Boy-next-door or Dream Girl? Ayushmann Khurrana, please make up your mind. The “respect”-seeking Vicky, pulpy writer Chirag Dubey, can-he-see-or-can-he-not pianist Akash or the Europe-returned officer Ayan forced into a punishment posting in the caste-ridden outback. Walking through Khurrana’s excellent and eclectic filmography (only a dozen odd titles after he got off to a promising start with the star-making Vicky Donor in 2012), the first thing that strikes anyone is the question, ‘How does he find different ways and means to surprise you every time?’ Save for Rajkummar Rao, he is the most exciting young actor on the bloc today and pretty much like Rao, it’s hard to pin him down and predict exactly what he’s going to do next. Don’t even attempt a guessing game because the former Roadies will upend any expectations you might have. Since 2012, when he made his debut as a sperm donor in Shoojit Sircar’s endearing Vicky Donor, Khurrana has worked diligently and intuitively to emerge as the doyen of slice-of-life sleeper hits. The Andhadhun star clearly has a gift for reading the audience’s mind as well as an innate ability to know what’s right for his own burgeoning stardom. Indeed, few stars have shown a knack for making consistently unconventional and successful choices than him. There was Abhay Deol once upon a time, but the ‘Different Deol’ has since fallen out of favour.
Everyone’s favourite everyman, Khurrana has proved that he’s not just a critical darling but a box-office magnet as well. Except the occasional misfires (Bewakoofiyaan, Nautanki Saala!, Hawaizaada and Meri Pyaari Bindu), most of his fares have scored big commercially and found considerable critical acclaim. Even the films that didn’t work had at least interesting premises, in tune with his reputation as “Bollywood’s boundary breaker,” as critic Anupama Chopra put it. For instance, 2014’s Hawaizaada was a bio-pic of a 19th century Mumbai scientist who built a flying machine whereas the bland Nautanki Saala! was inspired by a French comedy of errors. On paper at least, these films must have sounded foolproof but the end result was ham-handed and left audiences wanting more.
But when things fall into place for Ayushmann Khurrana, they fall beautifully. Be it the recent Article 15, Andhadhun, Bareilly Ki Barfi or Dum Laga Ke Haisha, the ‘Dream Girl’ is lately having what can only be described as a “dream run.” The 34-year-old leads the way in style in each of the above titles, even though many of those films required him to project vulnerability and flaws that make him look more ‘human’ than ‘heroic.’ Could it have to do with the fact that only a few years ago, Ayushmann Khurrana, was a nobody with just “bushy eyebrows” (to use his Instagram description), a man with no plan and downright outsider with no connection to Bollywood unless you count his initial media job? From being a radio host to now having his own songs play on demand, Khurrana’s journey reflects that dreams do come true, only if you choose your scripts right. That brings us to a question that everyone, we are sure, is curious about. How does he choose his scripts? What factors guide his decision? In Andhadhun, he was a blind pianist while in the hard-hitting Article 15, an upright officer going after a rape case. “For me novelty matters; uniqueness matters. It has to be different,” he told The Hindu Businessline, adding, “I come later; the script comes first.” He also insisted on “a good marriage between content and entertainment.” Talking about his famed ‘leap of faith’, he wrote on one Instagram post, “My decision (to choose a script) is based on what kind of value is being conveyed through the film, what is its impact on the audience.”
Going by Khuranna’s (he’s also a singer and writes poetry, which he posts often on Social Media) new Friday release Dream Girl, one can safely say that it’s a role – in which it seems he disguises himself as a woman – tailor-made for his status as a master of offbeat cinema. As audiences await Dream Girl and hopefully, the amazeballs it may contain, here’s a trip through Khuranna’s oddball filmography to find his best-five so far.
Hearing Dalits being repeatedly referred to as ‘these people’ (ironically, by one of their own), at one point officer Ayan Ranjan loses his cool. “Who are ‘these people?’ Are they from Jupiter?” And with that, he orders his subordinate Jatav (Kumud Mishra) to “get the fuck out of here.” Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15 is an impassioned and gut-wrenching tale set in India’s heartland starring Khurrana as a Brahmin officer on a new posting investigating the rape and murder of two Dalit girls even as the third one, who is missing, may have the clues he’s hankering for. This is Sinha’s second film after Mulk that looks unflinchingly at the ills of Indian society. In an interview with Film Companion, Khurrana called Article 15 a “social responsibility”, adding, “You don’t think about commercial gains when you do a film like this.”
Despite all the recent success, Khurrana felt an out-and-out ‘thriller’ was missing in his well-balanced filmography. So, he pursued noir specialist Sriram Raghavan. An audition was duly conducted. The unheralded Andhadhun released to great word-of-mouth and the rest is history. Today, Andhadhun is not merely Raghavan and Tabu’s biggest blockbuster to date, it might also be Khurrana’s best. In it, Khurrana plays a straight-faced piano player – the only hitch being he’s blind and has just witnessed a murder. But how to report it? Who will believe him? With its impressive performances, macabre humour and a Hitchcock-y twist in the end, Andhadhun is a wacky whodunit – your ultimate blind date with golden boy Ayushmann Khurrana.
In Vicky Donor, our man donates sperm for a living. His mother who runs Dolly Beauty Parlour says to a client in response to a compliment on her lipstick, “As we age, we have to lose our good looks.” Six years later, Khurrana’s mother becomes pregnant in Badhaai Ho. Only Ayushmann Khurrana could have thought of bookending these cheeky concepts. Khurrana plays Nakul, a regular middle-class Delhi guy, who at first bristles with embarrassment, humiliation and anger at his mother’s (Neena Gupta) pregnancy in advanced middle age. But soon, he has an epiphany (thanks to the more sensible Sanya Malhotra), prompting him to accept the situation and even develop a sense of humour around it. Director Amit Sharma’s masterstroke is to locate in this most mundane example of masculinity and manhood – which is to say, fatherhood – exactly the kind of reinvention the average sucker dad (Gajraj Rao) needed. By being a father, the dad has now gained a new-found respect from Nakul and his younger brother. “Maari thi miss call hi, lekin ho gayi answer ji,” goes the lyrics of the title song, echoing the soon-to-be-father’s dilemma. There is a stand-out scene where his friends taunt Nakul about the ‘little guest’s arrival. Nakul silences them saying, rather proudly, “Tere liye toh mera baap hi kaafi hai.” This is a celebration of a father as a ‘hero’ in the eyes of his children.
Dum Laga Ke Haisha
Love comes in all sizes, declares the film’s tagline. Set in the 90s, Sharat Katariya’s charming comedy is about an India of global ambitions versus old traditions, RSS-style shakhas versus English education and a time when Kumar Sanu ruled the roost and Juhi Chawla was the woman of every man’s dreams. At 85 kg, Sandhya (debut-making Bhumi Pednekar) is not exactly Juhi Chawla. “You’re no Greek god,” Prem’s (Khurrana) father taunts him. Later, Sandhya, feeling the full weight of the family’s affronts and insults, rebuffs them saying Prem is no “Vinod Khanna.” This is clearly not a match made in movie heaven, and yet, Prem and Sandhya get married and what follows is a wacky account of this unmade-for-each-other couple navigating their married life even as Prem’s expectations go further and further south. Our hero feels humiliated by the fact that the new bride isn’t pretty and a “fat cow,” to boot. Friends rub it on his face and one evening, a drunk Prem insults Sandhya in public. This is the final straw. Khurrana and Pednekar are fun to watch together (a montage of 90s hit songs is used brilliantly amidst their bickering), ably supported by the assorted cast, the likes of Sanjay Mishra and Seema Pahwa who are a common sight in the ‘Hindies.’ While marrying “content and entertainment” keeping in with Khurrana’s credo, Dum Laga Ke Haisha also manages to celebrate nostalgia and everyday humour along with sneaking in some good-natured fun at the expense of RSS.
“What do you think about sex?” fertility specialist Chaddha (Annu Kapoor, with his Punjabi prattle turns in a sprightly and over-the-top comic act) asks the unemployed Vicky (Khurrana) who lives off his mother in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar. Vicky is being secretly followed by Chaddha who’s on the lookout for “quality sperm” for his clients and finally, finds his elusive Alexander, the specimen of “pure Aryan race.” If you haven’t already guessed, the prized catch is Vicky whose great-grandfather had 19 children. To Chaddha’s question about sex, Vicky replies cheekily, “Jitna mile kum hai.” The plot moves along as Vicky falls in love with Ashima (Yami Gautam). Both families are initially resentful of the marriage. Vicky’s Punjabi brood calls the Bengalis “fish-eating, money cap wearers,” while Ashima’s father, a stereotypical well-read Bengali, mocks her for marrying a community that worships money and does “monkey dance.” The balle balle would have ended well for the newly-married except that everyone finds out Vicky’s secret profession. Amidst the roaring entertainment and music (Khurrana sings the award-winning “Paani da rang”), don’t miss the haunting irony the makers might be eager to drive home: a sperm donor who cannot impregnate his own wife.