New Delhi: For someone who has delivered domestic box office earnings of close to ₹600 crore from seven films in the past two years, Ayushmann Khurrana has more reason to celebrate than most of his contemporaries. With Bala that released this November and made ₹110.66 crore, Khurrana who won the National Award for best actor last week, notched up his seventh hit in a row. Currently looking forward to the release of Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, a take on homosexuality, and director Shoojit Sarkar’s Gulabo Sitabo where he co-stars with Amitabh Bachchan, the formula working for the actor is quite clear: To make modestly budgeted films that make big returns on investment and add a dash of satirical humour and social messaging to address issues that not too many people want to talk about.
The relatable vibe, that clearly distinguishes him from erstwhile superstars who chose more aspirational images, works for brands too. Khurrana, who currently endorses 15 brands including Balaji Wafers, Titan Eye Plus eyewear, Realme phones, Godrej Security Solutions, Magicbricks, Urban Clap, Nexus Mall and Daniel Wellington watches, is said to have upped his price from ₹30 lakh to ₹3 crore per deal within a span of one year, after the success of films like Andhadhun.
“An important dimension behind the increase in Ayushmann’s brand salience is that unlike most celebrities, he is not distant, forbidding and perched on a pedestal. He is your average Joe and relatability to him is very high, contributing to his being seen as endearing," said Sandeep Goyal, chief mentor at the Indian Institute of Human Brands. He added that the image fits well with brands like Urban Clap or Magicbricks that are not seen as aspirational but aim for affability. It helps that Khurrana is seen as friendly, fun and authentic.
“I don’t think he’s looking at the top-end of the audience segment. The target is a more urban, middle-class, millennial and liberal sensibility that seems to be working," said Ajit Gurnani, chief client officer at media agency Zenith India. Gurnani added that Khurrana has avoided the typical Hindi film hero image of someone like Varun Dhawan but comes across as a wholesome entertainer at the same time. He sings, writes poetry and is quite comfortable hosting award functions too. The smart and unusual choices of films like Article 15 are complemented by his easy social media personality where he openly admits to having auditioned for Andhadhun director Sriram Raghavan.
“As a brand, he seems to stand for longevity. What is further appealing to say, women, is that he comes across as naturally correct," Gurnani said.
Khurrana, 35, is aware of the new-found success. “There is a certain expectation (from me now), people have developed some sort of trust, they look for something different and novel with every film I do. So yes, there is pressure but I would not want to get bogged down and make hasty decisions. Instead, this success has only validated my belief in my gut and intuition," Khurrana said.
Khurrana’s consistent success is reflective of the wider change in Bollywood which is producing compelling stories which are getting wide acceptance among audiences.
“The industry is definitely waking up to the fact that you need good writers. The old-school approach (of stars driving a film with mediocre content) is not going to work anymore," film critic Bharathi Pradhan said. Actors like Khurrana, she added, were representative of that change and the new school of filmmaking that necessitate refreshing ideas constantly.
“I think the first aim of a film should be to entertain people," Khurrana said. “We have enough darkness in our society, and if an average citizen goes out and wants to watch a film to get entertained, that’s fair. But I come from the school of thought that if there is some value creation (through a message or statement) in that piece of art, it’s like the cherry on the cake. Having said that, I don’t judge people who make cinema just for entertainment."
Khurrana is also keen to work in the digital medium where the lack of censorship encourages edgy, wacky and radical content, he says. “I would love to explore the digital space but the content has to go beyond India and take me to global audiences.
Next on his wishlist are two filmmakers--Zoya Akhtar and Shakun Batra (of Kapoor & Sons fame). “Those are two exciting directors. And this is like a shout out to them," he said.