Story To Stardom | 19 September, 2019

By Surendra Bhatia

There was Rajendra Kumar who reeled off silver jubilees like a halwai whirling out jalebis; then Rajesh Khanna, whose name in the credits list was enough to guarantee a hit, for a number of years; Amitabh Bachchan who became a one-man industry and held on to the glory for over a decade; the three Khans – Aamir, Shah Rukh, Salman – have also seen golden phases when things went their way at the box-office at a stretch, sometimes for no reason but for their presence in a film; and now, there’s Ayushmann Khurrana… Who? Yes, Ayushmann Khurrana. In ways that are measured at the box-office, should Ayushmann be considered a huge star, well in contention of a place on the pedestal on which superstars perch?

There are many differences between Ayushmann and the above certified superstars. He’s still a long way off but his antics in films — so odd and bold and uninhibited — do demand a bit of exaggeration.

Let’s face it. Ayushmann is not like the stars mentioned above. He doesn’t keep his fan following on the edge in anticipation of a blockbuster; when his film releases, the crowds at cinema halls on opening day do not resemble the waiting line for tickets at a cricket stadium; his fans don’t write him letters in blood; they don’t rush to barbers for a look-alike hairstyle; the budget of his film is sometimes less than the money spent on promotions of a Salman Khan film, and Ayushmann would still have a hard time explaining to security at an Australian airport that he is a Bollywood star.

But there’s one thing he is doing very right: he’s delivering hits!

Just check out Ayushmann’s recent releases. Bareilly Ki Barfi, Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, Andhadhun, Badhaai Ho, Article 15 and Dream Girl… all hits, of course, but is any of them the kind audiences were waiting for with bated breath before they actually released? Were these the films for which audiences had booked tickets in advance to see like they must have for, say, Tubelight or Thugs Of Hindostan?

It is possible that from now on, an Ayushmann Khurrana film will excite audiences, and more tickets will be booked in advance than has been the case but it is also a certainty that the crowds would be more niche than mass, unlike for a Salman release. For all his success, Ayushmann is not a superstar — yet. It is not he but his films that have been doing the talking, even though the process has begun where he is being looked up to, to a certain extent, but only for a certain genre of films. This is, perhaps, the strength of Ayushmann’s stardom, but also his weakness: audiences have started expecting from him a certain kind of film, which they reward, which makes him a bankable star; but by the same token, would they accept from him a full-on formulaic entertainer that purports to be a blockbuster?

It is an area that he hasn’t ventured into as yet. Ayushmann has, in his twisted logic, played safe till now, however unsafe it has seemed to the entire industry, audiences and his well-wishers. Perhaps, there is some kind of method behind the mad strategy he has adopted in his film career. He began his Hindi film career in the role of a sperm donor. Now, that is the kind of an unusual role that a young Naseeruddin Shah or Om Puri, three decades back, might have opted for — a role that no mainstream lead actor would touch and so would end up with the brigade of alternative cinema. But here is a guy seeking a career as a Hindi film hero, debuting as a sperm donor and, astonishingly, the film turns into a hit! And this set the pattern for Ayushmann’s film choices for the next few years — unusual roles, unusual stories. It has been almost like a fetish — pick up roles that most heroes wouldn’t touch. Like Article 15, which deals seriously with the topic of caste equations — something that went out of fashion in Bollywood in the late 1950s; and Andhadhun, in which he plays a blind man who is not blind (or is he?) and at the end of which audiences leave cinema halls uncertain whether Ayushmann is a positive hero or an extremely cunning negative character; and Dum Laga Ke Haisha, in which he played the ashamed husband of a fat woman. What roles are these, really? Yet, unerringly, all these roles were lapped up by audiences, and the films became hits. Of course, Ayushmann performed them superbly but that, by now, is a given.

In one of his early interviews, Ayushmann has been quoted saying: “I’ve realised something: Either you have to be a superstar, or your script has to be one. So till the time I’m not a superstar, my scripts should do that job.” This type of thinking, probably, fuels Ayushmann’s choices and explains why his films are always strong on story. Coffee table book of analysis would venture that Ayushmann is doing the Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri act of three decades in settings of not Shyam Benegal but Basu Chatterjee – making films more wholesome and his roles more amenable and acceptable. Or whatever he is doing, it’s working superbly. With the story as the centrepiece, Ayushmann has been able to get away with it all.

A great help is also that his films are made with more easily recoverable budgets. Ayushmann’s films are not allowed to cost more than Rs. 30-35 crore, and with his growing popularity and reputation, sale of satellite and other ancillary rights makes the cinema release a cakewalk out of the red. So, with tight budgets, it is not easy for Ayushmann’s films to flop; however, more importantly, it is the fact that his films are generally appreciated by audiences, which is the true test. Ayushmann has managed to get the audience on his side. But what happens when he ventures into an entertaining potboiler, budgeted at over Rs. 150 crore and aimed at sweeping audiences off their feet — like the Dabangg or Kick series of Salman Khan, where the superstar is a bigger hero than the story? Will Ayushmann be able to pull it off? Or will it meet the fate of a Naseeruddin trying to break into mainstream commercial Bollywood? That will be the true test of the stardom of Ayushmann Khurrana. The journey from niche to mass is not an easy one, the journey from Rs. 30 crore to Rs. 150 crore is daunting, but that is exactly what Ayushmann will have to undertake, at some time or the other, probably no sooner than he thinks, audiences are ready for it. Till then, wait and watch.