They used to call Aamir Khan the ‘Man with the Golden Gut’; it was a reflection of his unwavering instinct for sniffing out the best scripts. If there is anyone among the current crop of actors that is a true heir to that title, it’s Ayushmann Khurrana who hasn’t had a flop in nearly three years…he’s been on a roll delivering hit after quirky hit every couple of months. And none of these have been safe choices. In the last year alone he played an upper caste IPS officer who discovers the true horrors of the caste system (Article 15), a young man who earns a living impersonating a woman on a singles phone line (Dreamgirl), and a fellow who becomes increasingly insecure because of his premature balding problem (Bala).
The 35-year-old Chandigarh-raised former radio jockey who names Shah Rukh Khan as the single reason he loved the movies growing up, recently moved into a sprawling new apartment in Mumbai’s Oshiwara neighborhood, tastefully decorated by his wife Tahira Kashyap. Behind us the wall has been carved into a shelf to display his various awards, and there’s already no room for more. (“We’ll just have to phase some out, or bung in two or three in the space of one,” he jokes about the future).
Currently on a well-earned break from shooting, Ayushmann is fully aware that he cannot let the ball drop. That too much is riding on his success. That one wrong choice could change everything. Yet he is the portrait of calm on this early Saturday morning, dressed in track pants and a black T-shirt, sipping black coffee as we reflect on his silver streak.
Excerpts from the conversation:
Rajeev Masand: You’re coming off a great year—a National Award, three back-to back hits, two films already completed for 2020. How are you feeling?
Ayushmann Khurrana: I can breathe now. Earlier, I was very restless. There was no time to stand and stare. Finally, I can recharge my batteries. These last three months I’ve been hunting for new scripts. I can’t afford to be laidback. I’ve been reading material, meeting directors. I won’t be shooting a film for a few weeks, but I will be doing everything else.
RM: When they announced that you’d won the National Award in August [shared with Vicky Kaushal], where were you and how did it make you feel?
AK: I was shooting for an ad film and when I came back from the shot, I saw 50 missed calls on my phone. And I started reading messages: “You got the National Award.” “You got the National Award.” I got the 51st call from Vicky. I got to know from the crew that he had also won the award. So, we congratulated each other.
And it’s funny because we had literally just moved into this new house, and my mother was visiting. She had been saying this house will be lucky for us. So to hear about the National Award right about then was surreal and quite amazing.
RM: Do you feel the industry looks at you differently since you hit this successful streak? You’ve said before that they never saw you as a star.
AK: My films were always dependent on good reviews. So the critics respected me, but not the trade. They always complained that my films opened small and slow. My Mondays were always bigger than Fridays. But that changed with Andhadhun (2018), which opened on a high note. And yet, I’ll never forget what one trade paper did. This is something I’ve never spoken about before. They did a poll before the release of Article 15 asking people to predict what the lifetime business of the film would be. And this is what they offered: Option A: INR. 5-7 crore, Option B: INR. 8-10 crore, Option C: INR. 10-12 crore, and Option D: INR. 12-14 crore. It broke my heart. They had capped the film’s business at only INR 14 crore! In my head I was expecting the film to do at least INR. 50 crore, and I felt it had the potential to go up to INR. 65 crore, but they had no confidence. This is after Andhadhun and Badhaai Ho (2018) were both big hits. I felt quite bad about it and I remember taking a screenshot of this poll on my phone as a reminder. When Article 15 did the numbers, I think their perception changed.
RM: What about your peers? Do they look at you differently?
AK: I recently heard from my publicist, who in turn had heard from another actor’s publicist, at the time that so-and-so star didn’t want to be seen with me because he thought I was too small to be sitting next to. I only got to hear of it now, but I couldn’t help thinking, where is this world going? We all just make our own journey. You stand by yourself. Whoever is standing next to you doesn’t matter; it’s immaterial. I would like to think that attitude has changed because nobody seems unhappy to be sitting next to me these days…(smiles)…
RM: It’s fitting that you’ve taken three months off, and you deserve the break. But does it feel strange being away from the set?
AK: So, [my wife] Tahira was shooting a short film with Neena Gupta. And as it happened, it timed nicely with my break; I was home. So I used to wake up early, send the kids off to school and wait for them. They’re seven and five. During those five hours, I used to have meetings and script narrations. But once the kids came back from school, I’d playcricket or chess with them. We had a lot of fun. I put them to bed too when Tahira used to come back late.
RM: Nice. Are they happy to have this time with you? Did they need that when you were working nonstop last year?
AK: Of course. They were missing me and I used to FaceTime with them all the time. But now, they are happy. They don’t want to be with their friends, they want to be with me. Another week and they’ll get bored of me, and start going out with their friends.
RM: How do the kids relate to your being an actor?
AK: They’re proud, of course. But I remember a few years ago when my son used to go to this play area, the kids there used to address me as Ayushmann when I’d go to pick him up. My son would get offended. He used to say: “I call their fathers ‘Uncle’. Why don’t they call you the same? Why do they call you by your name? They should respect you.” But now he understands that it’s not that they disrespect me. Most people see an actor and tend to refer to him by first name.
RM: Do they watch your films?
AK: My older one watched Dreamgirl and enjoyed it because I was just being a clown and having fun. My daughter decided she wanted to stay at home and sleep instead. My son couldn’t watch Bala because he couldn’t see me in pain; he just left the theatre when he saw me cry and said he can’t see it. Article 15 was too dark for them.
RM: What are the other things that this break has allowed you to do? Your music?
AK: Yeah, I jammed with my friends. I may have a concert coming up in January. But the plan is to go somewhere in December with my family and do nothing. I just want to be by myself and probably read books, write poetry.
RM: What did you last read?
AK: I’m reading Lie with Me by Philippe Besson. It’s an English translation of a French book based on two gay boys. Tahira and I went to Austria and we discovered this book there. She read it first and gave it to me.
RM: Tahira was detected with breast cancer last year, but overcame it. What changes did it bring to your lives?
AK: You start valuing your life. You cherish every single day. You’ve got a good family, good friends and a great life. You couldn’t have asked for more. The gratitude increases. That’s the biggest change.
RM: Was Tahira’s recovery—and the fact that she is already working now—a reminder of just how incredible women are?
AK: Of course, women are amazing. I have changed so much over the years. I was in an all-boys school and an all-boys college. So, whatever I am as a man, it is because of Tahira. I didn’t have a sister also. So, it was difficult. And my father is very conservative.
RM: How important is travel for you?
AK: Tahira loves going abroad, but I love travelling in India. I am very desi at heart. When you travel in India, you get a lot of love and people take care of you. No one asks you anything abroad. There’s nobody, no driver, nothing. And there are two small kids and you have to take care of them. So, I ask Tahira to spend as much as possible abroad so that we get the best luxurious experience. Otherwise, it’s not a holiday for me.
RM: What was the last good holiday?
AK: Disneyland, Orlando. As a kid, we didn’t get to go to Disneyland. And it was just a dream. So, Tahira and I were more excited than the kids. We got these VIP passes that let us cut the lines and we went on this one 4D ride three times. It was the first time we were experiencing something like it; Tahira and I started crying, we were so overwhelmed.
RM: What’s it like going back home to Chandigarh?
AK: There is pressure from family friends—that we should have dinner with them. [They say] ‘You come and go and you don’t even tell us.’ I hardly get time to spend with my parents. At home, I do nothing. So, there is a small terrace; I used to climb up the ladder, sit there and revise for my board exams. Now I sit on the terrace, listen to music and just look at the Himalayas. It gives me a sense of nostalgia.
RM: Do you have a five-year plan? Some goals or boxes you want to tick off?
AK: I have just one aspiration. Every year, I want to do one film that is not in my zone…like Article 15. I should pick the script based on my instinct and gut, and not go with big names or projects.
RM: Finally, who would you switch lives with? It doesn’t have to be an actor.
AK: I am very happy with my life. I couldn’t have asked for more. The tragedy that I have seen…I am glad that I have seen these failures initially in my life. I have seen everything in these seven years. So, I think I have the best life. I have no complaints at all. kids came back from school, I’d play cricket or chess with them. We had a lot of fun. I put them to bed too when Tahira used to come back late.
Photographs: Tarun Khiwal; Styling: Samar Rajput; Hair: Hakim Aalim Hair Lounge Pvt Ltd; Make-Up: Hinal Dattani; Assisted By: Pujarini Ghosh, Tejaswini Sinha (Styling), Nikita Thapa, Sejal Goyal (Intern); Location Courtesy: 25 South, Mumbai