It Takes a Lot Not to Be Overshadowed By Amitabh Bachchan. In Gulabo Sitabo, Ayushmann Khurrana Holds His Own

Arré Bench

Ian class="dropcap">If you had to pick one actor from the entire industry who could give you a 9/10 performance regardless of the demands of the role, the one who would top the list is Ayushmann Khurrana. As an actor, he is as bankable as they come. A Rahul Dravid of Bollywood, if you will. His latest role as Baankey Rastogi in Gulabo Sitabo has just added more weight to that argument.

Ayushmann Khurrana is no stranger to playing the common man, the boy next door, but as Baankey, he sheds the charm and confidence for desperation and struggle. Working in a wheat mill and struggling to feed his family, the role is characterised by his constant bickering with Mirza, played by Amitabh Bachchan. Their attempts at one-upmanship and sharp zingers in Hindi-Urdu-Awadhi are the heart of the film. As a simpleton who is trying to scheme his way into acquiring Mirza’s property, Ayushmann once again brings his trademark quirk and freshness to the role that we have been so used to over the years.

Besides, there aren’t too many actors who can hold their own in Amitabh Bachchan's presence. There’s the late Irrfan Khan, who met him fair and square in Shoojit Sircar's Piku, Manoj Bajpayee is another one. But as Khurrana’s last few outings, like last year's Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan have evidenced, the young actor is unafraid of taking serious – and seriously challenging – roles head on.

Even though Khurrana has only played the lead in all his films, he fits the description of a “27-percenter”, a term coined by an Empire magazine article. It is applied to actors like Nathan Fillion or Chiwetel Ejiofor or Oliver Platt – you know the guys whose names you can’t remember but whose faces you’ll immediately recall? These guys transcend genres and deliver performances that make a film 27 per cent better by their mere presence. Khurrana will never be Brad Pitt, but he will most certainly become a John Cusack.

Even though Khurrana has only played the lead in all his films, he fits the description of a “27-percenter”.

In fact, Khurrana’s electric screen presence and effortless, believable acting guarantees that you’re with him throughout the 120-minute runtime of the otherwise frustrating and uneven Meri Pyaari Bindu. The movie, his third outing with Yashraj Films, shifts between the past and the present, called upon him to essay two distinct versions of the same character. In one, he’s the young, optimistic Abhimanyu who dreams of settling down with Bindu and his two children with a smile plastered on his face; in the other, he is the brooding jilted writer.

Through Dream Girl and Shubh Mangal Savdhaan, Ayushmann cemented his reputation for playing small-town characters who act as a critique of passive-aggressive masculinity. As Karam/Pooja in Dream Girl, he delivered a rip-roaring performance as a 20-something guy adept at mimicking the voices of women, and the subsequent comedy of errors on account of having such a talent. Mudit from Shubh Mangal Savdhaan  is a character millennials would hard-relate to, as he brilliantly navigated having a “gents problem” in a middle-class family that wouldn’t understand it, and a bunch of friends who weren’t reliable with help.

You could certainly have been friends with Dum Laga Ke Haisha’s Prem Prakash Tiwari, a young, resentful Haridwar shopkeeper. Khurrana charted an unusual victory for a mostly selfish and unfeeling character by making him immensely likeable. When he complains to his friend about how his life is ruined, especially after “shaadi ka tilak laga diya papa ne”, you find yourself sympathising with him, even though you’re aware that you’re not supposed to. The undertone of innocence and vulnerability that Khurrana brought to Prem, despite his inconsiderate behaviour, held up a mirror to thousands of men in small-town India. Shah Rukh Khan tried it in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, with patchy success – always hindered by his own stardom.

It’s this crazy ability of making every character he plays seem like it was tailor-made for him that makes Ayushmann really stand out.

In a way, Khurrana is repeating the role that made him famous. Vicky Donor released in 2012, the year that Karan Johar launched Alia Bhatt, Varun Dhawan, and Siddharth Malhotra in Student of The Year and Arjun Kapoor made his debut with Ishaqzaade. As Vicky Arora, the Delhi boy who agrees to become a sperm donor in exchange for quick money, Khurrana reflected a middle-class Punjabi entrepreneurial aspiration that was simultaneously novel and believable.

It’s this crazy ability of making every character he plays seem like it was tailor-made for him that makes Ayushmann really stand out. But what will he do next? Will he remain Hindi cinema’s middle-class middle-brow boy, forever the 27-percenter? Your move, Bollywood.

Gulabo Sitabo is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.