spirituality, addresses the #MeToo movement and reveals how he manages to do it all while maintaining a core of focus and ease...

Congratulations on your recent successes. Both your films ‘Badhai Ho’ and ‘Andhadhun’ have set the cash registers ringing at the box office.

This success feels great but it feels like déjà vu again because last time also it happened like that with the success of ‘Bareilly Ki Barfi’ and ‘Shubh Mangal Savdhan’ following each other but this time its sweeter because the commercial success is crazy. Both films are running house full and the business they have done is unbelievable. The kind of cinema that I endorse is more content driven. I think more about the content than the cover but the kind of love these films have received is amazing. I didn’t do anything special to celebrate but I was in Chandigarh for Diwali for 10 days — that’s a yearly ritual for us and we had a small get-together with friends and family. This time around the weather was good and there was festivity in the air and these two mega successes made the time all the more special.

Instead of playing the macho larger-than-life hero, your characters tend to be more rooted in real life. Has it been a conscious decision on your part to stay away from Bollywood potboilers or is playing the common man in films something that came about organically?

For me my priority has always been the script. I have always put it on a pedestal only then do I consider the role or my character. That’s what I believe in because nothing is bigger than the script in a film. But even if I had to do a commercial pot boiler the script will have to make sense and it has to be unique at the same time. It doesn’t matter if I’m playing the guy next door or someone who is larger than life or someone who is imperfect or perfect, whatever. More than anything else the script has to be perfect.

Bench mark

But good scripts are few and far between so how do you manage to survive during a dry spell in terms of good content?

That happened to me after ‘Vicky Donor’ because that film created such a bench mark that I was not getting scripts of that calibre. It was only two years later that I got a ‘Dum Laga Ke Haisha’. So my journey in films started from there again. It’s rare to find a great script but thankfully I am getting them and there are writers out there who are doing a tremendous job in terms of creative content.

What are the two things that you look for in a script?

One would be the novelty factor. It has to be something unique and out-of-the-box and also it should not have any reference point in Indian cinema. All the films that I have done are novel and none of them had been attempted in the past.

 It has been pointed out that you made it a point to provide Tabu the space to shine in ‘Andhadhun’ and similarly provided a canvas for Rajkumar Rao to take away the whistles in ‘Bareilly Ki Barfi’. That’s very unlikely behaviour for a Bollywood star who would much prefer to be hogging screen space himself.

I can credit my lack of ego hassles and easy going nature to my theatre background. In every theatre production there are well-etched roles for all the characters and I’ve been doing theatre since childhood. So I come from that sort of creative background. Someone who has just stepped into Bollywood would be solely concerned with their own role which leads to a very myopic or selfish approach towards a film. For me I see a film in its totality. I consume a script as a whole and not just as a star vehicle for me. In theatre you learn to give and take between actors, about equal opportunity and giving elbow room to every character. In the end this only helps to enhance the film and if the film is good you are the one who eventually benefits. It is always better to look at the larger picture.

Most actors may start out so well-meaning but it must be difficult to maintain your equanimity and balance in an industry where actors soon begin to enjoy the trappings of stardom be it their entourages and the money and mass adulation.

I took baby steps towards success. It didn’t happen overnight for me. I’ve been in the film industry for six years now and I have also seen my fair share of failure which has given me a great perspective about life and career choices. And at the same time in my personal life I have been lucky enough to have a stable home life. My family keeps me grounded. Apart from, that I am very spiritual as a person. I meditate, I chant, I also follow Nichiren Buddhism. I believe that all these factors culminate in a wonderful way. The universe really goes with you in a sense to help provide you with stability and perspective.

You grew up in Chandigarh where you did theatre and your father was a palmist.

We were quite well to do but our upbringing was very middle-class. My parents wanted their children to grow up with middle-class values because it makes children more independent. Even though my parents could afford a car I was told to use public transport. Everything that we children were given was earned either through good behaviour or achievements. When I scored well in college I was given a bike and if I got the best actor prize in a play I would get something else which is a very middle-class way of parenting. My father is a well-known astrologer in North India but he would never predict the future of his own family members. A lot of people think that I changed the spelling of my name just before I entered Bollywood due to numerology but my father decided my name should be spelt like this when I was born. My father is a great believer in karma and that there is no wrong time to do the right thing.

I thought of taking a sabbatical after my post graduation in journalism. I thought I would do more theatre, would learn dancing or horse-riding and then go to Mumbai to become an actor but my dad packed my bags, gave me tickets and I was thrown out of my house. So instead of me running away from home to become an actor, mine is a case of being chased towards Bollywood. I was very lucky to have a father who was so pro-active especially because I was not very ambitious as a person. I was a typical laid-back theatre person lounging about with a cup of chai and a samosa. In Chandigarh I used to stage my own productions and lead a very contented lifestyle but my father was ambitious on my behalf and I think in a way I am living his dream. My father is a do-er and we share a very mentor-student relationship.

Political film

The current political climate in the country is a hot-button topic what with elections around the corner and a mood of hyper nationalism in some sections. Will we see you star in a political film in the near future?

I would love to do every kind of film but having said that I think as an artiste I don’t want to establish a political stance. I’m comfortable doing that as a character — whether it is playing a left-leaning liberal or a rightwinger. I feel an artiste should be like a clean slate. We should not be representatives of any particular religion, region or state or political party. For example, I played a rightwinger in ‘Dum Laga Ke Haisha’ but what if I am a left-leaning liberal in real life? Artistes should be apolitical and of course at the right time I will speak about my political leanings but I think this is not the right time.

What do you think of the #MeToo movement in India? Your wife Tahira Kashyap has been quite vocal about her views on social media.

I think it’s the need of the hour. The #MeToo movement is long overdue. Men in India should understand consent and at the same time every work environment should be conducive for women to be treated as equals. This should be across all industries, not only the film industry, because sexual harassment is rampant. We live in a patriarchal society, especially Delhi is so unsafe. Mumbai is still better but sexual predators are everywhere. They could be at your work place or within your own family as a close relative, it could be anyone. So I think in such a situation, the #MeToo movement is the right step and because of this initiative any man will now think ten times before committing any crime. Having said that, an equal opportunity should be provided to both parties to put their side of the story in the public domain.

Your wife recently posted a positive Instagram message to disclose that she had been diagnosed with Stage I cancer.

I’ve learned a lot from Tahira. She’s been a great teacher in my life because she has transformed me as a human being. I’ve really evolved as a human being and as an artiste. During our college days we used to compete with each other in competitions. We’ve done theatre together — she used to write and direct our plays while I was an actor and she was the first person to know that I wanted to take it up seriously as a career and she was not really happy about it initially. These days she is going through a personal health challenge and I’m proud of her for dealing with it in a very positive way. Right now she is in Amritsar delivering a lecture on cancer and is also undergoing chemotherapy.  A while ago she underwent her fourth chemotherapy session and it’s difficult for someone who is going through chemo to travel and to remain in good spirits but she has decided to fight it out. It’s unbelievable and remarkable and even doctors say that with her attitude she should be an inspiration to other cancer patients. This health scare has also taught me that life is a great leveller – I’m having this professional high right now and at the same time my wife is fighting cancer. So this just proves that every life has a void, no life is perfect and we need to celebrate our life the way it is. There is simply no point cribbing or being negative.

The Proust Questionnaire
The Proust Questionnaire popularised by French novelist Marcel Proust provides insights into a person’s true nature. Here are Ayushmann Khurrana’s replies:

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Perfect happiness means being able to strike a fine

balance between ambition and contentment

What is your greatest fear?

Losing my simplicity

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

Being over-critical

What is the trait you most deplore in others?

Self-obsession

Which living person do you most admire?

My father and my wife

What is your greatest extravagance?

I’m not a very materialistic person but if I had to mention a recent purchase then right now it would be my new car, Mercedes S-Class.

What is your current state of mind?

Happy. I’m smiling

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

Being over- humble. I think it’s good to be a realist and your natural self.  Don’t put on the facade of being an overly humble or modest person.

On what occasion would you lie?

To cheer somebody up or to encourage somebody I can lie for sure

What do you most dislike about your appearance?

I used to dislike my eyebrows but I think I am proud of them now

What is the quality you most like in a man?
Chivalry

What is the quality you most like in a woman?

Simplicity. Even confidence is a great quality. And being genuine.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

To have managed to strike a great balance between my work life and personal space