Vicky Kaushal: Second to None

Shreevatsa Nevatia is a Kolkata-based journalist
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In just over three years, Vicky Kaushal has proved that the supporting star can be the hero

FRIENDS are important to Vicky Kaushal. He says he is closest to his crew from engineering school. “They are the people who knew me well before I became somebody,” he says. “I always fall back on them.” He never discusses films or his career when they meet, but when they are out for dinner, a fan sometimes comes up, expecting a selfie. “And while he or she is taking a picture with me, my friends will bring out their phones to take a picture of that someone taking a picture with me.” Though Kaushal has a stock response— “Guys, be cool!”—umpteen selfie enthusiasts seem to be flocking to him these days.

The year 2018 has brought Kaushal sudden renown. Released on Valentine’s Day, his Love per Square Foot might not have been a Netflix hit, but his character was one of the most memorable. Raazi, his first theatrical release of the year earned more than Rs100 crore at the box office. Kaushal played Iqbal Syed, a Pakistani army official who marries a spy, and in the process, gets cuckolded by the Indian State. Though the film belonged to Alia Bhatt, Kaushal’s support was hard to ignore. Again, playing second fiddle to Ranbir Kapoor in Sanju, Kaushal’s turn as Kamlesh Kapasi was lauded as “terrific” and “standout” by the country’s film critics.

“Ideally, every actor wants to be the protagonist, and that applies to me too, but my reasons for doing a film are usually more instinctive than calculative,” Kaushal says. When hearing the first narration of a new script, the 30-year-old imagines himself as a member of the audience who has bought a ticket and tub of popcorn. “When on the last page of the Raazi script, I remember feeling consumed by gratitude. I wanted to thank the people who had sacrificed so much of themselves for our country.” Kaushal asks, “If a script was making me feel all this, how could I turn it down? I had to be a part of it.”

Script apart, Kaushal decided to act in Sanju because he did not want to pass up on the opportunity of working with director Rajkumar Hirani. Making his way through that checklist of Bollywood’s biggest directors, Kaushal can now also boast of having worked with Karan Johar. The director cast Kaushal in his half-hour Lust Stories segment. In the Netflix original, the actor played a loving husband who was all too selfish in bed. “I have always felt comfortable playing a part in projects that revolve around a woman’s emotions. Also, with Karan Johar, it was a huge party on set. You didn’t want to go to your vanity van. You just wanted to stay behind the monitor. That’s where the fun was.”

THERE’S SOMETHING a little too earnest about the way Kaushal speaks. He ascribes his recent successes to “God’s plan”, and adds that being on a film set was his “destiny”: “After 2016, I hadn’t seen a film release in nearly two years. I was working constantly, though, and all those films are releasing one after another now. I can only feel blessed.” Even though he describes 2018 as his “best year yet”, Kaushal isn’t quite done. Anurag Kashyap’s Manmarziyaan releases early September, and Kaushal plays one of the film’s three protagonists. In the trailer, his character seems just as zany as his hairstyle.

Having first cut his teeth as an assistant director on the sets of Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), Kaushal says, “It’s the best schooling I could have asked for.” He credits Kashyap for his education as an actor. “All my knowledge of making films has come to me via Anurag Kashyap, through his eyes and method.” Very often, however, Kashyap disrupts Kaushal’s own methodology. Rather than film the few lines the actor has prepared for, the Wasseypur director will shoot his scene without dialogue. “Sometimes, he will throw another 20 lines at you. As an actor, you start with a vague visualisation of the scene, but on set, you realise it’s nowhere close to what he has devised. He’s on another plane.”

“Every actor wants to be the protagonist, and that applies to me too, but my reasons for doing a film are more instinctive than calculative” - Vicky Kaushal

Kaushal refers to Kashyap as his “mentor”, and he feels it is important for him to work with the director once every couple of years: “Every time you work with him, you feel reborn as an actor.” Kaushal has, at least up until now, been able to satisfy his two-year wish. In 2016, he had starred with Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Kashyap’s Raman Raghav 2.0. The actor remembers a day when he and Siddiqui were preparing for a scene and an assistant director came to tell them their shot was ready. “When I was an AD on Wasseypur, I’d go to tell Nawaz bhai his shot was ready. It really felt like I’d come full circle.”

Raghavan, the police official Kaushal plays in the film, abuses drugs, women and his family with equal indifference. Before auditioning for the role, Kaushal disconnected himself from the world by shutting himself in a room for five days. He explains: “I had a good, breezy, secure childhood. There’s no deep-rooted trauma inside me which causes me a lot of pain. Raghav, on the other hand, feels a lot of that. By cutting myself off everything, I wanted to inhabit his irritable headspace. You can feel angst for emotional reasons, but I wanted to see if I could feel it for physical ones. It was just a little experiment.”

Nothing animates Kaushal more than talk of his craft. His back straightens and his answers flow more freely. He feels it is important an actor prepares: “Preparation, I think, becomes important after you gauge how close or far you are from the character you’re playing.” In his first film, Masaan (2015), Kaushal was cast as a member of Benares’ corpse- burning Dom community. Rather than just turn up for work on the given day, Kaushal decided to spend three weeks in Benares before the shoot.

He says, “The first time I went to the ghats, I couldn’t stay there for more than 15 minutes. It’s not easy to live in a place where all you are breathing is body fat, but for a Dom, that air is no different than oxygen.” Kaushal’s reactions to the chants of “Ram naam satya hai” were also emotional, and he instinctively knew he had to somehow make them seem everyday. Around that time, he discovered a 2008 documentary called Children of the Pyre. A film about seven children who cremate dead bodies in Benares, it had just the kind of background noise he needed to internalise. “You could hear bodies burn and the pyres crackle, so I’d try and sleep to that documentary. Its sounds became my lullaby.”

“With Karan Johar, it was a huge party on set. You didn’t want to go to your vanity van. You just wanted to stay behind the monitor” - Vicky Kaushal

By the time director Neeraj Ghaywan began filming, Kaushal was spending hours in the crematorium. He could stand beside a burning body and complain to a chaiwallah about the lack of sugar in his tea. “Given the kind of realistic film Neeraj wanted to make, the audience ought to have felt I’d been cast from that area. So, in those three weeks, I met people, I learnt their dialect and created my own story.”

Kaushal does make stories his own. In one of Masaan’s most iconic scenes, the actor, while mourning the death of his lover, breaks down on the banks of the Ganga. Though a teetotaller, he decided to imitate his character and drink while shooting. The script didn’t demand he cry, but he suddenly found himself inconsolable. As he improvised lines, much of the crew was bawling. Even the film’s writer, Varun Grover, later admitted the scene belongs to Kaushal alone.

More than popularity, Kaushal says he loves acting for the possibilities of immersion it affords: “I love my job because it gives me the opportunity to play so many parts, to be so many people. I don’t think I ever cease to be Vicky, but for just some time, I’m thinking from someone else’s perspective, and that broadens your perception and understanding of everything.” To play Kamli in Sanju, for instance, he decided to learn Gujarati. “I had to see the world through his eyes. That is what you live for.”

KAUSHAL WAS NEVER a stranger to the Hindi film industry. His father, Sham Kaushal, is one of its busier and more acclaimed action directors. But more than opportunity, Kaushal has inherited a pragmatic awareness. “I knew this could be a hard place. My father never wanted me to get into films,” he says. Having spent a lifetime that didn’t give him weekends or his Diwalis off, Sham Kaushal did not want his son to struggle for his survival. “He wanted me to do my post-graduation in the United States. He thought I should settle there. But then there was an actor in me I badly wanted to discover.”

When he decided to tell his father he was giving up on engineering for a career in Bollywood, Kaushal was all of 22. He remembers that day well, and as he recounts their conversation, he almost recites his father’s part. “He told me, ‘I love this industry, but it will test your patience and your will. Being Sham Kaushal’s son might get a producer or director to have a cup of tea with you, but don’t think that will assure you a role in a film. Nobody is going to put crores of money behind you because you are my son.’” Sham Kaushal urged his son to develop his craft. Vicky took him seriously. He always did.

Born in a house whose length and width both measured 10 feet, Kaushal doesn’t take his present success lightly. “That house didn’t have a separate kitchen or bathroom, but in 2009, when I started my journey as an actor, we shifted to this apartment on the 26th floor. We could see the sea from up there. I was so proud of my father. He had climbed so high.” Kaushal, who still lives with his parents and brother Sunny, seems to enjoy the metaphor of heights. Despite the reputation of his father, he says he has risen in the Hindi film industry from the bottom up. “I’m only three years old here, but I can safely say I have climbed every step of the ladder. I’ve never jumped rungs. I got here by myself.”

For months now, Kaushal and his father have shared a standing joke. The action director often teases him by saying, “You’re my son. You have worked in four-five films, but all you do is philosophise and cry. You should have at least slapped someone by now.” As if to prove him wrong, Kaushal is working on Uri—a film based on the surgical strikes carried out by the Indian Special Forces in response to the 2016 Uri attack. Filming scenes in Serbia, he suffered a tennis elbow. So, was his father more concerned or proud? “Oh, he still doesn’t know. I would remove my sling when I’d Facetime with him.”

A self-confessed Instagram addict, he does take to Twitter to promote his films, and also, at times, those of his colleagues: “I do that from a place of comfort, of knowing we are family. I never do it with the intent of trying to create one.” His already diverse filmography is perhaps a consequence of both his talent and his goodwill. Leading actors have, for long, refused to support their female colleagues. Kaushal has finally filled that gap by playing second lead in Raazi and Lust Stories. His performances in films like Sanju have given him the attention of the industry, its audiences and critics.

It might well be hard to see so much of Kaushal in a single year again, but news of the future is already beginning to trickle. Karan Johar has signed him for his grand Mughal drama Takht, alongside Ranveer Singh, Alia Bhatt and Kareena Kapoor Khan. If anything, 2018 tells us that Kaushal might be impossible to discount. He is usually rather conspicuous.