Ayushman Khurana, who calls himself an old-soul, said he was an extremely laid-back. It was his father who made him ambitious. But what he is today is because of his mother and his wife
What if I tell you that I know that there is a punishment room in your house …
Who told you this! That punishment room was actually adjacent to the drawing-room. It was a small lobby in Sector 2 in Panchkula, where we lived. So, whenever my brother and I did something wrong, like, when we said something inappropriate in front of the guests or we ate something before the guests could eat, we were taken in that room and we would get beaten up. My parents would simply say: “Come, we want to talk to you for two minutes. Come over there.” They would take us in that room with a straight face and we would enter that room with a straight face, as if nothing had happened! We would get beaten up. My father would warn us never to repeat the mistake, but we would be standing in that room again after a few days for the same reason!
The reason I know this is because we have a colleague, Charu Tandon, who is a part of this Slow Interview team. She is your neighbour! She met your parents before she came here. She spent two hours with them.
This is your research!
Which means you are going to expose me here!
So, how was it growing up? You were studying in a boy’s school there …
I studied in a co-ed until I was in the seventh standard. I have changed a lot of schools. I started with an all-girls school because the preparatory over there was co-ed. So, there was this Carmel Convent school in Chandigarh. It still exists. So, until nursery it was co-ed and then it was an all-girls school. Then I went to St Stephens, then Holy Child’s School in Panchkula then after that St Kabir. Then eighth, ninth and tenth I did in an all-boys school. Basically, the age when your hormones start jumping, I spent those years in an all-boys school. It was very painful! In fact, my classmates over there would ask me how was it to study in a co-ed school. I would tell them that I was ruined after joining the all-boys school! I wasn’t liking it there, but St John’s was the best school in Chandigarh. I spent three years in the all-boys school and then in 11th, 12th and graduation, I ended up in an all-boys college! So, all those years when your youth is at its peak, I spent in an all-boys institution. It was like a jail. But I met my girlfriend, who is my wife now, in the 12th standard.
Where did you meet her?
She would come for the Physics tuition. I met her there. We were also family friends.
Chandigarh is a beautiful city. But, it’s somewhere in between a big city and a small city. Probably, girls and boys don’t get to mingle freely. There is a fear of getting spotted. How did you manage then?
Chandigarh is a student city. You have students from Punjab, Haryana, Himachal … everywhere. Those who come from the outside roam around freely. They are not bothered. But if you are born and bought up in Chandigarh, then you can’t do that because everybody knows everybody. So, while meeting your girlfriend, either your best friend is with you or her best friend is around. But even two couples can’t roam around together. It would always happen that the third person would get fed up and ask us to stop using him! I am sure a lot of people can relate to this.
Of course, you do! So, this is how I dated. Someone or the other would always be around.
You were born in Chandigarh. How was your childhood?
It was beautiful. I live in the past. Probably I am an old soul. I am a very nostalgic person. I will always find my childhood memories to be beautiful. I keep my perspective towards life very positive. Of course, others have bullied me, I have also bullied others. But it was a very ordinary childhood, like most of the childhoods are. I have met all sorts of people, which is a nice thing about my childhood. I have played with kids from all sorts of backgrounds — rich, poor. I think this helps you open up. If you are an artist you end up incorporating these experiences in your craft.
Then you were about to become a dentist …
Yes! When I was a child, I had weird teeth and I had two bug teeth! So, I was taken to dentists a lot and they had fixed braces. Then after two years, I had a perfect set of teeth. But I found that whole process to be very interesting. Whenever you go to a dentist, you would notice that it smells in a particular way. When you rinse your mouth and when you are in that room, you feel as if you have arrived in that world. It was then that I thought about becoming a dentist.
How were you as a student?
In school, I was an above-average student. I was a good student in college. After I gave my Karnataka CET, I changed my mind and I decided to pursue Arts.
Did it happen after you landed in the co-ed setup?
No, no. It was also an all-boys setup. Had it been a co-ed, my focus would have diverted! I was wearing these blinders! I told my father that I wanted to pursue Arts and I wanted to be an actor in theatres. I told him I wanted to be an actor. I remember when I was in 11th-12th and was studying Physics-Chemistry-Biology, I would always go to the auditorium to see what those theatre artists were up to. They would conduct these workshops. They were not bothered about what was happening outside. They were very happy-go-lucky. All these things fascinated me. When I told my father that I wanted to be an artist, he asked me how would I make money then? He said I would never get married and spend the rest of my life eating samosas and drinking tea. He felt I will not get any work and he wasn’t very happy with my decision. So, he put forth two conditions — the first was that I had to have full attendance in the college and the second was that I had to top in my college. He said only then he would allow me to do theatres. I was the only one in my theatre group who would attend all the classes and I topped all the three years.
I remember your jingle! I would go out of my way to listen to your radio show. I would reach my home, park my car and wait in the parking to listen to your show. Others would keep calling me to come up, but I would ask them to wait! I was that crazy about your show! Such is your power! Which is why we have used your voiceover in Shubh Mangal Saavdhan and now in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan.
What were the life-changing moments in your life?
There have been many. After pursuing my mass communication in Journalism from Chandigarh, we were doing a play. I was the lead actor. That was also the time when I was thinking of taking a sabbatical for six months, or a year. Two years, maybe. This was in 2006. I thought of doing theatre and then moving to Mumbai to try my luck. I thought I would learn horse riding. I wanted to go fully prepared. Sometimes you don’t know yourself even when you are fully prepared. You are always self-critical as an artist. You always want to improvise. My father actually kicked me out of the house.
Your father kicked you out?
Yes. People usually run away to become actors; I was thrown out so that I could become an actor! My father, who is an astrologer, said it was the right time. I don’t know if it was his astrological mind or his intuition, but he felt it was the right time. He said if I didn’t move then, I would never be able to move out. I didn’t even have a job in Mumbai. They were sending me so that I could struggle. I didn’t even know anyone. I could have fought back. I could have told him that I was not ready. When you are working on a play or a production, you want to finish that and then go. He insisted it was the right time and packed me off. I had nowhere to stay. A friend of mine had one room. I didn’t know his girlfriend was staying with him. There was just one room. There was a kitchen in one corner. This is where I had to stay. They both had had a fight then and I had to sleep in between them on a queen-size bed! I was sleeping in between and they were sleeping next to me. I couldn’t sleep the whole night!
I am imagining this …
The next day I packed my bags and went to another friend who was doing MBBS. I still had friends from my Physics-Chemistry-Biology background. He was pursuing MBBS from KEM Hospital, Lower Parel, and was living in a hostel there. I told him I would be living with him. He said it wasn’t allowed considering I wasn’t even a medical student! For the first time in history, a wannabe actor was about to live in a medical college. Three of us used to live in one room and sleep in our underwear as it used to be very hot. In the morning, we would queue up outside washrooms. We would wash our clothes, put them up for drying, go to the mess. But it was fun!
Were you a pampered child?
My father always ensured we had a balanced life. My mother used to pamper us a lot, but my father was a balanced one. He was a disciplinarian. Like, he never installed an AC in our room. He refused to give us one. He gave us a cooler, though he could afford to buy an AC. We would go on our cycles to our school as he said very clearly that he won’t come to drop us ever. He would ask us to take the school bus or a private bus. All other students would come by car. We had a car. We even had a driver! But we weren’t allowed to take the car. It was his way.
That prepared you to be a part of this industry. But there wasn’t much of a struggle in your life. Like everyone has a struggle story.
If you could understand what struggle is, then even success can be a struggle. It’s just the state of mind. I don’t think I have even thought about struggle. When as college students would go to participate in various drama competitions at different colleges in Mumbai, we would take local trains and buses. We would carry our sleeping bags and sleep on platforms. I was quite well to do, but if others were living in a particular way, I had to live like them. That was a part of our upbringing. You can call it struggle. Someone can glorify it and make it their struggle story. I can say that I lived in small rooms with people. It was a struggle for them. But it wasn’t a struggle for me. It was a part of the journey and I would at that time romanticise it a lot. I enjoyed living in that medical college. At times I would wear a lab coat to enter and exit so that I could look like a doctor. I also looked like one. I wore specks, I didn’t have this body. I wouldn’t look anything like those struggling actors you spot at Lokhandwala today. The way I would talk, no one could make out that I was there to be an actor. They thought I was probably studying to be a journalist. Some actually thought I was a medical student.
While living in Mumbai, people at times start referring to themselves in the third person. Relationships are not real. They are transactional. I don’t know you that well, but I find you to be very real.
No. There was a time when I too had lost my mind. There was a reality show called Popstars. I was 17-18 and I was the only guy from Chandigarh who got selected in that reality show. It was in 2002 or 2003. It was the first time when I started getting attention from girls apart from my girlfriend. That time I lost my mind. I used to think I was this star from Chandigarh. I was in college. I started getting a lot of attention. I even broke up. I have gone through that phase wherein people would say I had lost my mind. But the best thing is I started young. So, I had made those mistakes early on. You can lose your mind at the age of 70. There is no age really. You can lose your mind at the age of 50,60,70. But sooner it happens and you get time to get back to your senses, it’s better. That reality show got over and after one or two years, people forgot about me. Everything was back to normal. And I was the same college kid. I would still go to pay the electricity bill. So, people would pass comments like: “Look he is the same guy who appears on TV. He is paying the electricity bill.” After I won the Roadies, I would still go out to buy bread and eggs. That’s the thing. How can you change your life? So, when you become famous, you start thinking from within that you are a celebrity. We often associate fame with success. That does not happen in reality. Everyone person thinks that I am famous, I am successful. Fame is just a by-product of success. If you are successful, you may then become famous. It’s easy to get fame, it is difficult to be successful.
Wow! You have said something so beautiful. Earlier you talked about struggle. We can make stories out of our struggles or we can just make them a part of our journey. I am hugely impressed that you have this depth and this stillness. Tell me more about your wife.
I think she is the best human being I have known. I have never met someone like her. She is a superhuman being, more than anything else. And it’s incredible the way she has evolved. Both of us have evolved in our relationship. We were 24-25 when we got married and we were very immature. She is a year older to me. I had already moved to Mumbai. I was married before Vicky Donor released. We had a long-distance relationship for years. At times I feel it’s still a long-distance relationship because I am out for six months. Probably that’s the reason we are still going strong because we are still longing for each other. Problems arise when you don’t get space. When we started dating, she was a different person and I was a different person. At that time, I was a typical male chauvinist. She made me a human being. She taught me how to treat women. I didn’t know anything. I was too raw. I think I have become a gentleman because of her. Women get attracted to me now because of her. There was a time when I wanted her to teach me English. We then decided that we would communicate in English. I would always get stuck. My very first girlfriend used to mock me because I couldn’t talk in English. She would judge me. And my wife was someone who actually held my hand and taught me how to walk. Our journey has been quite something. She was very vulnerable as a person when we had started dating. She had her own insecurities of being an actor’s wife.
I am technically her first boyfriend. When I started getting a lot of female attention, that was also the time when I didn’t have much time for her. It happened after Vicky Donor. I had just become a father then. It was also then that I had started getting a lot of attention. We went through a very bad phase then. She shifted back to Chandigarh. We were not staying together at that time. But we have realised over a period of time that we are soulmates. It’s not that I have not interacted with girls after I started going around with her. I was staying alone in Delhi. I was staying alone in Mumbai. But I never met someone like her. It’s been such a beautiful relationship. We have always been best of friends. It’s friendship that takes you ahead and it lasts till the end. If you have a companion and if it’s a lot more than attraction, then you don’t have individual journeys. Both of you have one journey. And once you have kids, it’s a different ballgame altogether. Then you start living for them. And you see a piece of you in them. It’s beautiful and fascinating. I am so glad that I became a father at a young age because it opens up your emotional horizons. Your start empathising. I remember when I became a father, many of my friends were still single. I was 27 when I became a father. Actors don’t even get married at that age. I remember asking my father that I don’t have a single friend who is a father so whom should I ask how does it feels to become a father. My father became a father at the age of 32-33. He got married at 30. I got married when I was 24. He told me it feels good to be a father. Like I feel good looking at you. You get a new purpose in life.
Suddenly, your perspective changes. You start thinking about various issues. Climate change suddenly becomes more relevant. What kind of world my child is growing in? What kind of air she will breathe? Will there be more conflicts? Will we have enough water? Earlier, when I would travel in flights and when kids would cry, that used to irritate me …
Yes, this would happen to me too!
But now I wait. I tell them to give the kids something to drink before taking off. I actually stop by those mothers and I tell them that.
Yes. When I used to go for shoots and there would be kids crying, I would turn and look at them or get irritated. I would ask them if I could change my seat. This used to happen and then suddenly your perspective changes. Now you give them your mobile and let them play games. You learn many things. You become more patient as a person. When you start looking at things from a child’s perspective, it also helps you as an artist. You will keep growing and remain happy as long as the child within you is alive.
This happened when my daughter was three. I was recording. She barged open the door and came marching. She walks like a school bully. She said she also wanted to record. I let her. She knows she has to talk when she sees the red waves, so you can’t fool her. She started narrating a story about a monkey who wanted a dress from her mother. The story had a beginning, a middle and an end. That’s what really amazed me. She started with “My name is Vaidehi Misra” and ended with the cult line “bas itni si thi ye kahani”. I was aghast when I heard that! I sent that file to my engineer. He edited it and I put it on my YouTube channel. People heard that story and loved it. Adults said it helped them destress. She has her show and then I encouraged other children storytellers to draw them away from negative content on phone and TV. We have launched around 15-16 and it will soon become a radio show. As you said, you change as a person when you start seeing things from their perspective. Simple things like the tables and the doors were not designed for them. If you see these things from their perspective, these are such tall things! Tell me how has parenthood been for you. Tell me about your kids.
Wish I could spend more time with them. Their names are Virajveer and Varushka. They are seven and five, respectively. One strange thing happened. My son was playing in the play area. Everyone says he looks like me, that he looks like Ayushman. He gets irritated when people call me by my name and that they don’t call me sir or uncle. Because even kids call me Ayushman. I asked him once: “Do you feel happy when people say you look like your father or you look like Ayushman?”. He said “No”. He said he wanted to have his own identity. He said he wanted to be unique. At seven he said that he didn’t want to be like me. There was a piano at home when I was shooting for Andhadhun. I learnt only what was required. But he has mastered the piano. He has all the books. He plays his own tunes and melodies. It’s fascinating. Parenthood is beautiful. The best thing is I have the energy to be with them. It’s difficult, but I somehow manage. Stardom comes with a price tag.
And your daughter?
Varushka. Both are very different. They don’t even look like siblings. That’s how I wanted it. I am happy that I have a son and a daughter. She is quite a diva. In her head, she is a princess. I don’t say anything to her. I sometimes scold my son, but with daughters, you are just different. You have a different corner for them in your heart. In fact, corner is for the son, entire heart is for the daughter! Daughters are very special. I can’t tell this to my son as he might get jealous. I am not generalising, but women are more attached. They are more emotional. Their EQ is better than ours. Thank god I have a daughter in my life. My son, at some point in time, will get detached and go away. She will not go away, I feel. They should fly high. You suddenly become selfless after becoming a parent.
Yes. It changes you. When I wasn’t a parent, I couldn’t even think about these things. I couldn’t imagine myself to be mushy …
I am very detached as a person. When it comes to films also, I am like that. When I move from one film to another, that character also go away from my mind. But I changed after becoming a parent. I never used to call my parents for months when I was single, or even after I got married. But now I call them every two days. You realise only now that how much your parents love you.
And your wife has very bravely dealt with some health issues … That’s very inspiring.
It is. Very casually she has braved cancer. No one else could have managed it. It’s such a dichotomy in life that I was going through a career-high and personally we were suffering. It just shows that every life has a void. You have to carry that void. No life is perfect. You must find happiness in these imperfections. If it’s perfect, then it’s not life.
Tell me about your mother.
My mother’s name is Poonam Khurana, but her real name is Lalita Alwadhi. She was born in Burma. She is half-Burmese. She talks Burmese and Hindi very fluently.
And she has pampered you a lot?
She has really pampered me. Both of us — both me and my brother. She never scolded us. She is the simplest person I have known. She doesn’t care if you take her in a luxury car or an auto-rickshaw. She likes all my films. Dad is at times critical. She likes everything that I do. She wouldn’t have mind had I doing nothing. My father would have been bit critical had I not achieved all this because he is very ambitious. I was laid back. He made me ambitions.
Are you religious?
I used to be religious. Then I became an atheist. Now I am spiritual. I don’t know what religion is. A greater power definitely exists. Had it not been there, the world wouldn’t have existed. You get a sense of what is right and what is wrong from there. You get the moral compass from there. You realise about karma from there. I am a believer now. I had become reckless some time back. When good things start happening, you starting believing as if you are responsible for that. You then tend to forget about god. Then when things are not smooth in your personal life, it happens for reason. You tend to forget about those who were there for you because somewhere you tend to become selfish after achieving things. Our relationships also had these ups and downs. People don’t talk about these things openly, but it’s okay to talk about these things. There was a dip in my career after my first film. When I was shooting for Meri Pyaari Bindu, Tahira had given me a Buddhist chant. I started chanting that. I felt a certain power in me. Things started changing. It was miraculous. Suddenly, everything was going right, personally and professionally. And Tahira could also deal with cancer because of that. So, there is some power for sure. I don’t believe in idol worship. Even if someone does, I don’t have a problem with that. I visit mazars, I go to church, I go to gurudwara. I practice Buddhism. These are beautiful things. I feel good when I visit home in Diwali. I don’t burst crackers, but I feel good looking at the diyas. During Eid, I visit my friends or visit Mohammad Ali road. I would go to Chandani Chawk in Delhi.
Do you believe in destiny?
I do, but I also feel you can change your destiny through your karma and your hard work. There is nothing that you can’t do. We underestimate the human potential. We can’t reject someone. Who are we to reject someone? It’s wrong to say that a person can’t achieve something. It’s just not possible. You can’t undermine someone’s potential. A lot of people questioned me. They must have questioned you as well. I had set certain targets for myself and by achieving all this, you are not undermining that person. You do these things for yourself.
I was telling my friend this. Had I gone to a business head with a plan that I wanted to tell series stories on the radio on prime time, he would have thrown me out. Or had I told someone that I want to open a rural media platform that will talk about rural issues without stereotyping them, he would have thrown me out.
Yes. Who would have thought I would play a sperm donor in my first film? You keep messaging me after my every trailer that I do something new every time. But it’s necessary. Yes, today, I am ambitious because of my father. I wasn’t ambitious at all. I used to be very nervous. But I have transformed from that to be a people’s person now. So, you can’t question human potential. You should give wings to people.
Are you jealous of someone?
I think this feeling comes and goes. It’s different each day. On some days, you are confident, the next day you are negative. No day, no moment is similar. Be it jealousy or happiness, these emotions are always within you. That’s what makes you human. Otherwise, you will become a god. Jealousy need not be only professional. It can be for anything. You can feel jealous of someone who is spending a lot of time with his children. Or if two people are madly in love. When you see them, you feel why can’t you have this. Why can’t I hold someone’s hand and walk or go on a two-month-long vacation? You can be jealous of anything.
Do things bother you?
You exude a very positive persona.
Yes, overall I am very positive.
You don’t have to wear a mask?
But, you know, sometimes you can’t say the truth. So, I can’t say I don’t wear a mask. But if you are acting for 24 hours then after they say cut or after pack up, you should stop acting else you will go mad. So, I try not to wear that mask. So those who say they don’t wear a mask are lying. If you start speaking only truth, the world would be devastated.
You are so simple and so real.
I think this has been the best experience of my life. In most of the interviews, you have to wear that mask of being a mainstream actor. You have to think about what people might like, what they may not like. But here, you can be real.
Thank you for being you!
You are in inspiration. You are doing real things. We are stuck in commercialisation.
Text: Swati Subhedar