Cover Story – Ayushmann Khurrana on being the non-conformist

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Cover Story – Ayushmann Khurrana on being the non-conformist


Some actors get into the skin of a character, And then there Are some who plumb the soul of a character. It’s almost as if you can see the eddies and current churning within.  Ayushmann Khurranna is that kind of actor. He interiorises his performances, and there’s everything on display. The hurt, the angst, the healing. He’s really the complete package.

Just when you think he embodies the middle class boy next door with his breezy romances, he takes up cause-based issues, be it Article 15, Shubhmangal Zyaada Saavdhan, or the more recent Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui. His latest outing, Anek, is about inclusivity and how regions separate human beings from one another. Pertinent in today’s times with growing anarchy and communal forces making all the inappropriate noises. Does language bind us together or take us far away from the language of love and harmony?

And with Ayushmann toplining a project, you know it will be of a certain standard and sensibility. To call him a changeling artiste would be reducing him to a cliche, but he’s all that and more. He defies categorisation. He’s like water seamlessly taking the shape of the vessel he’s in. Be it Shoojit Sircar, Abhishek Kapoor, or Anubhav Sinha, like the strings of the sitar, he can be tuned to fit into the rhythm and harmony. Watching him perform with these makers is like watching a jugalbandi of exalted stature. There is emotion, there is pain, and there is engagement. It’s this engagement that makes him show his soul to you. He won’t turn away from the truth, no matter how much it hurts. That’s why Ayushmann will also be able to show every single time how it’s done right.

Excerpts from a one-on-one conversation:

What were your thoughts behind signing Anek?

I have a soft corner for Anubhav Sinha. He is a very credible director with a distinct voice, and whatever he did with me, and the film Article 15 was phenomenal. Also, it was the novelty of Anek. We were touching a new demographic, a new subject, and unchartered territory. Nobody has explored the North East like he has in the film and kept it true to the character. The film ticks all the right boxes when it comes to representation and storytelling. It is one of its kind.

Talking about the North East, did you have students from this region when in college who were subjected to a lot of bullying and racism?

I grew up in Chandigarh which is a young city with students from all states. There was a decent population of people from the North East in Punjab university and DAV college where I studied. I was part of a band and I remember this physician from Manipur who was our lead guitarist. He used to call us ‘mayang’ which in Manipuri means an outsider. We became great friends. That was my first induction to the North East. That’s when I got to know their feelings when they were in the mainland. Since we were all artistes

(I was 19 and also a guitarist) and art has no race or religion, we could collaborate. Later I hosted this show called Rock On with him for MTV and we went to Shillong to get some musicians to form a band. I have also hosted India’s Got Talent and interacted with people and talent from the North East. So it was there at the back of my mind that we should be doing something about these states through cinema and have that binding element with the mainstream.

Ayushmann Khurrana

What is the underlying politicsand what is the director trying to say in Anek and how have you contributed as an actor?

As I said, Anubhav Sinha has a distinct voice and his viewpoint will be reflected in every film. This is our second collaboration and I know he has done a lot of research. Do you know there are a 100 dialects in the North East? Nobody has touched this subject with so much nuance till now. It’s a complex situation out there and he has stayed quite true to the politics of the entire region. Also there are a lot of veteran theatre actors from there who are working in the film. I am not the main actor. All the other actors are also protagonists of the film. The lead female protagonist’s father is played by one such actor and so is Tiger Sanga the main antagonist. Anubhav Sinha and Mukesh Chhabra have done a great job with the casting. I play the one who travels from the mainland and finds out certain things. But there’s no saviour feeling in the film. It ticks all the right boxes and we have stayed as true as possible to the region.

As an actor, what do you take away from a film like this and what do you give to it?

For one, I get to know my country much better. I have a learner’s licence and will always learn and evolve. More than knowing about international cinema and reading stuff from outside India, artistes should know their country well. That’s why certain cinemas work very well because they know their audience. They are sons of the soil who want to emulate that person on the road. They have this empathy and connection with them. If you don’t know your country, you will fail as an artiste. And if with every film of mine I touch on these subjects, I get to know them more and evolve as an artiste. What I give is attraction and getting this subject into the mainstream. So it’s a give and take relationship.

Ayushmann Khurrana

You do films like Article 15 and now Anek. Do you worry when you have to give up on certain mannerisms that commercial cinema expects out of you? Do you have to unlearn a lot of stuff?

Frankly, I have not done a masala entertainer till now. I have been part of realistic films which have done well commercially. My films have been out of syllabus for the rules of commercial Indian cinema, so I have not unlearned anything. I have learned a lot because of the kind of body language and physicality I have shown in Anek as this alpha macho soldier, which I don’t think I have in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan or Gulabo Sitabo. It’s more about learning than unlearning. As an actor, I am prepared to do any kind of role, so the natural or realism will never go out of my films.

What kind of discussions did you have with Anubhav Sinha during Article 15 and Anek?

He’s a very learned man. I have worked with him as a student so I don’t dictate anything to him.  I can say certain things about the engagement of the script, how it’s landing, how people will consume the film. That’s the perspective I will give him. I will never say that this is politically wrong. I think he  has a certain voice as a filmmaker and given the kind of research he puts in I can’t really question that. That’s beyond me but I can only see or consume a script at the engagement level and has to be palatable to the majority. It’s a tough one. It’s always been a part of my career, that middle path. That’s why it’s called middle of the road cinema. It’ll always be tough, I have taken to this genre and every film is a challenge for me.

Ayushmann Khurrana

What are your thoughts on Anek?

I am very proud of the film. It’s important and special. I remember when I did Article 15, I put this post on Instagram that said Article 15 is one of the most important films and you had said, “aise bhi koi bolta hai”! Then I got the Filmfare Award and you said I was right. It is one of the most important films. Today I want to say that Anek is one of the most important films.


Do you believe that there is a North-South divide and that Hindi should be the national language?

You can’t force a language on anyone. I could say that Punjabi should be the national language. It could be a default setting. In Maharashtra, everybody speaks Hindi. It would be very unfair if we forced someone to speak a certain language. We need to bind our nation, and I think every region, every language, and every religion is very important. Culture should be preserved instead of being pushy about one language because that is not going to work. We are a multilingual country, and that’s the beauty 

of our nation.

Ayushmann Khurrana

Does  a film like Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhaan teach you more empathy for the LGBTQ community? Did it change you as a person?

There’s definitely a lot to learn. Like, the LGBTQ community is not united, in the sense that they are different people with different viewpoints just like people outside the community. Just like we are all different, they are all different. There will be purists, then right of centre and left of centre. I’ve learnt that they are normal people. That’s the beauty of the whole thing. I think cinema has a great role to play in today’s society because it’s a great opinion leader. But you have to reach a middle ground because you are not making a documentary but an entertaining film through which you can send a message across to society. At the same time, I also believe that the message should not overpower the entertainment or engagement quotient of the film, or it will not reach the audience. Also, I don’t believe that every film should have a message. My film Action Hero doesn’t have a message, and neither do some other films I am doing now. They are just entertainers. They may just provoke a certain thought, but nothing like an underlying message.

How would you describe your career trajectory?

I have been a part of street theatre in Chandigarh. We were the first ones who made street theatre entertaining, which was otherwise dull, dark, and message-oriented. In 2002, when we started doing plays at BITS Pilani and IIT Powai, people started noticing us because we made them entertaining. So now I am just an extension of my street theatre personality where we took a social subject and presented it in an engaging way. It’s both by design and default because I started my film career with a certain genre and I carried it forward. I am glad that I got filmmakers and script writers who were writing something interesting and adding value to society. It was not just entertainment, it had a subtle message. At the same time, I always say that films should not be about messages. Their core job is to entertain people, to take them away from reality. To make them feel good about themselves and maybe just a little bit about how society could be.

Ayushmann Khurrana

If given a chance, would you have done any of your successful films differently?

I think we discussed this with Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan. Hitesh Kewalya, Aanand L Rai, and I all agreed that the last ten minutes could have been slightly different.We always have these discussions when looking back at films, as there is no end to perfection. If you are a creative person, you will always be self-critical. I am not someone who is self-obsessed; I am very critical of myself and all my films. When I see the edit, I always find some fault.

Can you give a specific instance where friends or family have agreed or disagreed with you about your films?

It would be unfair to pinpoint, but I know people like Hitesh and Aanand Rai agree with me, but there are people who don’t. But you can’t really take that to heart. You just move on. I generally collaborate with people who are on the same page, creatively very malleable, and can also take criticism and improve in the future. Every film will receive criticism. With Anek, we are checking all the boxes when it comes to representation, story telling, and delving deeply into the subject. So with every film, we try to evolve, keeping in mind the previous films.

Ayushmann Khurrana

Is there always a danger of you saying people will be polarised? Do these discussions come up before the release of a film?

Absolutely, they do! Every subject is deep, and we are also learning. I was not born in the North East and was not aware of the LGBTQ community when growing up in Chandigarh, which is very conservative, and it was only later when I started street theatre that I got in touch with people from Delhi, Mumbai, different communities and the minorities. It’s an ever evolving process. And when you are doing something different, you are born with a certain vulnerability. But I am also against “cancel culture.” One should see the intent of the artiste more than anything else

Can you give an example?

It could be anything. People like to criticise. You take that in your stride. They don’t understand that the person is also human and that his intent is right. They should encourage that person and not cancel him out.

Ayushmann Khurrana

When you look at your children, do they remind you of your growing up days in Chandigarh?

No. The current generation is not like us. The reason is that the mode of entertainment is changing. They don’t consume the same entertainment. Back then there was only Doordarshan and cable television with one or two channels. Children today are not consuming the same entertainment. That’s why it’s so different. I think in another 10 years we will have Indian cinema in English and we will do well. Prateek Kuhad is the first Indian who is successful commercially as an English singing artist. It never happened in the past. If it  has happened with music it will happen with films as well. There will be Indie and English films, but made in our heartlands or Delhi or Mumbai but everything will be in English including the songs. And in this situation we are asking people to put a certain language in the forefront. But that’s not going to work.

Is it difficult for you to say no to somebody who has come up with a lovely film and script but you don’t see yourself as a part of that?

It used to be difficult earlier, as I used to be overwhelmed by people, situations, names, or stature. But I think I have learnt how to say no. But I have realised that most of my successful films were by first-time filmmakers, so I don’t owe anything to anyone. I consume the script, which is the real hero of the film.

Ayushmann Khurrana

Your wife writes about intimacy and your sex life in a funny manner. It shows how you are as a couple. When you read her book for the first time, how did you take it as a husband and as a reader?

As a reader, it may be entertaining, but personally, I am a very private person. She is very different from me. I don’t like talking about my private life, but that’s how we are different from each other. It could be entertaining for some people, but I don’t read it.

Did you cringe?

I don’t know! She’ll do whatever she wants, but I am not that person.

What kind of father are you? Are you strict or democratic?

I shoot for six months out of a year, so I am hardly at home. I can’t be strict, otherwise my children will start hating me. Tahira plays the bad cop and I play the good cop. I had a very strict childhood as my father was a disciplinarian. But I am not like that at all. I am very different, very laid-back and chilled. They can do whatever they want. Also, I am easier with my daughter than I am with my son. I have a feminist in the house who is also easier on our daughter. My son is having a hard time. No, I’m just joking.

Ayushmann Khurrana

How did you get attracted to Buddhist philosophy, and how much of it do you use in your life?

The basic philosophy of Buddhism is world peace, equality, and parity, and it tells you to be happy in any situation. So I don’t lose my cool and am patient because of that philosophy. My wife encouraged me to grasp that and make it a practice. I chant for about 20 minutes daily, 10 in the morning and 10 in the evening, and read every day about Buddhism. It really helps me and calms me down. Like now, I am working till June without a day off, so in this situation I am very patient! It’s also a very active practice. It’s action-oriented. So it’s not that chanting helps you to achieve anything, you have to work towards it. I’m a laid-back person, so it works for me.

It’s almost a decade since you came into the industry. Do you catch your breath sometimes and wonder how it happened?

It’s unbelievable. I think it’s a miracle because in these 10 years I have given some wonderful films. I am proud of my filmography and my journey. After my first film, Bollywood didn’t know what to do with me. It’s been a good progression, and I am very proud of my journey.

Ayushmann Khurrana

Is there any close group of friends that can give you their frank opinion?

My close group of friends have been trolling me since my school days and haven’t stopped till now. So I am glad I have these friends to tell them as they are. There are no yes men around. The best part of my life is that I have these friends. And mentors like Shoojit Sircar and Aditya Chopra, who are both from different schools of cinema, I also have friends from different walks of life, like lawyers, politicians, teachers, and doctors, so I get varied viewpoints from different people. It helps me to introspect and become a better performer.

What’s the situation in the industry right now? Is everybody still talking numbers?

Right now, nobody knows what’s going to work for Bollywood. We are in that phase where we haven’t hit the sweet spot. The industry is concerned, so I guess we have to discover or rediscover or evolve in some way. Everybody needs to get together and see what kind of cinema is going to work now. It’s also about your conviction, like I cannot do something that I wouldn’t like to watch. I will only do films with which I resonate, or I won’t be true to my craft. So I will keep on doing films that have something to say, are unique and not obsessed with the box office.

Did the pandemic change you in any way?

We should not talk about the pandemic at all because we have already suffered a lot. We should move forward and look at better times. And it’s happening now! Theatres have opened and people are getting out and watching films, be it from the South or Hollywood. That’s a bright spot.

Ayushmann Khurrana

Are South films such as RRR and KGF2 a wake-up call to Bollywood filmmakers that their films have progressed to the next level?

I have never tried that territory. I would love to attempt something like that, but the script should resonate with me. I loved Gangubai Kathiawadi, which was a visual delight and poetic, and it was a hit. So the films are working. If you have something new to give, you can excite the audience with any genre or subject. I realised that a film has to be a family entertainer to begin with. The family should go together to watch it; otherwise, each has a home screen or a phone to watch different kinds of entertainment. And it’s great that there’s OTT, another platform that has created a lot of employment in the industry. In fact, OTT saved the cinema, and it’s a blessing. At the same time, the charm of the theatre will never wane because going to the theatre means dressing up, going out with family or friends, and watching the film all in one go. 

Ayushmann Khurrana

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