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

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - News - by Ni­hit Bhave

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.


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-

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