Sample this scene: a grungy “beauty parlour” in a middle-class Delhi colony (always to be pronounced “clony”), where ladies come to get their hair slathered with mehndi, while getting a “mani-pedi”, with a young fellow diligently at work on either end. We see Ayushmann Khurrana scrubbing away at a pair of feet, chatting easily. And we rub our eyes: is that really a Bollywood “hero”?
Yes, he is. The 2012 Vicky Donor, directed by Delhi-boy-forever Shoojit Sircar, and written by Juhi Chaturvedi, was a game-changer. The leading man, played by newcomer Khurrana, who entered the film industry via theatre and TV game shows, is an amiable jobless layabout mooching off his mother and grandma.
What differentiated Vicky from the previous avatars of big-ticket Bollywood moochers who did the same things — passing time, chabaoing chana, and maraoing aankh at the girls, shying away from annoying jobs-and-settling-down responsibilities — is that he gets his hands dirty. Good and proper. As a reluctant sperm donor, he nails that air of slightly shame-faced bravado — secretly-pleased-to-be-so-virile combined with an ashamed-to-be-earning-from-such-an-activity, typical of so many Punjabi puttars.
That scrubbing of feet was as real as it can get, and at the end of the suds, there emerged, ta da, the New New Age Bollywood Hero, whose heroism was as flawed, as life-like, as natural as can be.
Likeable. Motormouth. Braggart. Several Bollywood leading men (from Dev Anand to Dilip Kumar to Amitabh Bachchan to Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan) have been all these things, but they have also been careful to balance these characteristics with a shiny outline of what a “hero” ought to look like: to be able to sing, dance and fight, and deliver dialogues full of bombast. The “naturalism” of these leading men has been, most often, an underlined, calling-attention-to-itself thing — look, Ma, I’m being “real”.
Khurrana has staked out the actor who can be petulant, grumpy, mealy-mouthed, and in no hurry to get to a place where he will be liked. That he will be, is a given, because Bollywood is still not comfortable with creating fully grey, full complex leading men. But while he is at it, look at how Khurrana inhabits the school dropout Prem (Dum Laga Ke Haisha, 2015) who has no significant talents but sees nothing wrong in complaining that his bride is overweight.
At no point does Khurrana make his Prem a caricature. Nor does he demand sympathy. He mouths the demeaning words “moti bhains” without realising that he is the one one with a thick brain. That’s who he is, an entitled thoughtless boor. That he is willing to be changed by the love of a good staunch woman is both the triumph of this “leading man”, his leading lady Bhumi Pednekar, and writer-director Sharat Katariya.
There are other equally worthy contenders to the let’s-get-real throne. Rajkummar Rao’s ability to immerse himself in not just his roles, but in his environment is one of the biggest pleasures of Bollywood currently. Vicky Kaushal has shown that he can be as versatile as his roles — from a Banarasi “lower-caste” youngster (Masaan, 2015) to a Pakistani soldier-cum-lover (Raazi) to a Gujju pal to a sliding star (Sanju). Varun Dhawan as the aimless, feckless fellow who gains a purpose in life via a dying girl (October) is a huge leap of faith for the young star. The best moments of the recent Ranveer-Ranbir extravaganzas, because these two are the only ones now (with the occasional addition of Dhawan) who are still top-lining old-style Bollywood sagas, come when they drop the stylised mannerisms and do something we can believe in.
The push towards getting real has been gaining ground; the pushback from viewers not wholly ready for change makes it a tricky terrain for filmmakers. Still, there is no doubt that change is upon us. Which is why Khurrana gets to split the scene with Rao in Bareilly Ki Barfi (2017), in which the former has the tougher task of making himself visible; for once, Rao has the more showy role. It’s hard to compete with a guy in a sari store who wears it with a flourish in order to sell it to a tough customer; in an older time, Khurrana could have demanded a more traditionally “heroic” part, and the best lines. He doesn’t, and that makes him stand out.
Khurrana’s ability to be delightfully ordinary, despite his dimples, has been a huge enabler for filmmakers looking to mine the messiness and awkwardness of life. And for the actor, who is now a bonafide star, to steadily keep going where no Bollywood hero has dared to: from the cocky Vicky with his non-stop supply of sperm, to the limp Mudit who has trouble stiffening up in Shubh Mangal Saavdhan (2017), to the horrified-by-his-middle-aged-mum’s-pregnancy Nakul who goes interruptus in between coitus in Badhaai Ho.
In Sriram Raghavan’s Andhadhun, in which he plays a blind pianist, Khurrana treads a delicate line: is he good or bad? Can he see or not?
A leading man embracing ambiguity? I like.