Ayushmann Khurrana: Say it through your art

Regardless of their box-office fate, actor Ayushmann Khurrana is picking films that push the envelope

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Bollywood actor Ayushmann Khurrana; Photo by Bandeep Singh

Released last week, Anubhav Sinha’s action thriller, Anek, sees Ayushmann Khurrana play an undercover officer on a mission in the Northeast. (The state is unspecified.) During the course of two and a half hours, he begins to question the political strategy of his masters, the Indian government. Anek comes at a time when audiences seem to prefer larger-than-life heroes, men with much machismo. Three of the biggest pan-India hits of the past six months—Pushpa, RRR and KGF: Chapter 2—all seem to prove this assumption. Khurrana, though, has made a career out of playing heroes who are fallible, insecure and oftentimes not very likeable. The actor, for his part, isn’t too fazed by the current box office trend. He tells us, “Mass cinema will never go out of fashion. Every genre has to survive. People do not want reality every single time. They want to escape from it also.”

Released last week, Anubhav Sinha’s action thriller, Anek, sees Ayushmann Khurrana play an undercover officer on a mission in the Northeast. (The state is unspecified.) During the course of two and a half hours, he begins to question the political strategy of his masters, the Indian government. Anek comes at a time when audiences seem to prefer larger-than-life heroes, men with much machismo. Three of the biggest pan-India hits of the past six months—Pushpa, RRR and KGF: Chapter 2—all seem to prove this assumption. Khurrana, though, has made a career out of playing heroes who are fallible, insecure and oftentimes not very likeable. The actor, for his part, isn’t too fazed by the current box office trend. He tells us, “Mass cinema will never go out of fashion. Every genre has to survive. People do not want reality every single time. They want to escape from it also.”

Looking at the film choices he has made over his dec­ade-long career, it seems clear that Khurrana has arrived at a formula that ensures both survival and success in a highly competitive Hindi film industry. While he will sometimes play to the gallery with a film like Dream Girl (2019), he will often stick to what he calls his “staple genre”, the social comedy—Shubh Mangal Savdhan (2017), Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhan (2020), Badhaai Ho (2018), Bala (2019) and Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui (2021). Anek is Khurrana’s attempt at doing “cinema for change”. He says, “If you have a certain voice as a director or an actor, it should reflect through your art. If you want to say something, say it through your art.”

Ayushmann Khurrana in a still from Anubhav Sinha’s action thriller 'Anek'

Having started off with street theatre in his Chandigarh college, Khurrana is today more watchful than zealous. He says, “You will fall flat on your face if you have to comment on every single issue that you have next to no idea about.” Though he is “very non-confrontational as a person”, he adds he is “confrontational” as an artist. “There’s a dichotomy there,” he says. “I don’t want to be making news with controversy.” By collaborating with Anubhav Sinha—director of several hard-hitting films like Mulk (2018), Article 15 (2019) and Thappad (2020)—Khurrana gets handed an opportunity to showcase his “confrontational” side. He says, “Anek is an intelligent film. The narrative is complex. It deals with the deep politics of the Northeast, so it cannot be your typical potboiler. I get the courage to do a film like this only after doing films like Dream Girl and Bala. I have to strike that balance.”

It is clear that Anek will not be one of Khurrana’s highest grossers. That milestone will for now still belong to Dream Girl, an all-out entertainer which had grossed Rs 139 crore nationwide. Unlike Article 15, the last Sinha-Khurrana collaboration, Anek can be seen struggling hard to keep audiences invested in its cause and its characters. In his attempt to incorporate the many issues that plague the Northeast—insurgency, drug addiction, neglect from the mainland, racial abuse—Sinha bites more than he can chew. The film crumbles under the weight of questions like ‘who is an Indian?’ What we get is a convoluted drama with a lot of conversation and little action. It’s unlikely that Anek will come even close to making the Rs 65 crore the conscientious and compelling Article 15, their last collaboration, did.

For Khurrana, though, the process is the prize. He is proud that his fellow protagonist in the film, Andrea Kevichusa, an actress from Nagaland, was given not only a significant arc by Sinha, but also sufficient screen time. “It is historic [in Hindi cinema],” he says. “In fact, 70 per cent of the cast is from the region. Anubhav has helped pass on the mic to Northeasterners to talk about their struggle.”

Regardless of its fate, Anek demonstrates Khurrana’s eagerness to walk a road less taken. At times, this leads him to an ideal destination—like it did with Sriram Raghavan’s dark comedy Andhadhun (2018)—but sometimes the experimentation doesn’t have the desired effect, as is the case with Anek. One cannot, however, hold against Khurrana, the star, his desire to be different from his peers. “When I do niche films, I make sure my remuneration is such that it has to be a successful venture,” he says. “I’d also love to do more commercial films because the masses enjoy what is easy to relate to and consume.” His directors’ wish-list offers a glimpse of his varied taste—there’s Rohit Shetty there, Zoya Akhtar and also independent filmmaker Neeraj Ghaywan (Masaan, 2015).

In his pursuit of the novel, Khurrana is also looking toward streaming. He wants a part that might compare to that of ‘The Professor’ in Money Heist (2017-2021). So, have any offers come his way? “I read 10 scripts a day but most are trash,” he smiles. “In a year, you find two good scripts. It’s a tedious exercise.” But he isn’t complaining. He knows how rewarding even that one script can become.