Rahat Kapur
Oct 26, 2023

Credibility is key whether working on films or with brands: Bollywood star Ayushmann Khurrana

Touted amongst one of the top 15 brand ambassadors in India, Bollywood A-lister Ayushmann Khurrana has paved an unconventional path for himself both inside and outside of cinema. He sits down with Campaign to discuss acting, activism and all things authenticity

Photo: Courtesy of Yash Raj Films.
Photo: Courtesy of Yash Raj Films.

Bollywood: It’s where glitz, glam, dreams, aspirations, careers and names are made and broken. Much like its Western counterpart, the Indian film industry enjoys the reverie of millions of steadfast fans around the globe, and has often been hailed as the largest film industry in the world with a legacy that boasts over a century of work. In a country as diverse as India with multiple languages, dialects, religions and traditions, Bollywood has become an undeniable unifying force—reaching audiences across the country regardless of regional differences and bridging gaps to harness a shared cultural experience.

Ayushmann Khurrana is no stranger to the influence of this magic. Entering the entertainment industry as a radio jockey and television anchor in 2004 (as an outsider with no film fraternity links), Khurrana’s rise to fame has been one to watch out for. Growing up in the city of Chandigarh in northern India, the 38-year old had dreams of making it in journalism and finding himself in theatre, before he was given a chance to break through in lower budget but high storytelling films in 2012. He quickly became touted as a ‘relatable’ and down-to-earth celebrity, with his films carefully dancing around controversial topics such as LGBTQ+ rights, caste discrimination, and other such societal stigmas in Indian society.

His debut film Vicky Donor in 2012 addressed the taboo subject of sperm donation, initiating conversations about infertility and removing stigmatisation for men associated with it. His proceeding movies have very much been in a similar vein. In Shubh Mangal Saavdhan (2017) Khurrana tackled the issue of erectile dysfunction, bringing to light a topic seldom discussed openly in Indian society, and serving as a catalyst for conversations about sexual health. His most recent work Dream Girl 2 in 2023 sees Khurrana playing a cross-gender role whose female voice impersonation begets attention from others, and explores the nuances surrounding depression and loneliness. The film has grossed over US$15 million worldwide since its release in June.

Vicky Donor, Khurran's debut film released 2012.

Khurrana’s ability to address burning issues through commercial cinema without compromising bankable box office performance has made him a unique A-lister, thought leader and inadvertent poster boy for social change. This influence and presence has also permeated far beyond the silver screen and into his status as a coveted brand endorser. Considered amongst the top 15 brand ambassadors in the country with 18 million followers across Instagram, his appeal and resonance is often highest amongst the middle-class and youth demographics across the ad landscape (largely in part due to his own middle class upbringing).

Today, he’s represented companies including Amazon, Kit Kat, Tide, Coca-Cola, Sprite, Wakefit, Toyota, and Agoda, and most recently, was in Singapore as a recipient of a Time100 Impact Award for his work with UNICEF on anti-cyberbullying advocacy, becoming the only Indian in the 2023 edition. He was also featured in the coveted Time 100 Most Influential list in 2020.

Campaign Asia-Pacific sat down with Ayushmann Khurrana earlier this month to discuss his unconventional foray into films, the power and influence of Bollywood on brands and culture, what he looks for in an ad partnership, and why in spite of being considered a changemaker and a catalyst for social justice, he still considers himself an actor, not an activist.

Ayushmann, you’ve had a big box office success recently, as well as a number of wins in the career space. How are you feeling about your projects and how are things going for you right now?

I’m really enjoying this phase because we've come back with the bang in Bollywood and altogether. We were facing a lull for the past two years during the pandemic, but suddenly, there's a great boom with the theatricals. I've always been a lover of the big screen. We achieved that with Dream Girl 2, and I'm really proud of it, and in a happy space. I’m looking forward to some more wide films for a wider audience, and that’s about it!

Are you allowed to talk about or share what you’re working on next?

I would love to do a biopic on a musician or a cricketer or a sports bio. There are a couple of projects which are there. We’ve not officially announced anything, but I’ll be shooting this winter for sure.

You’re an outsider to Bollywood in that you’ve shared you’ve grown up surrounded by its films and particularly, its music, but you were never part of a major film family. Today, you play a very influential role for a wide subset of audiences. Did you ever find it an impossible task to think you could make it in this industry?

Not really. I was always enjoying my baby steps towards ‘Tinseltown’ and Bollywood. I studied journalism, I did theatre, radio, television presenting and eventually, films. So, I think those baby steps really helped me realise that I was being accepted at each and every phase. I'm glad I made that transition successfully, because I actually knew Bollywood from the outside as a journalist, and interviewed a lot of actors and was giving auditions at the same time. I always wanted to be an actor, but I was following this course because I was not from the industry. I'm glad I made that transition [pretty] smoothly, and it was the right place at the right time. Hard work is [of course] also always a pre-requisite, but I believe that success is when preparation meets opportunity, so I was well-prepared.

You’ve often been labelled as the ‘unconventional’ A-lister in Bollywood, because you’ve made your career off smaller budget films that don’t shy away from social justice / taboo narratives or address topics related to the 'common man’ in India. Is that a conscious decision for you, because these films have also affected your perception from a personal and brand standpoint?

It started with my first film Vicky Donor, and it continued with consequent films like Dum Laga Ke Haisha (which addresses the stigma around marrying plus size women in India), Badhai Ho and Article 15, and it became a genre of sorts. They were labelled as ‘socially-driven films’ or comedies, and someone said it’s the ‘Ayushmann Khurrana genre’. It was a mix of both, not really by default because I wanted to make my own zone or my own niche for my kind of films. I come from a theatre background and with street theatre, it’s imperative that you drive a social message and make it accessible to the 'common man'. So, it's probably an extension of my theatre personality, which is happening with films. I’m glad I got the opportunity to work with writers who resonated with the same thoughts and gave me path-breaking scripts and set out benchmarks, and the directors were also very gung-ho about doing these kinds of films. I’ve always believed I am unconventional and I had to make an unconventional path for myself.

Talking to the point made earlier, you’ve also become known as a ‘relatable’ face and are perceived to be more approachable than the average A-list Bollywood star, particularly when it comes to brands. Is that something you want to be known for?

Up till now, I’ve always done films where the lead actor is somebody who's relatable—could be despicable—but relatable at the same time. I have to ground that character. I've always played characters who are not perfect, and nobody is perfect in real life. So, I follow that trajectory. It’s like a coming-of-age of the character; that's the common thread in most of my films, which probably gives a certain aspiration to the common man. That there could be like an evolution of sorts, and of thought process. Because India is very heterogeneous as a society. We come from different backgrounds, different cultures, religions, regions and castes. It takes a while, and we still have a long way to go as a society. It's very imperative for me to be relatable, because, again, I don't see myself as a conventional star. And maybe that sets me apart, and it also shows that I have come to where I am right now after rigorous hard work and I can't forget my roots. I think if your films are rooted, and you’re behaving the other way around, it wouldn’t be fair as an artist. It comes intrinsically to me, and that’s why I choose these kinds of films.

So, do you feel pressure in any kind of way to be a social justice advocate outside of your films and into your personal life or brand spaces?

I've always believed that primarily I'm an actor, not an activist. And as an actor, you will be doing all kinds of genres and all kinds of films. For me, Dream Girl is very frontbencher of sorts. It's very commercial or ‘massy’. It caters to the lowest common denominator when it comes to humour, aesthetics [and] everything. It's not an Andhadhun or Article 15. So, I’ve taken a different trajectory this time with this film. Because you know, the palate for theatricals has changed in our country. In order to cater to every audience, I cannot be very vocal about certain issues on social platforms or in my real life. Whatever I have to do, I have to do through my films. What I have to say, I'll stay through my art, because I'm an artist, I'm not an activist. I also may not be aware of 10 other things about that subject or issue. Of course as an artist, you have a certain social responsibility, which I can only fulfil by doing certain kinds of films and of certain genres, adding certain value to my cinema.

Ayushmann in the film poster for Dream Girl 2.

You made a point about India being a heterogenous society, which is part of why Bollywood has such mass and unique unifying appeal when it comes to brands. In the West, there’s a slow dissonance emerging around celebrity endorsements, but in this industry, stars are still seen as key opinion leaders when it comes to influencing purchase decisions. Why do you think Bollywood’s marketability has endured for so long in the way it has?

I think it's part of our upbringing. It's become part of our society and the collective view is that Bollywood is part of our history and culture now. At the same time, we crave for a hero as a society. We're still a young country, we’re not perfect, and we aim for perfection. We aim for somebody we want to look up to. A country like India really needs a hero. And that's why I think they look up to cricketers, and actors. ln India, cricket and cinema are the two biggest entities, because we are doing so well [in those areas]. We are a superpower of world cricket on one side, and we have some superstars in cricket. And then there’s cinema; which is probably like an escape from the darkness of our realities for an audience. So, I think these two entities mean a lot to our society. There’s an emotional bond between cricket, cinema, and the audience…Indians basically. I think it will always remain part of our psyche.

How do you feel about being an influencer, and how does it impact how you show up when you work with brands? Do you only work with companies you already have a natural affinity with?

You have to just make the right choices. I think it’s like an extension of my filmography maybe. There has to be sort of credibility attached. If you're doing a film, you try to choose films or subjects which are not regressive. Same goes with the brands. They have to be credible, and I try to work with those brands who are. It's like a good symbiotic relationship.

You’re the face of a number of leading brands already from Sprite to Kit Kat to Agoda. Do you have a dream brand that you’d still like to work with in India or globally?

I've been working with some top brands like Kit Kat, Godrej [which is a legacy brand] and ICICI [bank]. I also work with Amazon closely. But as for dreams, I've been a biker during my college days, so I really want to have like a good bike brand. I also love to travel and I like road travel. Maybe a car brand also? I’ve done it in the past, so I’m looking forward to these two brands.

It feels overdue, but it seems Bollywood’s global influence and commercial appeal is only now really being realised on an international scale. We’ve seen a number of stars branch out including Indian actress Alia Bhatt who is now a global face for Gucci and Deepika Padukone who is a global ambassador for Louis Vuitton. Is this a wave you’d like to jump on or is there a benefit in succeeding and staying where you are?

There's a saying in the industry: The more local you go, the more global you reach. And I'm very local in my thought process. I studied in a convent school, I've been really aware about what's happening in our society coming from the journalism background, or doing street theatre and travelling the length and breadth of the country since my late teens. So you know, I've been there quite a long time. If I have to do something on a global scale, the representation has to be right. It cannot be just tokenism of you know, just having a brown guy. It has to be good representation. I've been a part of Daniel Wellington, for example (the international luxury watch brand). My friends have seen my kiosks at an Australian airport or somewhere in UK. That felt really good. And I was part of Time magazine [Most Influential in 2020], because I was tackling these social issues, and they took notice of it, so I appeared on a global platform. My aspiration is to reach local, and as local as I can, like reach to the grassroots level. That’s probably ushered me to the global scale.

Ayushmann in a Daniel Wellington campaign. Photo: Daniel Wellington's Facebook.

As OTT platforms swarm our markets, the appeal and reach of cinema has really changed. You’ve actually been quite a pioneer in this space industry-wise, having done a number of films that are direct for Netflix etc. Do you think OTT has changed your landscape for creativity, and do you think Gen Z audiences seek more diversity and experimentation when it comes to cinema?

The [Gen Z] expectation would be to do something quirky and something different. My box to tick is doing something which has not happened before in in Hindi cinema. That gives me another high. That kind of expectation I’d like to reach. But it cannot be niche anymore in theatricals. So, if I have to meet progressive expectations, I'd rather choose an OTT subject. But apart from that, doing something unique every single time and to be a disrupter of thoughts [is the focus]. I'll try to do my best.

Finally, can you please describe your personal brand in three words?

Disruptive. Clutter-breaking. Simple.


(This article first appeared on Campaign Asia)


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