Interview Hindi

Need to make sure we follow the Constitution, basic rights: Ayushmann Khurrana

The Badhaai Ho (2018) actor speaks about his next film, Article 15 (2019), playing a cop for the first time, and putting across a strong message in his films.

Sonal Pandya

Since 2017, Ayushmann Khurrana has been on a roll. The versatile actor has wooed his dream girl, charmed us on the piano and welcomed home a new sibling, all in his four films.

For his next feature, Khurrana changes gears. “The idea is to break the rules. Always,” he explained. “The idea is to do a film that hasn’t been attempted in Indian cinema. That’s why the public gets excited.”

The actor spoke with a small group of journalists earlier this month about the Anubhav Sinha film, how he prepared for his role as a police officer, and how the current phase for him is exciting and challenging. Excerpts:

A clichéd question, but do you think you are in the best phase of your career after seven years?

It’s not a clichéd question. I don’t know, I’m just enjoying this phase that I am getting to do different stuff, playing different characters, and also getting to do something which I have never done before. I don’t know if it’s the best phase or not, but it’s a very exciting phase.

Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan is about homosexuality. That, unlike the other ones you are doing, is nothing new. It has been explored in the comic space, the serious space, so what is different about that film?

Because nobody has, in a mainstream space, played a gay character with a social message. It’s not just funny, funny, funny, there is also a message. Till now we have only seen films which have made them a caricature. That’s not there in this film. It’s a different film, it has a very strong message.

How was it like exploring Article 15 because you are in a never-seen avatar and people are so impressed with the trailer? How was the experience?

Yes, it is different for sure. It’s the first time I am playing a cop. It’s the first time I am doing a film which is hard-hitting. I have only done films which are light-hearted. Andhadhun (2018) had a very dark premise, but the film was light-hearted overall.

But this one, it has a social message and it is the need of the hour. As a country, we need to address this issue as soon as possible. It’s been more than 70 years, and we need to finish this issue. And it only happens in our country, nowhere else in the world, that we deal with this issue day in and out.

What was more taxing, the physical transformation or the preparation for the whole part?

The physical transformation is always easy, it’s not tough because I have a good metabolism. I put on muscle very easily and I lose weight very easily. The emotional transformation, of course, was the tougher part, because at a human level you change. Living in a country where you are treated as third-rate citizens is not easy. Where do you go? [When] you feel discrimination outside, you feel discrimination in your own country, then you have to really empathize with that community as such.

While shooting for this film, I realized that 70% of Hindu samaj are Dalits. We always talk about the 30%, but the majority is the minority and minority is the majority, in the real sense of the word. This film is an eye-opener for people who have no idea of the situation in our country.

You are playing a cop in this movie and your fight is against casteism and caste discrimination. What kind of nuances did you add to your character? Did you watch any cop film before for inspiration?

For this particular film, I was not taking reference from any of the ‘Bollywood’ films because it’s a real film. And for that, I met real cops.

I have a friend, Manoj Malviya, he is an IPS [Indian Police Service] officer in Delhi. I have been his friend for the past four years now, so I have seen him operate. I have been to his office also. We used to sit there and see him, how he talks to people and the way he walks, how he salutes, it should be correct.

Most of the films, a police officer is saluting every two minutes. Salute karne ke ilava bhi bahut kaam hota hai unke paas [They have other things to do besides saluting].

We have kept it in the real space. That was my own preparation, I was not getting 'inspired' by filmi cops, I was getting inspired by real cops.

This is the first time you are working with Anubhav Sinha. How was the experience working with him and what was your reaction when you received the script?

I watched Mulk (2018) and became a fan of his. I think it’s one of the most balanced films based on the communal issue. He has discovered a certain voice after Mulk and that’s him, because he has very strong opinions, and, at the same time, he is a great filmmaker. He has seen everything, he has made films that are formulaic, commercial films and he has made Mulk also, so his sensibilities are varied. So he understands the market sensibilities and he understands the complexities of the country also. That’s a good combination to have and I have learnt a lot from him.

The film’s message, let’s be Indians first and last, how important was it for you to address the topic in your films?

I think that’s the basic premise of our Constitution. We don’t follow our Constitution at all. It was formed in 1950, but we still don’t follow it to the T. It’s really sad. India is a very pluralistic society and that’s the biggest strength and weakness at the same time. But we, as responsible citizens, need to make sure we follow the basic rights of equality. That’s about it. It’s as simple as that.

Most of your films are about some cause or another. They are usually not preachy, so far they have not been preachy, but how important is it for you as an actor to believe in that cause?

When I met Anubhav Sinha sir for the first time, he had offered me a rom-com, after Mulk. I wanted to do something which is hard-hitting. I [asked] what are the other options, are you working on some other scripts? So he gave me three-four options, and this one was one of them.

I tried talking to him about the caste situation in our country and I have read a lot of literature on Dalits, on discrimination, and he was really surprised that I know about these things. He was like, I could not find an actor who knew about these things, and who really feels strongly about these issues. He could not imagine that I would be thinking about these things.

I have been doing street theatre since college days, and we have been tackling these issues through it across the nation. So he was like, I am convinced you are with the issue, but he was not convinced that I could play a cop. We had a look test and that was the time I wore the uniform and I felt like a cop. It changes your demeanour, there is a great power or poise in the uniform. At the same time, if you have seen the world, if you have mingled with the cops and everybody and if you have experienced different situations in life, it’s easier for you to get into the character.

In an interview, Anubhav Sinha was quoted as saying that it’s a very special movie and “a very challenging film that needed an extraordinary actor like Ayushmann Khurrana”. Any thoughts on that?

(Smiles) More than anything else, I have always believed that it’s a director’s medium. It’s the script that’s the most important thing. And how you manoeuvre the script and take it to the next level, the onus lies on the director. He is good, that’s why I am good in the film.

Any fond memories from the set you would like to share?

Fond memories of the set? (Laughs.) You must be thinking while shooting a dark film, we will all be very serious. We had a lot of fond memories, we used to play a lot of cricket. This was one of the easiest shoots by the way. You would be really surprised that we used to shoot for not more that seven hours a day. That’s why the film is looking so beautiful.

We only shot in the magic hours, from 6 am to 8:30 am and then in the evening from 4:30 to 7 pm. Throughout the afternoon, we used to play cricket or just sleep. We used to get up in the morning at 3:30–4 am because our location was at least a couple of hours away. Then we used to reach there and then start at 6–6:30 am and 8:30 am, we used to wrap up, [have] breakfast, sleep, [play] cricket and then again shoot.

When a couple of your films did not work and you were going through a bad time, there were some critics who had written that he is stuck to one type of younger lover-boy roles. Now you are the most bankable actor in the industry. How do you feel about it?

I feel gratified, as an actor, as an artiste, that you are feeling appreciated, your choices are getting appreciated. The day I started following my gut, things were right. I used to take a lot opinions earlier and that was also the time when I was trying to learn the dynamics of the industry.

After Vicky Donor (2012), I did not get the script I wanted to work on. It was a unique script, a benchmark of sorts. After that I was not getting those kind of scripts at all. Nobody was writing those kind of scripts. And I was just trying to figure out my own space. It was a great learning curve that time. At the same time, I am glad times are changing, audience is changing, that’s why these scripts, these off-centre films are doing commercial business also. So I think I am glad that I am part of this phase.

Do you think it’s only because of back-to-back hits that suddenly you are in that space where you can do more films like Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015) or Vicky Donor (2012)?

Of course, not just these two films, but I would say the last four films from 2017 and 2018 were really good. Because of that I get courage to do a film like this. I get courage to attempt something which is completely different, without thinking of commercial aspirations. This is that film, I am not saying it will be a Rs200 crore. It has a certain texture, a certain tonality, the main focus is on the message. It’s an important film, as an artist I feel that responsibility. So I’m sure it will do good business. But the more important thing is to put the message across.

Could you sum up the experience of working as Ayan in the film and how it changed you as a person?

To play a cop was never easy because I am a goofball in real life (laughs). It’s very difficult for me to maintain that stance, to be that intense. That’s where the real acting comes into play. Doing slice-of-life films, I can do it any time. I can do that in my sleep. But playing a cop is different, [it’s an] intense role and dealing with a certain issue.

But I realize that when you wear a uniform, you get that poise, and if you feel strongly about that particular issue, then you automatically get into the character. If you are not feeling strongly, then it comes in your eyes. That you don’t believe in this. So you believe in the script, you believe in the character.

Since Article 15 is based on true events, was it mentally taxing for you to get into that space?

I can switch on and off quite easily. I am not the one who takes the character back home. If the camera is on, I am a different person. If the camera is off, I’ll probably joke around. As I said, I am a goofball. It was easy, but again we had lot of reading sessions. We had lot of discussions. I read lot of literature. Anubhav sir gave me lot of books on Dalit literature, the situation in our country and a lot of stuff, so it really helped me to build that character.

Lastly, how was reuniting with Shoojit Sircar and working with Amitabh Bachchan?

It’s great. It’s like a dream cast and a dream team with Juhi [Chaturvedi], Shoojit-da, Bachchan saheb and me. I am really looking forward to that one.