The year was 1988. Tezaab had just released. And people were waking up to a new star: Madhuri Dixit. A sweet girl from a middle-class family of nobodies, who had never dreamed that she would make it in Bollywood. But here she was, dancing away to Ek Do Teen, and unknowingly inspiring millions across India.
One of them was a four-year-old boy called Ayushmann Khurrana, from another family of nobodies in Chandigarh. For Ayushmann, Tezaab played out in a dingy single-screen theatre where he sat between viewers who whistled, cheered and threw coins at the screen.
(Photo: R Burman)
In the balcony of this darkened hall, Ayushmann was mesmerised by the grandness of cinema. He loved the euphoria, the loyalty of audiences chanting "Mohini… Mohini…" while clapping. He grinned, looked at Madhuri all wide eyed and started making up a dream of his own.
"When I think about it today, that was my first Bollywood moment. It’s the first movie memory I have," Ayushmann says. Today, at age 30, he is sitting in his plush dressing room. His spot boy is hovering with some fish preparation. His manager is lining up meetings for the next day. And he has a three-film deal with YRF, Mumbai’s biggest film studio.
That young boy’s dreams, it seems, have come true. And he has written a book about his troubles and triumphs, a cheat sheet for stars in the making. As Ayushmann’s book Cracking The Code (Rupa) hits the stands, he tells Brunch about achieving success as an outsider in Bollywood, where so many fail every day. Tu hero banega?
Coming from a small city like Chandigarh and an unassuming family that valued education above all else, the struggle was as bad as it could get for Ayushmann. "I loved attention. I was the class clown," he recalls.
"But in Punjabi households, singing, dancing and acting are referred to as kanjarkhaana, which means all things useless. My Maths teacher used to say, ‘Tu toh sirf naach aur gaa sakta hai, aur kuch nahi kar sakta’. When I told my grandmother that I wanted to act, she slapped me." A few years later when he admitted his dreams to his girlfriend Tahira, she laughed at him. But Ayushmann wasn’t giving up so easily.
Thousands of aspiring actors, singers and dancers flock to Mumbai every year. Some to audition for film roles, some to participate in reality TV shows.
Ayushmann was one of them in 2001. On his first trip to Mumbai, he participated in the Channel [V] singing reality show, Popstars. He was eliminated about seven weeks from the finale, and went back home to continue with college. But he came back in 2004 to participate in MTV’s Roadies season 2, which he won at the age of 20. And surprisingly went back home again!
"Most contestants had moved base to Mumbai to cash in on the Roadies fame," says Ayushmann. "My dad told me that I wasn’t prepared. There was no dearth of talent in Mumbai, but there was a dearth of intelligent talent. He asked me not to skip my education."
Ayushmann’s decision, it would seem, was right. None of his Popstars and Roadies contemporaries stayed in the spotlight for too long.
Still there were other challenges. For starters, Ayushmann looked nothing like a "Punjabi gabru jawaan": the stereotypical fair, well-built Punjabi boy. He was scrawny, short and awkward. But the inspiration still came from Bollywood. "In Darr, SRK says that his height is 5’9" or 5’10", so I wanted to be 5’9", at least," he recalls.
"I used to pray to God every day, ki bhagwan meri height 5’9" kar do. My father is 5’5" and my mother is about the same. So my hopes were really meagre. And then, I grew to five-nine-and-a-half! I was over the moon. I always knew that I had the talent, but height was a bit of a gamble."
The gamble would continue in one form or the other even after Ayushmann moved to Mumbai in 2006. By now, he was a famous radio jockey with a Delhi radio station. But while most struggling actors stick to a routine of working out and auditioning round the clock, he continued working from the station’s Mumbai studios.
"When I auditioned for TV, they used to tell me all sorts of things. Some said my eyebrows were too thick. Others said my accent was too Punjabi," Ayushmann says.
"But I also knew that, being an outsider, merely auditioning for film roles wouldn’t have got me a film. You have to prove your mettle as an actor on TV or in some other medium. Be it me, Sushant Singh Rajput or even SRK and Vidya Balan – everyone has proven their worth on television [before entering Bollywood.]"
|"I almost dropped the thought of going to audition"|
MTV Roadies was the show that brought Ayushmann his initial fame. In his book, he remembers how he became part of the reality show:
I had auditioned for a television serial by Balaji Telefilms called Kitni Mast Hai Zindagi, the first fiction show on MTV, which didn’t do so well. However, I was noticed in that audition but, to my surprise, by the Roadies team in Mumbai.
I remember when I got a call from Mumbai I was attending a lecture and had to bury my head under the desk and take the call. I was super excited when I recognised a Mumbai number.
‘Hi, I’m Raghu,’ said the voice on the other end. At that time, Raghu wasn’t ‘The Raghu’. And I had the audacity to ask, ‘Who Raghu?’
Not many had seen him on television yet. He asked me to audition for Roadies but I wasn’t interested. That kind of show didn’t suit my aspirations. After all, I wanted to be an actor. Raghu told me to think about it and get back to him.
When I told my father he said, ‘Zaroor jao’ (You should definitely go). I still don’t know what my father foresaw, but he pushed me into it. At that time, I was rehearsing for my theatre group Manch Tantra’s production called Painter Babu, in which I was playing the lead.
I told my group about my audition. They dissuaded me to such an extent that I almost dropped the thought of going to the audition. But I knew I had to go and, in retrospect, I’m glad I did.
In Cracking The Code, Ayushmann recalls moments of naiveté: he had tried calling Karan Johar for a role after meeting him briefly at an awards show. “Karan gave me the landline number to his office when I met him,” he says. “I should have taken a hint there and then. But I was so excited! I even planned exactly when I would make the call: sometime around 11:30am, so he’d be done with breakfast and available to talk.”
For a Bollywood hopeful (and more so, with no connection), having found a contact in KJo’s Dharma Productions was a big deal, so he pursued it doggedly. Dharma of course turned him down, much to his disappointment. He didn’t even get to speak to KJo. Dharma bluntly told him that they only worked with stars.
Ayushmann, however, kept working. He now had two jobs (as an RJ and as a host on MTV’s youth show Wassup), while auditioning for roles simultaneously. He even tried for a supporting role in Dharma’s production, I Hate Luv Storys (2010). He kept auditioning with complete conviction, knowing well that most TV actors and reality stars didn’t have much credibility in the industry. They were typecast as over-enthu over-actors.
But someone was watching. “I needed a face which could translate innocence and honesty,” recollects director Shoojit Sircar, who had spotted Ayushmann on MTV’s Wassup. Sircar was casting for Vicky Donor (2012), his film about sperm donation, a subject so removed from masala Bollywood that two Bollywood stars had turned it down.
“The film wasn’t a slapstick, below-the-belt comedy. If the actor wouldn’t have been charming, the film could have gone wrong. I was hooked to Ayushmann at the first glance. What I liked about him was his friendliness with the camera.”
Ultimately it was his gig on television that proved most beneficial. He didn’t have the baggage of lineage, nor was he so dashing that it would eclipse his acting skills. “It was like, he belonged to the gang of the young MTV audience,” says Ayushmann’s former boss from the channel Ashish Patil, the head of YRF’s talent management wing and Y Films. “You know, he was like the coolest guy in the group. But not so cool that isko toh dur se hi dekho, dost mat banao.”
This quality resonated with the viewers in his debut film. He even co-wrote, co-composed and sang the chartbuster, Paani Da Rang in Vicky Donor. The film became a sleeper hit. And so did Ayushmann.
In with the new
His first film set the tone for the kind of roles he would pick in the future. He was next seen in
(2013) in which he played a theatre actor (he was touted as the best part of the movie). Then in
(2014), he played a corporate-type who loses his job in a bad economy. “I did have six pack abs in
, and that’s my only film that hasn’t done well. So these things don’t matter,” he says.
He continues choosing films that are out of the ordinary. His next film is
, a fictitious take on the life of Shivkar Bapuji Talpade: the man who constructed India’s first unmanned plane. And the one after that,
Dum Lagaa Ke Haisha
, will see him as a helpless man who is forcefully married off to an obese girl.
Flying high: In his upcoming film Hawaizaada, Ayushmann plays Shivkar Bapuji Talpade, the man who constructed India’s first unmanned plane.
“I’ve realised something: Either you have to be a superstar, or your script has to be one. So till the time I’m not a superstar, my scripts should do that job,” he says, speaking of big-budget potboilers and sex-comedies that have been offered to him before, but he has politely declined.
“This is the era of unconventionals in Bollywood. You have [films as varied as]
, all doing well.” Sircar concurs, “Experimentation is the most important thing today. Most young actors will not want to talk about the movies that have made money; they talk about the movies that have given them credibility.”
Even off screen, he has managed his career in a way no other young star has. He isn’t in the news for torrid affairs or controversies or his bulging biceps. On the contrary, he talks openly about the downside of stardom, his wife Tahira and his two children.
“I just wasn’t in control of my life”
Ayushmann says that stardom has been strenuous, too. In his book, he mentions how his new-found fame distanced him from his wife:
Suddenly, I became everyone’s property; I wasn’t hers alone. From the shy boy-next-door Ayushmann Khurrana, I had transformed into ‘Oye Vicky!’ or ‘Ae sperm donor!’.
Since neither my wife nor I had been exposed to such a drastic change in our lives, she didn’t know what was happening and neither did I. We were totally clueless about how to react or respond to my sudden fame
I just went along with the flow instead of trying to control it, leaving Tahira behind. It was not a conscious decision to revel in the newfound glory. To be honest, I didn’t even enjoy as much, because I knew I didn’t have my wife along to share it with. I was as lost as a teenager buying his first packet of condoms at the chemist’s.
In fact, I didn’t even realize when, at the first public event we attended together, I accidentally let go of her hand as I was accosted by the press. After about twenty minutes of jostling into the flashing strobes did I realise that I was not holding the hand of the person I had come with.
When I turned around frantically to look for her, I saw her standing just where I had left her, with tears welling up in her eyes. I felt so miserable. I just wasn’t in control of my life.
“If I played Dad to 50 kids in my first film [
], what’s the harm in owning up to the fact that I’m a father of two children in real life?” he points out. “I’ve never really thought that I’m losing out on a fan base by not portraying the image of a hunk. I enjoy my bohemian lifestyle; I live out of a suitcase while shuttling between two cities [Mumbai and Chandigarh]. And I’m the only actor/composer/lyricist/singer in the industry. I’m very happy with it.”
And while people might not be whistling, cheering on and chanting his name in theatres yet (like they did for Mohini in
), he’s getting that craving fulfilled elsewhere. “I’m forming a band called Ayushmann After School and starting with a Valentine’s Day gig in Ahmedabad,” he says. “The space of the unusual hero, that of an actor/singer is empty, so I want to keep at it.”
Just like our cover star Ayushmann Khurrana, these small-town strugglers jumped over hurdles like bad modelling assignments, crappy TV shows and blink-and-miss film roles to reach their goal: Bollywood.
From: Jaipur, Rajasthan
After graduating from the National School of Drama, Khan struggled for over two decades working in television (
Chanakya, Chandrakanta, Banegi Apni Baat,
etc) and doing small roles in films like
Ek Doctor Ki Maut
From: Surajpur, Himachal Pradesh
Struggle story: Ranaut rebelled against her family’s wishes, dropped out of school and moved to Delhi. She struggled as a model before moving to Mumbai. She then auditioned for the Bhatts and landed a three-film deal with them at the age of 17.
Breakthrough: Fashion (2008) Nawazuddin Siddiqui
From: Budhana, Uttar Pradesh
Struggle story: He worked as a watchman in Delhi while auditioning for roles in theatre. He then graduated from National School of Drama in 1996 and played small parts like a waiter in Shool (1999) and a thief in Munnabhai MBBS (2003).
Breakthrough:Kahaani (2012) Nimrat Kaur
From: Pilani, Rajasthan
Struggle story: After living in small towns like Bhatinda and Patiala, Kaur moved to Mumbai. She modelled for print ads and later dabbled in theatre and had a small role in Shoojit Sircar’s Yahaan (2005). She was discovered by Anurag Kashyap, and cast in his indie film Peddlers (2012).
Breakthrough:The Lunchbox (2013) Randeep Hooda
From: Rohtak, Haryana
Struggle story: Hooda gave up a marketing job and started struggling as a model in Delhi. He then played a small part in Monsoon Wedding (2001), though he didn’t sign any film for a long time after that. He worked with Naseeruddin Shah’s theatre group and conducted workshops simultaneously.
Breakthrough: Saheb, Biwi Aur Gangster (2011) Sushant Singh Rajput
From: Patna, Bihar
Struggle story: Rajput abandoned his engineering studies to pursue acting. He joined Nadira Babbar’s theatre group and then bagged a role in Ekta Kapoor’s show, Pavitra Rishta (2009).
Breakthrough: Kai Po Che! (2013)
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From HT Brunch, February 1
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