Monday, March 16, 2015

“I do films for my soul, not for money”

By Ankita R. Kanabar

(This interview has been published in the March 14, 2015 issue of Super Cinema)

He made a seamless transition from the small-screen to the 70mm at a time when it was believed that people from television aren’t accepted well in films. But his debut film (which might have seemed like a risk at the script level) was a game-changer. Now this is a clear indicator that he likes to break stereotypes. He was filled with anxiety and positivity when we chatted prior to the release of his maiden venture. Cut to present. It’s almost been three years to that, and today, the man is a lot more confident, despite a journey weaved with highs and lows. But, some things don’t change, do they? Like the fact that he continues to be witty, funny and charming. It’s almost a déjà vu moment for him, with his latest film ‘Dum Laga Ke Haisha’ receiving the kind of adulation that ‘Vicky Donor’ did; his happiness is evident as he flashes those dimples. As we settle down to talk, in the conference room at the second floor of Yash Raj Films, he gets a bulawa from the fourth floor. Now you know what that means right? One can’t ignore that. So, he is back in a jiffy after meeting Aditya Chopra and we get started. In a candid chat about his recent hit, how he’s evolved and the book he’s written with his wife, here’s Ayushmann Khurrana being as real as always!

You’d told me earlier that in the initial stage of your career you’d prefer doing roles that are relatable, and that’s what reflected in your choices. But was it a conscious decision to make a shift with films like ‘Hawaizaada’ and of course, ‘Dum Laga Ke Haisha’?
‘Dum Laga Ke…’ gave me the same feeling I had during ‘Vicky Donor’ and I immediately said yes to it. I read the script in totality and I thought that it had a great connect. The feeling of nostalgia was awesome and apart from that, it was high time I did something different and got out of my comfort zone. I had to be someone else, not the urban guy Ayushmann. But having said that, I think in every character you find something relatable. In this one what was relatable was the Kumar Sanu factor, because I’ve been a huge fan of his. Also, the ‘papaji ki chappal’ part – my dad was very strict when I was a kid and I’m so disciplined because of him. And the way Prem was petrified of ‘angrezi ka prashna patra’, I felt the same about ‘Maths ka prashna patra’. I was really bad with numbers so I could totally relate to the examination hall scene. Those were the only relatable aspects of Prem Prakash Tiwari. But I played a simpleton and an uneducated guy for the first time. The language was completely different. I’m born and bought up in Chandigarh so nobody expected me to speak in a complete UP dialect. But that was the whole point – I had to get out of my comfort zone.

Getting that dialect right, post the Marathi accent in ‘Hawaizaada’ must have been more difficult because you were shooting both the films simultaneously…
Yes, but there’s this guy called Mahesh Sharma who plays my friend in ‘Dum Laga Ke…’ helped me. He speaks that way naturally, so he was sent to the ‘Hawaaizaada’ set in Gujarat and he was staying with me for a month’s time, reading the script with me every day so I got the dialect from him. You know when you’re in the United States for two months, you get that American accent, so similarly, when I was in Haridwar I got the accent of the local people there. Even the cast – be it Sanjay Mishra, Alka Amin, Sheeba Chadda, these people speak in such good Hindi that it was infectious and I got the hang of it.

There was an undertone of humour even in the serious scenes. One moment the audience would emphathise with your character and another moment laugh. How did you get the balance of emotions right?
I think we never tried to emote comedy. We took everything very seriously. Yes, there was an undertone of humour in the script, and as actors, we just had to be earnest with our performance, that’s it. For instance, I cannot be funny in the scene where my character is committing suicide but the scene is still funny. We treated every scene seriously. I think humour just comes out of situations. When I read the script for the first time, I understood that the humour is very unusual. You hardly find these pieces in contemporary Indian cinema. Even coming out of the bathroom again and again in the cassette changing scene, I was doing everything seriously. Nobody attempted humour in the film, that’s why it was so real.

The film also reminded one of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s brand of cinema and humour. Did you also feel that when you read the script, because like you said, we don’t see such films these days?
This one certainly belongs to Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s school of films, and I think it’s very unusual for YRF to produce a film like that. It is not a typical chiffon-saree kind of glossy film. It’s as real as it can get. Nobody expected this kind of a film from YRF. It’s a small budget film with a big heart. It’s content-driven and I’m glad that Adi sir (Aditya Chopra) is patronising this kind of cinema. It’ll only help Indian cinema evolve more.

In the sense of pushing the envelope as an actor, has this one been the most challenging by far?
Yes, because it was challenging both physically and mentally! Mentally it was draining, because the lines of the character were very straight, and I could only make it interesting by doing something different with my accent my body language. The lines were very bland because this character had no talent. And it was physically draining also because I was 65 kilos that time while Bhumi was 85 kilos and it took five days to shoot that part. I had to lift her up, say my dialogues and also emote at the same time, so it wasn’t easy. I trained for two months with my trainer who was also 85 kilos, just so that I could get used to it. I think, getting habitual to something also helps. My trainer gave me the example of a coolie. Coolies are very lean, lanky but they can pick up heavy weights, because they’re habitual and there’s a certain way they do it. Because I was training for two months, during the shoot I sailed through. There was a body double also, by the way. The funny thing was, he could not do it. For the back shot and top shot, they thought they could have a body double, but since he couldn’t do it, I had to do it all.

While you're garnering all the appreciation for ‘Dum Laga Ke…’, does it affect you when efforts go unnoticed otherwise, sometimes with a film not doing well commercially?
It’s the notion in the industry that you’re as good as the film. So, the efforts may get unnoticed but overall, as a performer, your craft always gets better in every film and that’s the best thing. You take something from every film. I’ve put in a lot of effort in each film, and that’s why people have suddenly discovered me in ‘Dum Laga…’ after ‘Vicky Donor’ and are saying I’m so good. That’s may be because I’ve also done three more films, put in efforts in those and became more confident in front of the camera. So, you learn something from every film, and that’s what counts.

Apart from being more confident in front of the camera, how else have you evolved?
Earlier I used to feel that it’s easier to perform when you have real-life references and when I have something to relate to, but now I think I’m comfortable doing stuff which is beyond me. Now I can try different stuff and get into characters which aren’t close to me as a person.

The fate of your previous films doesn’t seem to have deterred your choices which are quite unusual…
I’m pretty brave with decisions. I won’t think twice before experimenting, whether or not, the experiments do well. I just met Adi sir and he told me, ‘I’m so proud that you gave me the confidence in the script of ‘Dum Laga Ke Haisha’.’ When I was getting all the debut awards for ‘Vicky Donor’ is when they offered me this script and they were sure that I’ll say no to it because it wasn’t a typical good-looking hero film. It was very character-driven, unconventional. Adi sir thought that after giving a hit like ‘Vicky Donor’, I’d want to do a larger-than-life film. I told him I was waiting for this kind of script. After ‘Vicky Donor’ I could not get a film which was clutter-breaking and this was that script. I read it in two hours and said yes. He was very confident about the film but was surprised to know I liked the script.

To think of it, you’ve actually never played the larger-than-life, quintessential Hindi cinema hero…
It’s not like I don’t want to do it. But I think the audience has matured a lot and they need to see good content. I’ve said this earlier as well, that either you are super-star, or you have a super script. There’s no in-between. If you are a superstar, people will go watch the film, even if it’s not a good script. Otherwise, you need to have a script which is different and will elevate you to a certain level. The script has to propel you in a certain way. And that’s happened with ‘Vicky Donor’ and this one. It’s not like I don’t want to play the larger-than-life guy. But I’m more in the real zone of cinema.

You also seem to believe in being real, otherwise. 
If you’re playing a part on-screen, you don’t have to act off-screen. If you’re acting both on and off-screen you’ll eventually go through a mental turmoil. So, rather be real. I don’t take the frills of this industry very seriously, because I’ve also seen it from the other side, by things like taking interviews and being a journalist. I just live in the present. For instance, right now, I’m just concentrating on this interview (smiles).

Is it because you don’t take the frills of the industry too seriously that you’ve remained positive and there’s never been a moment of self-doubt even during a low phase?
I have always believed in my craft because I’ve been doing this since childhood. I think the only time the belief got slightly haywire was with my choices. I wasn’t sure if they were the right but now I’m glad I’ve made these choices and learnt from them. I’ve learnt so much at an early phase in my career. Every actor gives flops. Sooner or later it will happen. It’s good that it happened early in my life, because I’m at least learning from it. I have said this earlier too that success is a lousy teacher, it’s your failure that teaches you a lot. So, I think it is okay to fail and the best part is that public memory is fickle. Two days later after ‘Hawaizaada’ released, the trailer of ‘Dum Laga Ke…’ was out and everyone started talking about that. It’s difficult to believe that ‘Hawaizaada’ happened only recently because people have now forgotten about it. A lot of people believed that it was a bad choice and said things like what have I done to my career, but now they’re talking about ‘Dum Laga Ke..’ so yes, public memory is very fickle, the perception changes every Friday, I’m glad this Friday is mine. You’re as good as your last film. That’s how it works in this industry. As far as being positive is concerned, I don’t do films for money. My bread and butter comes from events, ever since my college days. I do films for my own soul, it may work or not work, but if I’m happy with my life, I am financially secure, then I have no reason to not be positive.

Talking about doing things for the soul…what inspired you to write a book?
I’ve written my songs and I maintain a blog so that was always one wish list. I know it’s quite early to write a book, because I’ve just started my career, but the book isn’t about my career in Bollywood. It’s about my struggle to Bollywood, and how I somehow managed to break that door. After a lot of time, a television person was able to make a transition into films and after that, every year, there are a lot of actors making that transition. Apart from that, the book gives you the change in the trend of struggles of aspiring actors. For example, in the yesteryears, aspiring actors weren’t allowed inside a studio, studios were like fortresses. Now it’s very democratic. If you have the talent, you audition and you’re there. It’s easy to be an actor, director or producer now, especially for outsiders. Earlier there was nepotism, only the film fraternity was operating here. Now it has become so easy but the supply is also so much. So, this book is an ode to the strugglers of Aram Nagar and people who’ve packed their bags and come to Mumbai, and also people who are packing their bags and going back. It’s got a lot of incidents and stories from my real life.

Does writing come naturally to you?
It doesn’t come naturally. I cannot be employed as a writer, or I can’t be a full-time writer. I write when I feel like writing. Same thing is with music. If someone gives me a deadline to write something in a week, or compose a song in a week, I may not be able to do it. I can do it only when it comes naturally to me. But I can act at will, if someone gives me a scene; that I can do. With writing or composing music, you need to be in that frame of mind. I broke a lot of deadlines by Rupa Publications for this particular book. I got delayed by six months.

Though, it must have been of help that your wife was the co-writer on the book, also because she knows you that well.
Yes, of course! Though in general cases, the wife doesn’t know the husband well (laughs loudly), but yes, in my case, she does. She is a writer, and can write anytime. So, thank God for that! She’s written the majority of it.

A book, a hit film…now what next?
There’s no plan. It’s a clean slate, and I don’t wish to make any decision right now. To not have a plan I think is a good place to be. That’s what Adi sir and Shoojit Sircar have told me, to chill in life, paint, go farming, spend time with family, read scripts and only say yes to a film when I get a strong intuition to do it. I have to be more about the scripts I choose now, is the advice I’ve got from the fourth floor (laughs). 

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