Rewriting The Formula
How did this smalltown guy, with no filmi background and no movie-star looks, become a hero, lyricist and musician? Ayushmann Khurrana chronicles his journey in a book that’s a cheat sheet for anyone with a dream
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. 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 Ayush--
“In Punjabi households, singing, dancing and acting are said to be
useless. When I told my grandmother that I wanted to act,
she slapped me”
mann 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, wellbuilt 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
In his upcoming film Hawaizaada, Ayushmann plays Shivkar Bapuji Talpade, the man who constructed India’s first unmanned plane 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.]”
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 bag-