Once while playing, a young Vicky Kaushal sparred with his friends, which ended in him getting beaten up. Upset over it, he narrated the incident to his father — Bollywood action director Shyam Kaushal — asking him to “teach those boys a lesson”. His request was met with a resounding slap. “Dad told me he’s always by my side but I have to learn to fight my battles alone,” recounts the actor.
Vicky was 10 years old at the time, but the lesson stayed with him. It came to his aid when he swapped the promise of a secure job that his engineering degree would fetch for the insecurity attached to an acting career. “Since my father is part of the industry, I was acutely aware of the hard work it takes to make it here. A self-made man from a village in Punjab, he made it clear to me that I’ll have to do it on my own,” says the 27-year-old, who has done minor roles in Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana, Bombay Velvet and Vasan Bala’s short, Geek Out.
His first feature as a lead actor, Masaan, that premiered at Cannes this year, is set to release in India on July 24. Shyam is a proud father, but for Vicky the achievement is that he — a Mumbai boy from a typical Punjabi family — could convincingly portray a character from Banaras. The cultural nuances expected from his character made Vicky spend a lot of time in Banaras. “Neeraj (Ghaywan, director) asked me to become one with the city; limiting my interaction to observing people would only give me a ‘touristy’ perspective,” he says.
Vicky’s first touchpoint was the Manikarnika ghat (the shamshan ghat), as he was to portray a boy from the Dom community, which carries out cremations in Banaras. Even as he was traversing the narrow bylanes to the destination, he could smell the burning flesh accompanied by cries of ‘Ram naam satya’. “I could spend no more than 20 minutes there on my first visit,” he says.
The 70 days he spent in Banaras — including the duration of the shoot – made Vicky understand how deep-rooted the caste system in India is and its hold over a person of a lower caste. He cites a scene where his character, Deepak, performs a cremation at the ghat. “The crew had to execute a guerrilla shoot from a boat because filming is strictly prohibited there. As I finished my scene and quickly boarded the boat, the local production team asked me to first dip my hands in the Ganga to ‘purify’ myself,” says Vicky.
Such experiences helped the actor understand Deepak’s insecurity and vulnerability when he interacts with those outside his world, or when he falls for Shalu, a girl from an upper caste. This, Vicky aptly portrays in scenes from the song Tu kisi rail si guzarti hai, when he hesitates to ask a question during a class in his engineering college.
What aided the performance, says Vicky, is that he has been a shy boy who came out of his shell when he joined an acting workshop, after completing his engineering education. “That apart, I have the tendency to absorb a character I like,” says the actor, who also essays the lead role in Zubaan, adman Mozez Singh’s directorial debut.
Fond of Deepak’s honesty and sincerity towards his love, family and career, Vicky explains, “I’m someone who comes out of a film feeling like a character that I’ve taken to, for the following few days. For instance, I’d attribute my score in the 12th standard to Lakshya. After watching the film, I was so determined to ‘do something’ that I channelled all my energies into studies. And when I watched Lage Raho Munnabhai, I became a very peaceful, content person.”
The medium’s ability of immersive storytelling is what drew him to cinema. Vicky says, “Cinema moves me. I easily laugh or cry during movies. And if my character stays with the audience when it steps out of the theatre, I’ll think I’ve succeeded.”