'Not at a stage yet where people come to theatres for me alone': Vicky Kaushal

I do not want to make Katrina a better person, or vice versa, he says


Interview/ Vicky Kaushal, actor

Q Nearly a decade into your career, do you think you have now become a star?

I saw an interview of Aamir Khan some time back where he said, ‘If you want to judge the stardom of an actor, you do not track his most popular film, you track his weakest film.’ If his poorest film―one which you know is not good―still brings in the profits, that is stardom.

I told Raju sir (Rajkumar Hirani) that even if he had wanted me to simply pass by unnoticed, I would happily do that as well. I just wanted to be a part his film because he is genuinely a director I admire.
I feel the deeper you can take the character, the more it will show in the eyes. The only validation that matters to me is my director’s validation.
My mother says, ‘All my life I have been trying to get these boys to eat tinde (apple gourd), beans and turai (ridge gourd) and now I have a daughter-in-law who eats these every day.’

Today, the line between popularity and stardom is blurring. Now the popular is the star. In actuality, a star was someone who was the reason people watch the film, irrespective of whether it is good or bad. I do not think I have achieved that till now. If I do a film that, from the outset, people are not sold on, it will not do the numbers. They will wait, especially now that they know the film will come on OTT in seven to eight weeks. Those are the choices even I make as [part of an] audience. I do not think I have reached a point where people actually come to the theatres for me alone. That will come after a string of super hits. As of now, I need the full support of brilliant directors and brilliant films. The films [have] to be bigger than me and that is how I like it, too. The stories should be the hero of the film and I should be riding on those stories and those characters.

Sam Bahadur clashed with Ranbir Kapoor’s Animal at the box office. Did your film perform as per your expectations?

With Sam, we always knew it was a Test match; we knew it was not the quintessential masala film that Animal was―it had the shock value and one knew it would create waves at the box office. We knew we needed that much time, that word of mouth, for the film to resonate with the masses. Because if it would not click with people, it would not do well no matter when it released. People started talking about it more and more as the weeks went by. We saw that through January, Sam shows kept going on, and that gives me tremendous happiness.

You worked with Field Marshal Manekshaw’s grandson Jehan for the film. How did that go?

We had started training two and a half months prior to going on floors. I would meet Meghna [Gulzar] every day for five to six hours to just crack Sam. We did not have any reference to the youth of Manekshaw.

When I met Jehan, who also runs an acting school, I got into the shoes of Sam and read the whole script as if I were him. But he said I was really far from what his grandfather was like. And so we started from ground zero and, at every stage, we would bring in the tonality and the body language. The second time, Jehan said, ‘Okay, now you are not sounding like Vicky, but you are also not sounding like Manekshaw.’ Then, after a long time, he was convinced that I did sound like his granddad.

How do you train for biopics?

Usually, for any biopic, I never mug up the lines. I read the script three to four times a day at least, and by the time you are on the floors, you have read it 500 times and know it. But in this case, I could not have read it in my own way because then I would start talking like that. So, I first had to crack the tonality and only then go into this exercise of reading the script every day. Reading like Sam Manekshaw became my impulse, so while shooting, I was only focused on the emotions. I was not thinking of how to walk, how to talk, how to sit... all that homework had been done earlier. At one time, Meghna said that I was so involved in the film... that she had to literally remind me, “Cut ho gaya hai (the shot is done).” But that is also when I feel safer as an actor. Trusting that now it is in me and whenever I have to be Sam, it is not like I have forgotten. I really had internalised his personality.

Dunki (2023) Dunki (2023)

My daily ritual for Sam used to be―go into the van, get ready and before coming on the set, I used to need anywhere between 15 to 30 minutes where I would play jazz and just look in the mirror to be convinced that this guy is Sam Manekshaw. Once you believe this, whatever you do is Sam.

Before that, I had never heard jazz in my life. But now I have a whole playlist that is still saved on my phone as ‘Sam’s Jazz’. The one lesson I take back with me is to learn how to become Sam Manekshaw―his clarity of thought, decision-making skills, integrity and dignity. If he is a 10 on 10 in each of these areas, I am at 2 or 4 or 5, and I want to reach where he is. But that one thing I totally share with him is his habit of trusting people too soon and too easily. And I think it is a good place to be in because I have the cleanest of intentions and if something goes wrong, the onus is on the other person, obviously (laughs).

What was it like working with Meghna again after Raazi?

I have this complaint with Meghna. I tell her, ‘Yaar you are Gulzar sahab’s daughter’, and she says, ‘Yeah, so what?’ I wanted to tell her, ‘Yaar tum log na ghar ki dal bana dete ho aise legends ko’ (you take these legends for granted). She understood what I had been complaining about since Raazi when she saw Maya (Manekshaw’s daughter) doing the same with her father.

There is this talk that the audience keeps changing. How much of that have you seen in your career?

I remember about a decade or two back, they had said that the audience has changed. But what we must understand is that this change is the only constant. There would never come a time when we would be able to say that now this is what the audience wants. For instance, if people liked one action film, they go on to make so many action films that there will come a time when the audience will dump it and move on to another genre. And then the cycle would repeat. You must understand that this is an industry that is catering to the consumers, so they are always on the lookout, asking, ‘What do you want? We will make that.’ And in that there will be a certain section that will say it wants to be true to the art of filmmaking and will keep doing what they are doing. Those are the films that turn into cult films... coming at a time when it is not the taste.

46-Raazi Raazi (2018)

As a lead actor, why did you take up a cameo in Dunki?

I told Raju sir (director Rajkumar Hirani) that even if he had wanted me to simply pass by unnoticed, I would happily do that as well. I just so wanted to be a part his film because he is genuinely a director I admire, and I love his kind of storytelling as an audience and as an actor. This was the second time with him after Sanju. My father (action director) Sham Kaushal was working on Dunki and because Sukhi (Vicky’s character) had that fire sequence, my father asked Hirani who was playing the part. He wanted to know ‘Mujhe kisko jalaana hai? (Whom do I light on fire?)’. So Hirani said he wanted somebody like Vicky, but did not offer it to me because he thought it was a small role. When my dad came home, I asked him how the meeting went. He recounted the [interaction with Hirani] and I said, ‘Really?’ The very next day I called Raju sir and told him if it had to be somebody like me, then why not me? I landed up in his office that very day and said yes without even listening to the script. The first time I saw the full film was during the screening. I only knew my part.

So when I was watching the film, I was very nervous, unsure if my performance was satisfactory. I am a kid who was born and raised in Mumbai, who has never gone away from his home. But somehow, that homecoming emotion in the film really hit me hard. Maybe because my parents left their home and came to Bombay from Punjab and all my life I have heard them talking about their life there and how much they miss it. But, for the first time, I felt the same emotion through a film.

Also, I was happy to see Punjab like that after a long time. I told Raju sir that, at a time when everything is gritty and real, where we see the problems and struggles of states, he actually gave a vibrant, colourful charm to Punjab. That moment when Taapsee’s character removes her shoes and wants to feel the earth in her hometown upon returning from abroad after decades, that was special to me.

I also told Hirani sir that only he could have Shah Rukh not complete his love story. I think that is the beauty of Shah Rukh sir and love stories―if he completes the love story, you celebrate, and if it is not complete, even then you feel for him and you enjoy that feeling, too. You root for him in any case.

Uri (2019) Uri (2019)

Uri director Aditya Dhar once said there is this deep sadness in Vicky Kaushal’s eyes that make him perfect for certain roles. How do you act with your eyes?

I feel the deeper you can take the character, the more it will show in the eyes. The only validation that matters to me is my director’s validation. Once that is in place, I try and go deeper and deeper into the shoes of the character with each passing day. Maybe then it shows in my eyes.

One of the basics they teach you in acting school is that the more you listen while performing a scene, the better the performance is and somewhere it is the eyes that start talking. People think that acting begins when I get my lines. But that is actually reacting. I focus more on what I am reacting at or to, in a scene. I feel there is no general rule for acting.

Is there a film in which you think you could not give it your best?

Raman Raghav 2.0. I think I did not get the best reviews for my work in this film. But luckily, it did not come in as a surprise. Fortunately for me, till date, it has never happened that I expected good reviews but bad reviews came.

I just could not understand the character―it was a complex character who had a disturbed childhood. As I never had a disturbed childhood, I could not understand this person. I feel I was too immature to play that part. I was 25 or 26 at the time but Anurag [Kashyap] kept telling me that he wanted a person who could not understand it and explore what kind of performance comes out. That is a role which, if I have to play it every five to 10 years, I will play it very differently each time because of the experiences I gather in my real life. On the other hand, I felt Manmarziyaan was the film and the part that I enjoyed with every cell in my body. It was my most enriching and most liberating experience as an actor because when we started shooting, I only knew the blueprint―it was a love triangle and that I was playing the commitment-phobic guy, a reckless DJ in Punjab who is full of passion. Anurag sent me an image of a guy in blue hair a few days before the shoot and said that was what I had to do. I coloured my hair blue and reached Punjab and, two days before the shoot, when I asked him what I had to do, he said, ‘Main script likh raha hoon (I’m still writing the script).’ [When I did hear the narration,] it was as if the first half was a love story and the second was like Raman Raghav. I was shocked; I thought I [was doing] a love story. Anurag sensed that and messaged me, saying, ‘Trust me it will go well. You just surrender to the character.’ That was magic for me. For the first time in my life, I surrendered myself to the character. I left the baggage of right and wrong back in the hotel room that morning. I decided I would enjoy the shooting and the process... that was a game changer for me as an actor. I decided to do this for every role, just surrender completely to the character and leave the rest to the director because this, at the end of the day, is a director’s medium. In that process, I felt like I evolved as an actor.

At times, actors become victims of bad films. Do you agree?

Every film has its own destiny. Two days before Uri, Aditya and I were hoping people come to see it. Manmarziyaan, being a love story, an Anurag Kashyap film and with music by Amit Trivedi, I thought it would be superb; it checked all the boxes for a commercial success. But that did not happen. But Uri, which I thought was going to be an okay-ish film given that it did not have a ‘star’ and that high a budget, did so well.

Manmarziyaan (2018) Manmarziyaan (2018)

You share a special bond with Anurag Kashyap.

Gangs of Wasseypur, for me, was my film school. To assist on that film was a first for both me and Neeraj [Ghaywan, director of Masaan]. It just taught us a lot about filmmaking, etiquette on set and what it takes to make a film. Even today, Anurag sir called me after watching Sam and he said that during the old-age scenes, I could have worked more on my voice. But he was very happy. We have a very informal relationship with him. At times when I call him, I ask him, ‘How much are you drinking now?’, ‘Did you reduce your time on the internet?’ Whenever I am with him, I turn into an AD (assistant director); I cannot be an actor in front of him. When we were shooting for Raman Raghav, if he had misplaced his bag, I would start looking for it... and he would admonish me, saying ‘Abhi tu AD nahi hai, actor hai. Idhar baith (Now you’re an actor, not an AD; sit here).’

When I meet people in the industry who are only a few years older than me, but they are directors, I have a habit of addressing them as ‘sir’. So even now, that shift from AD to actor is difficult for me. [I keep calling] Farhan Akhtar ‘sir’, and he says, ‘Stop calling me that; I am only five years elder to you.’ But I still feel odd calling them by their names.

Are you your own critic?

A very harsh one. The first time I watch my own film, I do not like it at all. I cringe, swear and shut my eyes. This happens with me on almost a daily basis, when I am spending at least half an hour evaluating and wondering if I could have done it differently.

Your dream role?

I am short of an answer for that. I have given different answers in different interviews because at different stages of life, you feel differently about the work you want to do. I would like to be an athlete or a larger-than-life character on screen. [Amitabh] Bachchan sahab’s films of the 1980s are also very inspiring. I hope I am never in a situation where I have to do a film even though I do not connect with it. I have never had to do it.

Is there any specific instance that turned you towards acting?

The time when I was taken for an industrial visit during engineering was when I first came to know that this was not what I wanted to be or do for the rest of my life. Until then, I was very much a part of the rat race. I had also thought of pursuing post-graduation, but I didn’t want to do a 9 to 5 job. My dadaji (grandfather) had a kirane ki dukaan (grocery store) in his village in Hoshiarpur (Punjab) and my father has been in action in films. I do not think it was in my blood to do a 9 to 5 job. My academic scores would have taken me there; I was good. But I felt I was not going to be happy there. Subconsciously, [I knew]. I had been active on stage since a child, be it in society functions, school or college. But I had never thought this could be my career. Cricket and drama were the two outwardly things that I would enjoy apart from watching movies. I knew when I would perform, I would be happy. But I had never been on a film set with my father before and there was no such talk at home. That this was fancy work and he had contacts in Bollywood... he had no interest in discussing work at home. In fact, it is now that we discuss more about films. Now we are all a part of the industry. But [growing up], we were never attracted to stars.

48-Raman-Raghav Raman Raghav 2.0 (2016)

Has marriage made you a better person?

My marriage to Katrina is the result of a deep connection at the core level. I appreciate her core and she appreciates mine. I do not want to make her a better person and she does not want to make me a better person. We are already in love with the person we are. What is new for us is how we are both growing together. Now that we are married, it is always about what is working for us, not me.

Do you cook?

Never for the life of me. I can only make tea and break some eggs. That, too, I learnt during quarantine because I would watch movies all night and there was nothing else to do. Sunny (his brother) cooks a lot and does it really well. He is just a year and four months younger, so it is more like we are friends. I do not give any advice, and he does not take any. We just share experiences. He is much wiser and calmer than me.

What about the food choices at home?

In terms of food, she (Katrina) is way more vegetarian than I am. She enjoys simple food. Very rarely will she go for a chhole bhature, but I would dive into that. My mother is happy whenever Katrina is home because, as she says, ‘All my life I have been trying to get these boys to eat tinde (apple gourd), beans and turai (ridge gourd) and now I have a daughter-in-law who eats these every day.’ This is her staple food. She loves pancakes. We are just a regular couple with a profession that has put us in the public glare.

What are the Hollywood films you like?

One of my all-time favourites is 12 Angry Men. I can watch the Godfather series anytime, anywhere. In Hindi, it is Lagaan, Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, Mughal-E-Azam... you keep learning from films you are deeply connected with. Sometimes I watch Denzel Washington movies and feel like he had a different approach. I remember in the film Safe House, he has been hit by a few bullets and he is dying. The way he had performed it, I genuinely felt as if for the first time I saw someone jiski ek ek saans ja rahi thi (that he was losing each breath). I am a big Denzel Washington fan.

Have you fallen into the trap of badly made films?

That happens to everybody. When you hear a film out, you say yes after agreeing to all of that. And every person coming on that set wants to make a good film, but not every film can be a good film. Sometimes you have to take it on your chin and leave. I green-light films by being emotionally connected with them. If I do not connect with it, I will not sign it. I feel I should be at least as motivated and excited as the director, if not more.