Dinesh Raheja Column! Ayushmann Khurrana: The unlikely star

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The result of the ‘Namaste England’ Vs ‘Badhai Ho’ box-office bout underlines the unpredictability of the film industry. ‘Namaste England’ was ostensibly the bigger movie, armed with a well-known director, Vipul Shah, and starring two marquee names (Arjun Kapoor and Parineeti Chopra) who had been part of 100-crore hits … but the Ayushman Khurrana comedy ‘Badhai Ho’ quietly delivered a knockout! Talk about an iron fist packed inside a velvet glove! The first weekend collections of Namaste England were reportedly less than Rs 10 crores while director Amit Sharma put the Tevar disappointment behind him and saw his ‘Badhai Ho’ race ahead with a thumping Rs 45 crores! With limited competition to provide a speedbump, there’s a chance that ‘Badhai Ho’ will be Ayushmann’s first film to cross the century mark!For Ayushmann, this rousing affirmation to his talent and audience acceptance comes quick on the heels of his performance as the visually challenged piano player in the Sriram Raghavan-helmed neo-noir Andhadhun, which had released just two weeks earlier on October 5 to encouraging collections at the turnstiles and lavish critical accolades.
The month of October and the 34th year of his life (the actor celebrated his birthday on September 14) have definitely brought glad tidings for Ayushmann who has for long been considered on the fringes of the Bollywood elite. But twin successes in the same month are rare enough in the Hindi film industry for it to practically guarantee Ayushmann’s hard-won passport to the inner circle.

A filmmaker friend echoes exult, “Today, I have the option to cast saleable names like Rajkummar Rao, Vicky Kaushal or Ayushmann Khurrana as the young male lead in an innovatively themed film that doesn’t cost the earth.”
What has primarily fuelled Ayushmann’s rise is his ability to lose himself in his role and the willingness to choose the unconventional characters that populate many contemporary films. And there’s his ability to project the quirky boy-next-door authentically. He is as effective playing a razor-sharp game of wits in Andhadhun as he is as a seemingly modern man flummoxed by his mother’s pregnancy in Badhai Ho. It may well be coldly reductive to compare actors and slot them into easy pigeonholes, but I can’t resist thinking of him as a blend of Amol Palekar and Farooq Shaikh who reflected a cinematic shift in the idea of the leading man back in the 1970s. In all probability, directors like Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Chatterjee and Gulzar would have been delighted to work with Ayushmann; I can easily visualise him in hits like ‘Chhoti Chhoti Baatein, ‘Rajnigandha’ or ‘Chashme Buddoor’.

If I scan through this Chandigarh boy’s past, his current stardom seemed unlikely. A total outsider to showbiz, he started with a TV reality show, hit pay dirt as the winner of Roadies 2, did a stint as a DJ on MTV, anchored numerous TV shows, and finally, after 10 years in showbiz, got his cinematic breakthrough with Shoojit Sircar’s ‘Vicky Donor’ (2012). It is one of the few films in the new millennium that genuinely had me in splits; Ayushmann’s comic timing as a sperm donor struck an instant chord with me. But the films that came in the wake of ‘Vicky Donor’ veered on the ordinary and I thought maybe he lacked the X-factor. However, ‘Dum Laga Ke Haisha’ (2015) reaffirmed his popularity. I may have still thought of him as a question mark, but the hawk-eyed Aditya Chopra laid his bets on him and cast him in Yash Raj’s ‘Bewaqoofiyan’, ‘Dum Laga Ke Haisha’ and ‘Meri Pyaari Bindu’. What I like about Ayushmann is that he could have easily taken the easy, conventional path after Vicky Donor, but he has always opted for characters who are humans rather than heroes. It takes an extremely self-assured new-age actor to address erectile dysfunction with a humorous twist like he did in ‘Shubh Mangal Saavdhan’ or play an unemployed boyfriend with a better-paid girlfriend in ‘Bewaqoofiyaan’ (Aside: a rather boring film). Ayushmann has now expressed a desire to be a part of a film on homosexuality too after the Section 377 verdict.

And he can sing too. I liked Ayushmann’s crooning of Paani da so much, I looked up the dictionary to see the meaning of hanju (tears). He is also a writer and a poet who plans to release a book of his poetry, remember how he impressed even Bachchan with his poem on the TV show ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati?’

The multi-talented Ayushmann has a lot going for him today, except perhaps, I suspect, for a tinge of high glamour. And the chance to propel a biggie. Maybe that’s the landmark he will attempt next.

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