By Poulomi Das May. 15, 2017
Will Ayushmann Khurana forever be consigned to the category of the good-hearted but loserly boy-next-door? Or will Bollywood ever risk throwing him a proper challenge?
Ayushmann Khurana is never going to be a star. He’ll never be the one having a breakdown on screen as AR Rahman’s vocals give voice to his anguish. No heroine is going to run after him as he walks into the heat of the desert, her dupatta on fire. He is not about to become a pin-up icon, and is unlikely to be offered a song sequence shot in Iceland.
And that’s a pity, really, because he’s forever going to be consigned to the category of the slightly loser-ly boy-next-door. It’s a category he knows inside out and can likely play by phoning in his performance. And even that will be really good.
In a sequence in Meri Pyaari Bindu, a college football match is underway. Khurana, who plays the goal-keeper Abhimanyu Roy, is involved in two hapless games at the same time. He’s desperately failing at stopping the rival team from scoring and in arresting Bindu’s (Parineeti Chopra) attentions from wavering to the dishy footballer of the rival team. In the minutes that follow, Khurana’s face registers a series of quick changes: anxiety, urgency, and finally, as his team loses the match, dejection. All of these are brief, but add up to the volume of his heart-breaking disappointment.
It is not hard for you to believe that he is the Bong boy who wears his heart on his sleeve and whose life revolves around Bindu. Just the way it wasn’t hard for you to believe that he was the good-hearted average UP-wallah who could sulk endlessly at being married to an overweight girl and being stuck in a hick town. Just the way he was the – good-hearted – Dilli lafanga with a shady source of income.
Even though Khurana has only played the lead in all his films, he fits the description of a “27-percenter”, a term coined by an Empire magazine article. It is applied to actors like Nathan Fillion or Chiwetel Ejiofor or Oliver Platt – you know the guys whose names you can’t remember but whose faces you’ll immediately recall? These guys transcend genres and deliver performances that make a film 27 per cent better by their mere presence. Khurana will never be Brad Pitt, but he will become a John Cusack.
Khurana charted an unusual victory for a mostly selfish and unfeeling character by making him immensely likeable.
In fact, Khurrana’s electric screen presence and effortless, believable acting guarantees that you’re with him throughout the 120-minute runtime of the otherwise frustrating and uneven Meri Pyaari Bindu. The movie, his third outing with Yashraj Films, shifts between the past and the present, calling upon him to essay two distinct versions of the same character. In one, he’s the young, optimistic Abhimanyu who dreams of settling down with Bindu and his two children with a smile plastered on his face; in the other, he is the brooding jilted writer.
He’s oddly perfect as the urban bhadrolok navigating life and Bindu’s tricky mind. Just as he is the rock in Bindu’s life, Khurana lends stability to the film as well: Whether he is articulating the pains of living with a daak naam as embarrassing as Bubla or enunciating a Bengali line like “Tor aar amar jiboner soundtrack” in a familiar way. In his hands, Abhimanyu becomes so flawed and real that he is no longer a character in a film, but someone you might’ve been friends with.
You could certainly have been friends with Dum Laga Ke Haisha’s Prem Prakash Tiwari, a young, resentful Haridwar shopkeeper. Khurana charted an unusual victory for a mostly selfish and unfeeling character by making him immensely likeable. When he complains to his friend about how his life is ruined, especially after “shaadi ka tilak laga diya papa ne”, you find yourself sympathising with him, even though you’re aware that you’re not supposed to. The undertone of innocence and vulnerability that Khurana brought to Prem, despite his inconsiderate behaviour, held up a mirror to thousands of men in small-town India. Shah Rukh Khan tried it in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, with patchy success – always hindered by his own stardom.
In a way, Khurana is repeating the role that made him famous. Vicky Donor released in 2012, the year that Karan Johar launched Alia Bhatt, Varun Dhawan, and Siddharth Malhotra in Student of The Year and Arjun Kapoor made his debut with Ishaqzaade. As Vicky Arora, the Delhi boy who agrees to become a sperm donor in exchange for quick money, Khurana reflected a middle-class Punjabi entrepreneurial aspiration that was simultaneously novel and believable.
It’s this crazy ability of making every character he plays seem like it was tailor-made for him that makes Ayushmann really stand out. But what will he do next? Will he remain Hindi cinema’s middle-class middle-brow boy, forever the 27-percenter? Your move, Bollywood.
When not obsessing over TV shows, planning unaffordable vacations, or stuffing her face with french fries, Poulomi likes believing that some day her sense of humour will be darker than her under-eye circles.