Our January cover star Vicky Kaushal on his unpredictable rise to stardom

An alchemy of talent, passion, patience...and more talent

Vicky Kaushal’s rise from late bloomer at 27, to one of the country’s most promising actors in under three years, is the alchemy of talent, passion, patience…and more talent. And now that he’s earned both critical and commercial stripes, he’s claiming the out-and-out stardom that is his due. The Uri star talks to film critic Rajeev Masand about this new—and quite often, strange—adjustment.

There isn’t a corner to sit down in Vicky Kaushal’s hotel room. The 30-year-old actor is in a suburban Mumbai five-star, promoting his upcoming movie, Uri; various wardrobe options that he’ll slip in and out of during the day are carefully laid out across the bed. His make-up guy has set up shop in the living room area, so it’s a tough squeeze. Somehow, Vicky finds a spot on the bed after nudging multiple pairs of Gucci loafers and a ridiculously expensive-looking suit to the edge. I have to fend for myself. I find a chair, and within minutes we’re in business.

Vicky Kaushal is a late bloomer. He landed his first starring role at the age of 27, but it’s pretty clear he’s making up for lost time. In 2018 alone, he made five movies (two for Netflix), and was especially good at playing Sanjay Dutt’s faithful best friend Kamli in Rajkumar Hirani’s Sanju, and as a wastrel musician who understands the meaning of love only when he’s lost it, in Anurag Kashyap’s Manmarziyaan.

In three years, he’s gone from rank newcomer to one of Bollywood’s most promising actors. You could put it down to the unmistakable vulnerability in his eyes that comes from “feeling” and “living” his parts; he hasn’t got to that place where he “fakes it” like so many of his peers. You knew, when he reduced you to a puddle the moment he uttered those words in his debut film Masaan (2015)— “Yeh dukh kaahe khatam nahin hota [Why doesn’t this sorrow end]”—that a star was born. Here are some excerpts from our chat:

Rajeev Masand: What has surprised you the most about becoming famous?

Vicky Kaushal: I never knew that when you get into your car and decide where to go, there’ll still be paparazzi when you get to your destination. I later found out that they’ve got all our car numbers down, and they track our movements. I still sometimes go to malls and restaurants because it hasn’t sunken in that I will be spotted and asked for pictures. That still surprises me. I get that young students who go to the cinema might recognise me, but when the security guard at the airport goes: “Sir, Uri ka trailer dekha [saw the trailer for Uri],” that throws me off.

Rajeev Masand: What is the strangest place you’ve been asked for a selfie?

Vicky Kaushal: I was in an aircraft. I’d gone to the loo, and when I came out there was a family waiting for me. They were like: “Aap ek baar baith jaoge toh [Once you sit down] the airhostess has categorically told us we can’t disturb you. Toh socha [So we thought] we would wait outside here.”

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Rajeev Masand: Do you find it strange that the more famous and successful—and hence the more rich—a celebrity becomes, the less you have to pay for things?

Vicky Kaushal: I used to feel a similar way when I was doing theatre and watched a lot of theatre. It was before I could pay for expensive tickets. I never got complimentary tickets when it would have helped to get them. And now when I say, “Hey, I really want to watch that play,” I get free tickets even though I’m very happy to pay for them. I get your point about free stuff. But I feel it’s something we’ve earned…in a different way. We’re really working hard for it. It’s coming from a different route, but it’s an earning.

Rajeev Masand: Is the age of the superstar over? It hasn’t been an especially good year for Salman, Aamir or Shah Rukh Khan.

Vicky Kaushal: I don’t think so, and I don’t think it can ever be over. I think it was Shah Rukh who once said—and this made a lot of sense to me—that a big industry like Bollywood or Hollywood is an industry because it survives on fan following. Stars of European cinema don’t have that kind of following, and that’s why that industry isn’t as big or as glorious as Bollywood or Hollywood. 

I don’t think the culture of superstardom will ever die. But what has changed is access. My father and my mother tell me that when they were growing up in Punjab, in the ’50s or ’60s or even the ’70s, if you lived in a small town, the only way you could see a film star was if you went to the cinema. Because you were only hearing their voice on the radio, and even film posters were hand-painted. So if you wanted to see Dharmendra, you had to go to the cinema house. 

And stars always appeared larger than life on the screen. You never saw them at the same height as yourself. They were stars because they were not reachable. 

Today, people know what my bedroom looks like, what we do, where we go, where we shop, where we’re going on holiday—everything. That gap has been bridged. That’s why that kind of mega stardom, superstardom, people running behind cars… that might not happen today. It might just be a regular “Hey, hi!” kind of thing when one sees stars in a hotel or wherever one is going.

Rajeev Masand: I get your point, but I’m referring specifically to the Khans. Isn’t their superstardom waning?

Vicky Kaushal: I don’t think so. If their films haven’t worked, it’s not because of them. It’s probably because people didn’t connect with the story. The times we’re living in, the audience needs to connect with the story, first and foremost. Tomorrow, if one of them does a film where people connect with the story and the character, things will go back to the way they were. Take Aamir Khan’s case. People connected with Dangal (2016) and that became a huge hit. Then Thugs Of Hindostan happened last year and they didn’t connect with the story.

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Rajeev Masand: What’s the best career advice you’ve received?

Vicky Kaushal: Masaan had just come out, and it was right before we were doing Raman Raghav (2016), when Anurag Kashyap told me, “Vicky, for the next five years, don’t go after the money. Go after good directors and good films…[the money] will come.” That stuck with me and it has helped me so much. My career started at the age of 27. I was doing theatre before that and I had no earnings. So once you start getting work, it’s the first place your mind goes…which is, “now I can earn some money.” But Anurag stopped me right there.

Rajeev Masand: For Masaan, you practically moved to Benaras for a couple of months. While shooting Raazi (2018), you’ve said you travelled around Kashmir. The bulk of Uri, your new film, is shot in Serbia. How does spending time in these locations help the performances?

Vicky Kaushal: It always helps me. I try and avoid reaching the location just one day before the shoot is to begin. Instead, I try and reach a week before to not only take in the location, but also to get a hang of the team. For many of my films, I’ve joined my director and the DOP [director of photography] on recces, because once they’ve locked the spots, I really need to spend time there. I need to sit in every corner of that room. I need to lie down. If there’s a lunch break, I call for food at that location. I want to use the props—I take a nap on the character’s bed. It gives me a lot. It’s all an extension of the character. I can’t feel like a guest when I’m coming to my room on a set.

Rajeev Masand: You’re going to play Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in Karan Johar’s next film, Takht. One of the most hated men in Indian history, he is remembered for his political and religious intolerance, for imprisoning his father, and killing his brothers. How did you approach this character and why did it appeal to you to play him?

Vicky Kaushal: Firstly, I’m interested in getting into the head of a man who feels—despite doing all those things—that he is right. Aurangzeb probably didn’t think he was doing wrong. He probably thought it was necessary and had justifications for it. I need to get there. I want to see how I can feel that. The second thing is that however barbaric he was, I still believe that he was the first ruler who understood how to use religion for politics.

Rajeev Masand: What has acting taught you about yourself that you didn’t know?

Vicky Kaushal: There’s a lot more to know about yourself. With every character you play, you see life from a new perspective. And it is not just black and white; there are a lot of greys that are justified. I’m like, “Oh okay, love can be this also, love can be that also. Anger can be this also and that also. Pain can be this also and that also.” The rigidity of your mindset keeps breaking with every character, every story you get to be a part of.

Rajeev Masand: In Lust Stories (2018), you played a husband who gets what he needs in the bedroom, but who is unaware that he’s leaving his wife dissatisfied. Are sex scenes hard to shoot?

Vicky Kaushal: No, not at all. I find them to be mechanical after a couple of takes, because it becomes like a dance step. Most of the time, it is so “designed” that you know the exact number of times you have to hump. And with Lust Stories, it was part of the story that it had to be exactly five times [laughs]. Of course, you need to have that sort of comfort level with your co-actor, and that is something.

Rajeev Masand: But you have to make sure you’ve used deodorant, make sure you’ve popped a mint…wear clean underwear?

Vicky Kaushal: [Laughs] More like, wear underwear! The most basic thing to do is watch what you’re eating before that scene. You might love onions, but control yourself. I mostly eat fruits on set. And of course, you need to smell good.

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Rajeev Masand: You’ve said you enjoy Instagram and you frequently chat with your fans on DM.

Vicky Kaushal: Frequently as in, whenever I feel there is a genuinely heartfelt message, and I really feel like reaching out…only then.

Rajeev Masand: Michael B Jordan, of Black Panther, confessed on The Ellen DeGeneres Show that he had hooked up with fans that he had chatted with on DM. He said: “Not often, but I am human.” Anything you want to tell us, Vicky?

Vicky Kaushal: No, no, never have I had the confidence to do that. Seriously, never. I have met them, and they were really sweet. I know some of them on a personal level, especially those who have been messaging me since Masaan. I make it a point to stay in touch with those fans, because they were there from the beginning. It’s just one of those things where they’ll message me to tell me that they got married or they’re expecting a baby, and they’d love to meet me if I was in their city. So, for instance, while promoting Manmarziyaan in Delhi, I called some of them to the hotel. We had a cup of coffee at the coffee shop, where I met them for the first time—a husband and wife. So I have had those kinds of interactions, but never hooked up.

Rajeev Masand: And finally, are you single?

Vicky Kaushal: I am not.

Photographs: Ashish Shah
Styling: Rahul Vijay
Art Direction: Mrudul Pathak Kundu
Hair And Make-Up: Akgun Manisali/Inega;
Assisted By: Akshita Singh, Pujarini Ghosh, Dhvani Jhaveri, Pallak Shah (Styling);
Location Courtesy: Amanbagh, Jaipur District, India