Sit With Hitlist: All you need to know about Ayushmann Khurrana

Updated: 29 January, 2019 11:43 IST | Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

Happening star Ayushmann Khurrana on a hot streak breaks down his craft and shares how he took the quirky route and barged into Bollywood's coveted Rs 100-crore club

We wrap up the year with the youngest entertainer to 'Sit With Hitlist'—our unscripted podcast, plus print series—that so far, barring Ranbir Kapoor, 36, has featured actors well over their 40s, for instance Aamir Khan, Anil Kapoor, Ajay Devgn, Akshay Kumar. This is merely to alliterate with the letter A. Of course, there are many others.

Actor, anchor Ayushmann Khurana, 34, deserves to be on the same list, simply because 2018, like 2017, had him anointed as a legitimate star, delivering back-to-back, critical acclaimed, commercial successes in both years (Bareilly Ki Barfi, Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, Badhaai Ho, Andhadhun), right after Dum Laga Ke Haisha, constantly betting on unusual scripts that perhaps few would've backed.
An ever-willing entertainer, Khurrana regaled the audience during the conversation, not just revealing his vulnerable side, a long personal journey, but singing for them as well.

By the way, what's the other Ranbir Kapoor connect here? That Khurana wishes he had played the lead character in Rockstar, and sung in the film as well. Well, a rock-star nonetheless. Excerpts from the conversation:

Firstly, why are you Ayushmann? Shouldn't it be Ayush-man, or Ayush-maan?
If your dad's an astrologer, you have no option but to be born with these spellings! I did not change these spellings, before coming to Bombay, or becoming an actor.

And I believe your dad changed your name from Nishant, to begin with?
Yes, I was three at the time. I think I'm also the oldest Ayushmann in the world. Now I see kids who are five or six, named Ayushmann, but no one older.

What also unites you with a lot of urban kids is, like a lot of them, you're a full-on product of talent showcased at inter-school/college fests, doing debates, plays etc first. Correct?
Absolutely right. I was big on college festivals — BITS Pilani, IIT Powai… I was in every club/society: debating, music, theatre. I was the co-curricular captain of my convent school in Chandigarh. glasses, and was quite a nerd.

Ayushmann Khurrana in conversation with Mayank Shekhar at the latest edition of Sit With Hitlist, before a live audience, at the mid-day office. Pics/Nimesh Dave
Ayushmann Khurrana in conversation with Mayank Shekhar at the latest edition of Sit With Hitlist, before a live audience, at the mid-day office. Pics/Nimesh Dave

Were there kids you competed against, who similarly made it big in theatre or music?
I remember some of their names, and they were quite capable. But they chose different professions.

You were always keen on show business?
I was. But I studied journalism

What did you learn in journalism? Maybe you can teach us something!
Communication, of course. That's the key. But we made our own short films as well. Traditionally, the [journalism] course at Punjab University is known for print, with seniors like Shekhar Gupta. I used to write songs, poetry, and [prose] for the college magazine. I even started writing for a publication [DNA] in Mumbai.

You've, in fact, written a book on cracking it in Bollywood. What is the top lesson that someone can learn from there?
The fact that it's important to be practical. Of course, talent comes first, and you have to be passionate enough to pursue that talent, while being practical and objective [about it] — staying away from 'yes men', surrounding yourself with people who are hyper-critical of you, and your passion for the craft. Also, it's important to tread that middle path between ambition, and contentment. Otherwise, you lose your mind, most of the times.

While you're an accomplished lead actor now, someone clearly thought you had a face for radio, which is how you began your career, as an RJ.
(Laughs) I have evolved so much, not just as an actor, performer, but also with how I look. You only have to see my pictures [from much younger] — I used to have braces, crooked teeth, used to wear glasses, was quite a nerd. Look at Roadies Season 2, and you'll realise [what I'm talking about] — glasses, skinny...

The actor-singer belts out one of his chartbusters during the session
The actor-singer belts out one of his chartbusters during the session

So it's radio, Roadies, then on IPL as a sportscaster, you'd pretty much done the full circle before your first film, none of which had to do with acting per se.
I always wanted to be an actor, but was pretty sure nobody would launch me. Television was a decent route though. I became a VJ on MTV. By default, every VJ gets a chance to be an actor.

Is that so?
Yes, everyone; traditionally—like both the Cyruses [Broacha, Sahukar], Rannvijay [Singh Singha], Yudi, Nikhil [Chinapa], Malaika [Arora]… All of them got chances. Everybody is talented. It's just the choices you make that define you. I had said no to at least five-six films before Vicky Donor. There was no desperation in me to be an actor in films.

Offers from biggies, or aise hi?
I will not say aise hi, but they were not such big names. Which is a given. I was not a star-kid. So nobody would put money on me.

Do you remember reading a really lousy script back then?
It's unfair to say that!

Not asking you to name names.
There was a script called KLPD: Kisses, Love, Pizza and Dhoka, or something like that. It was a sex comedy, quite funny actually. So I went to Bangkok for its shoot, that never started. There was some production locha, we came back. While I was there, I realised, something is off. I was 24. It was this weird story of four couples who fall in love with each other, or something.

What's this fascination with filmmakers associating you in some odd way with (stores about) sex?
It's the innocence; the earnestness. That's what Shoojit Sircar told me, when I asked him why he chose me for a sperm donor's role. Do I look like one? He said, you just look very sanitised. I was like, what is sanitised? He said you give a clean vibe — ki achcha ladka hai, sanskari hai. Not in that way, but you know what I mean.

What's amazing is you got your first film role, with Shoojit Sircar's Vicky Donor, without a screen test. And in fact your last role, in Sriram Raghavan's AndhaDhun, is when you first auditioned for a part. How did that happen?
I was hosting shows on MTV and Shoojit sir said, I just want you to be as you are as a VJ: the loud Punjabi guy. In real life, I'm not loud. I used to put up an act in front of the camera. So I did not audition for the part in Vicky Donor.
With the last film [AndhaDhun], I got to know that he [Sriram Raghavan] had not short-listed anybody for the (lead) role. I got to know the film's one-liner from (casting agent) Mukesh Chabbra. And I texted him (Raghavan). He said this is not a slice-of-life film. I said that's why I have come to you. I always wanted to do a thriller, and was getting scripts as well. But, I wanted to work with Sriram Raghavan, because I'm a huge fan-boy.

Fan-boy from?
Ek Haseena Thi—that transformed Saif (Ali Khan) for me. Badlapur transformed Varun (Dhawan) for me. And I wanted my transformation with him. Glad that happened.

Speaking of professional mentors, the idea of the godfather has dramatically changed in showbiz. Would you consider MTV as the first godfather, and then Yashraj that you're currently managed by, as the second?
I think, more than anyone, I would call Shoojit Sircar and Aditya Chopra as my two mentors; and on TV, there was (producer) Siddharth Basu, who gave me my first TV show, India's Got Talent, that I hosted with Nikhil Chinapa. He (Siddharth) gave me lot of training, to work on my diction and other aspects, as an anchor.
Similarly we did lots of workshops for Vicky Donor, because I had been hosting for four to five years, and had to unlearn a lot of stuff, like looking into the camera, for instance. I had to ignore the camera, for a change, and become an actor. So I went to MK Sharma's Act One (in Delhi). A lot of known names have emerged from that group—Shoojit Sircar, Imtiaz Ali, Gajraj Rao, Manoj Bajpayee, Piyush Mishra.

How did you and Aditya Chopra meet?
That was during Bewakoofiyan. I was not interested in that film. I had issues with the script, to be frank. And, I told him that I wanted to do this film, because I wanted to get into Yash Raj. I asked him why can't you (Yashraj) manage me, anyway? He said, no, you have to do a film with us; then we can manage you.
And then Dum Lagake Haisha was offered to me a month after Bewakoofiyan started. And I was really excited about it. And he (Chopra) was surprised, because it was not a "hero wali" film. He said people won't like you in the first half. And I was okay with that. The script was so unique. After both films released, he began respecting me. He was, like, you have an eye for scripts. Sometimes he bounces certain scripts off me, just to have me read them.

What according to you is good script sense anyway?
I think I should relate to the script first. Most people think audiences will like it, even if you don't. But you have to be the audience, to begin with. Because parameters and assumptions about an audience may not always be right. The public may change too. But if you are the public, it becomes easier to gauge.
And this thought for me comes from a theatre background, because we used to write our own scripts. We did street theatre, which is meant to be dark and content-based. Entertainment was never related to street theatre. But as a theatre group we started making entertaining street plays, which was unique in the mid 2000s.

Like singing, dancing, instead of activism, on the street?
We would have three to four guitars, percussion, so it was like a fun fair. And yet it used to give goose bumps—it was amazing.

Is it like busking then?
Exactly. We would do it anywhere—marketplace, college, university. We'd call people. There was a chant, something like, 'Zor se bolo, naatak dekho. Saare bolo, naatak dekho. Mein nahi suniya, naatak dekho, DAV ka naatak dekho.' DAV was our college. We started making the plays entertaining, and realised we would get more footfalls. There was a saffa [turban cloth] that was spread out, and everyone would give money.

I hear you similarly made money from passengers on college train trips from Chandigarh.
Frankly, most of the kids were from well-off families, so doing this was fun. We'd come to IIT Powai every year in a second-class sleeper train, sponsored by college. We'd play guitar, dholak, sing retro songs for passengers, going from one berth to other. I remember a guy gave us Rs 500! One of our Goa trips after Mood Indigo got sponsored this way.

Glad you said you're from a well-off family. Assuming you haven't slept on Bombay streets, because everyone from Amitabh Bachchan to Shah Rukh Khan has that exact same 'struggling' story!
Well we did once miss our train to Goa, and we had to stay the night in Mumbai Central. So, yes, station pe soye the! I could afford a hotel room, but not for all my friends. It's not that I have a sob story. I came to Mumbai on a plane. Since I didn't have a place, I stayed with a friend in KEM hospital's hostel. I would head for auditions, but while getting in and out of the hostel, I'd wear a laboratory coat, so no one catches me.

Most traditional Indian parents force their kids to study medicine, engineering. Your father in fact forced you to come to Bombay and become an actor. Is that true?
Well, it wasn't like that. I took sciences in high school, cleared a dental college exam in Karnataka. When I went there, I realised I won't be able to do it, so I came back to Chandigarh to study arts. After (graduating in) journalism, I thought of taking a sabbatical for two years, because I was not satisfied with myself as an actor. I wanted to do (professional) theatre. My father told me to go out there (in Bombay) and learn on-the-job, and that it was the right time.

Did he figure this out through your horoscope?
I have no idea! But he believes that there is no wrong time to do the right thing; otherwise you lose out on an opportunity. So my bags were packed, tickets booked, and I was thrown out of my house. I had no intentions of coming to Mumbai. This was 2006. I just wanted to chill for two years, perfect myself as an actor first. But my father said that the journey will continue till you are 80, as no one can attain perfection. Those were words of wisdom. He has been a mentor to me.

Now in this whole nepotism argument, a point that people miss is that there could be such a thing as new fame, old fame; like there's old and new money. Being from a famous family could just make it easier to deal with fame, because you've already seen the ups and downs closely. You went to an all boys' school, college, became a superstar with your first film. Suddenly with so much female attention, for instance, did it shake you up in a certain way?
That happened to me when I was 18. I was on the second season of a reality show Pop Stars on Channel V, which was won by Vasudha Sharma, Neeti Mohan, Jimmy Felix. They had created the song Chandu Ke Chacha Ne. I was the first backup singer for that band; the only one from Chandigarh.
I had suddenly become a star in first year of college. Everybody in the city was in love with me. Mera dimaag kharab ho gaya tha! I thought I had arrived. I broke up with my girlfriend then, now wife [Tahira Kashyap]. It felt like, ab toh scene alag hai boss [Laughs].
I was getting attention from girls, apart from my girlfriend. One year after that was disastrous for me, because nothing happened. Then I realised this is all fickle. Everything faded away. I realised this is part of the game.
Later Roadies happened, when I was more mature. So I got exposed to these things early in life. And this can happen to anyone, at 16, or 60. I was quite sorted. And it wasn't sudden fame after Vicky Donor either. It was gradual. I was famous as a radio jockey in Delhi with my own hoardings on streets.
Yes, I did have marital issues after Vicky Donor, since everyone wanted a piece of me. As an RJ and VJ, I would work for around 12 days, and the rest were free. So I had a lot of time for Tahira, and we would travel a lot. Suddenly everything stopped.
I didn't have a single minute for her, and the worst part was she was pregnant. I was a father, when the movie (Vicky Donor) released, but I had no time for family. I was consumed with my own success, and was quite stable, but we had our low. It was a professional high, and a personal low; quite crazy.

Has that been the story of your life?
Yes, it has been. Even now, there is professional high, but personally, very tough (phase). We are together, but she (wife Tahira) has gone through cancer. It's always been like that.

Did you check with your father if planetary alignments have anything to do with it?
He says, it will always be like this. Life will always have a void. It can never be perfect. So you will always have to try to balance.

If you had to choose between 'personal' and 'professional', which one would you go for?
It's tough to answer. At the same time, you need to have a solid personal life, because everything will go. But this will stay.

Getting back to your professional life, your films have also been timed in quick succession, almost back-to-back—in 2017, Bareilly Ki Barfi and Shubh Mangal Saavdhan released two weeks apart, same with Andhadhun and Badhaai Ho this year. If both went down, you'd be screwed!
It's a coincidence. You'd never want your films to come back-to-back. But I have realised, if your films are good, they will work. Last year, I was really nervous, as both the films [Bareilly Ki Barfi and Shubh Mangal Saavdhan] had similar texture, and our designers were the same. My mother-in-law, played by Seema Pahwa, was the same. The budgets were identical. People were getting confused watching the two trailers. Some went to watch Shubh Mangal Saavdhan but had booked tickets for Bareilly Ki Barfi, since both were playing at the same time. This time around I wasn't nervous, as both Badhaai Ho and Andhadhun had different milieu. One is a thriller. The other is slice-of-life comedy.

The other back-to-back releases were Hawaizaada and Dum Laga Ke Haisha in 2015; three weeks apart.
I am glad that happened.

Can you explain me to me what made you choose Hawaizaada?
Just the one-liner that I heard. I was quite fascinated with the character, who apparently constructed India's first unmanned plane before the Wright brothers. So what I realised was that it's not necessary that a film that has a good one-liner will last for two hours (the same way).
Every failure is a learning, and I guess you learn a lot from rejections. I am glad it happened in the initial phase of my career. Hawaizaada, I guess, should have been more real. I was not expecting a fantasy, or a love story, taking over from the facts and other elements in the film.

Apparently Aditya Chopra called you up after Hawaizaada's release. He apparently said that nobody's luck turns around in 20 days but yours will?
Yes. I was in Chandigarh then. I needed a break. I wasn't going through my social media, had switched off my phone, and was just chilling. But he reached out and said that we have the release of Dum Lagake Haisha on February 27 coming up. I was shocked. Pehle se hi lagi padi thi, aur itni jaldi ye aa raha hai [Laughs]. The trailer was launched three weeks before the release. Everyone liked it. He said that this is going to be a blessing in disguise, and will change my fortune. It did.

You, Vicky Kaushal and Rajkummar Rao show up on Karan Johar's talk show, where guests are routinely asked to rank the three of you. What's also common between all of you, and enough think pieces have been written on it, is that you've redefined the idea of on-screen masculinity, even subverted it though your roles. You come from Chandigarh, which is the most macho city. How did you get into subversion of masculinity from there?
Well this has happened because the scripts are more real, and the credit should go to scriptwriters, who are progressive in their thought. Of course, as actors, we have chosen those scripts, and are taking their ideas forward. Coming from Chandigarh, I have gone through a transition myself.
Back in the day, being a small-town guy, I was slightly patriarchal. I wasn't exposed to certain things. I came to Mumbai, and before that, Delhi. I believe everyone goes through a change. The idea is to make every small-town guy be a part of that change.
We still have regressive thoughts in India. There are two different countries—urban, which is about 25 to 30 per cent; and the other, that's rural. We need to get these two together. I have gone through that change. I expect that to happen [to everyone] through cinema, or literature.

Give me an example in the way you have changed?
My mother is a housewife. When I started dating Tahira, I told her that she doesn't need to work, and that I'd do pretty well for myself. I'll be the breadwinner. She was shocked. She told me it wasn't about the money. She wanted to pursue her passions for herself. I told her that we can't marry then. And she told me, 'That's cool. We should definitely not marry!'
I came from a different background. She has also been instrumental in changing me as a person. I was uncouth. I wouldn't open the door for a lady. I was brought up among rustic guys in Chandigarh, Haryana and Punjab. I went to an all-boys' school. To begin with, I didn't know how to talk to a woman. She turned me into a gentleman. Whatever I am today, I owe a lot to my wife.

When you go back, do you find your friends to be just the way they were?
Most of them have changed, but some have remained similar. During Diwali, I always go back to Chandigarh. I was having debates about the #MeToo movement and hearing stuff like, 'Abhi kya bolne ki zaroorat thi. Dus saal pehle kyun nahi bola?' Everybody was making the same argument. And I was like, 'Kya kar rahe ho yaar? Ab toh badal jao!'

Speaking of #MeToo, I'm told, you've had an incident yourself. Take us through it?
I don't want to take the name, but it was a gay casting-director. I have nothing against him. I was new to the city, and he said, 'Why don't you come over and show me your d*** and I'd like to feel it, and you'll get a role!' If I was gay, I would have thought about it. And I was single at the time! I told him that I wanted to make it with my own talent; otherwise I wouldn't be happy getting the role. We had a healthy discussion, and parted ways.

We're going to end this conversation with confirming two rumours about you. One, that you've actually donated sperm; true?
I did it in Allahabad, during Roadies, in 2004. Sperm donation was a task. Guys with highest sperm count would go into the next round. I was in top three. So Vicky Donor was like method acting for me [Laughs]. Shoojit Sircar was shocked, when I told him about this incident.

And you brush your teeth four times a day?
Yes! I have an OCD. It started when I had braces, and the food would get stuck, so I used to brush a lot. The habit continued.

Transcribed by Mohar Basu, Sonil Dedhia and Sonia Lulla

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First Published: 20 December, 2018 07:39 IST

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