Biographical films make Vicky Kaushal feel boxed in. “It’s like enjoying yourself in a playground, while being acutely aware that there’s a fence,” says the actor. Given that Vicky has hit it out of the park with his performances in Sardar Udham, on Amazon Prime Video, and Uri: The Surgical Strike, and is now heading into filming for Sam Bahadur (all biopics), his statement is laced with irony. “There’s a responsibility that comes with essaying a part that is based on a real-life character and you do feel the weight of that — especially when the person is a national hero. You can take certain cinematic liberties, but only while being constantly conscious that this isn’t fiction,” he clarifies.
Yet, somewhere along this revolutionary road, Vicky Kaushal has found freedom: he doesn’t dwell on whether he will be typecast as an actor, he won’t commit to a romantic comedy just to break the mould and he can’t be bothered with updating his Instagram page daily just because someone expects it of him. That’s the sort of freedom that comes on the back of one box office blockbuster after another and Vicky is grateful for it.
For a boy who had no acting aspirations whatsoever, Vicky seems born to the spotlight. “I was very shy as a child, but I always felt liberated when I was on stage,” he recalls. Academically inclined, he was pursuing engineering in the field of electronics and telecommunications when an industrial visit in his second year of college catalysed a hard reset. “I entered that workspace and realised I didn’t belong there. I have never felt something so purely and so strongly in my life. I stood there and knew I could never do that. I would never be happy there. That was the first time I asked myself, ‘What gives me happiness?’ and the answer presented itself as another question: ‘Acting?’ It was a given that I had to finish my graduation properly, which I did. I scored well, I participated in a campus interview, I even had a job letter in hand, but then I took a complete detour. I finished college in May 2009 and, two months later, I was sitting in an acting institute in Mumbai. It was like I had graduated and then enrolled for the junior KG of a completely different life,” he laughs.
Why Vicky took the engineering route to arrive at an acting career is more of a mystery when you consider that his father is acclaimed action director Sham Kaushal. Yet, his proximity to Bollywood never lured him into that life at an early age. We laugh about the fact that the only two occasions when he tagged along to work with his father were to see Hrithik Roshan and Shah Rukh Khan. “I was in Grade 10 and Hrithik Roshan was this phenomenon that had taken the world by storm. I was also a victim of that storm — I still am — and so I visited the sets of Fiza with my Dad. I didn’t really want to see how a shooting is done… I was only interested in seeing Hrithik Roshan in the flesh. That was the first time I realised that a three-hour film is not shot in three hours! I found being on set thoroughly boring though, because they just kept doing the same thing again and again and again,” Vicky chuckles. “The second time was when Dad was shooting with Shah Rukh sir for Aśoka.”
From giving auditions in 2013 to being the breakout star of 2018, Vicky’s meteoric rise to ‘bankable actor’ is enviable — but that is just a superficial reading of his story. “There have been many points at which I have been so disheartened that I have wondered about the choice not to pursue engineering… I graduated at 22 and then at 25, when my college friends were sharing pictures of their new cars and houses, I was travelling in busses and trains, trying to crack auditions for jobs that may have paid me perhaps ` 5,000. It felt like everything was going according to plan for everyone but me,” Vicky recalls. “When I was at my lowest, it was my mother’s faith in me that kept me going. Her blessings have brought me this far.”
The strong bonds of family continue to keep Vicky grounded as he summits professional peaks. He talks with fondness about his brother Sunny, who recently featured in Kunal Deshmukh’s Shiddat: “I am the guy who will choose the same flavour of ice-cream for years on end, while Sunny will experiment all the time. He was the kid who would break toys just to figure out what was inside! He will question what we are doing and why, he will question conditioning, and yet he is also the most Zen guy, emotionally. He may be the youngest in our family, but he is the one sitting there talking sense to everyone when they are fretting about something.” While Vicky confesses to being a hopeless cook whose repertoire is restricted to instant noodles, cold coffee and eggs, he credits Sunny with being adept in the kitchen. “There’s a standing joke in our house that if the kitchen is a mess, I’ve been in there trying to cook,” he laughs.
Armed with the ingredients for success, Vicky has come a long way from assisting Anurag Kashyap on Gangs of Wasseypur to headlining Sardar Udham. “Every film I have ever done has marked a milestone for me. From Masaan to Uri, I have felt my evolution through each experience — not just professionally, but as a person too.” While working on Sardar Udham, for instance, Vicky has absorbed the amazing work ethic of filmmaker Shoojit Sircar, who has committed years of his life to studying the Indian freedom struggle, to ensure an authentic experience for his audience. “Working with Shoojit da for Sardar Udham has just blown my mind. He’s like an encyclopaedia on the freedom struggle of this country. He has studied it with so much passion… he is another Zen guy who knows his core… it took me quite a while to realise that he doesn’t actually live in Mumbai. He lives in Kolkata with his family and he comes to Mumbai for just 10 days in a month and then he goes back to his meditation, waking up in the morning, gardening a little bit, playing football with kids in the society, cooking breakfast for his kids… for me, that’s just a revelation: that you can live life like this and still make movies. You can be in the movie industry and still be different (and distant) from it. It’s all a learning experience for me.”
There’s a clarity of thought and a conviction to Vicky Kaushal that bodes well for his future. There’s also an honesty about him that strikes a chord, even while he insists that he “doesn’t want to be a completely open book, where everything (in his private life) is up for discussion.”
Understandably, we do not discuss his ‘alleged’ actress girlfriend and yet there’s a sense of having travelled beyond the script and past the façade for an intimate view into Vicky’s world — alive with action, ambition and ardour.
Coming of age as an actor
ON HIS THEATRE DAYS
The idea of doing professional theatre work scared me because I used to feel like that’s an arena for gladiators and I’m just a new guy whose confidence would be smashed in front of these great theatre actors. But, in 2011, I took the plunge and started doing theatre with Manav Kaul.
ON SECOND CHANCES
I knew for a fact that cinema is not a testing ground; once you get an opportunity, if you pass you go further, if you fail, you’ve just failed. You don’t get a second chance. Theatre became that stage, that opportunity where I could explore myself as an actor, where I could make mistakes, where I could rehearse, where I could just be a bad actor and still get another chance — and I am so thankful to everyone who gave me those opportunities.
WHICH CAME FIRST
Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana was technically my first film, but the first audition for a protagonist’s part that I cracked was for Mozez Singh’s Zubaan in 2013.
On brother Sunny
I am the guy who will choose the same flavour of ice-cream for years on end, while Sunny will experiment all the time. He was the kid who would break toys just to figure out what was inside!
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Decoding the character of sardar udham
THE SCARS OF JALLIANWALA
When I visited Jallianwala Bagh for the first time, I had no idea that I would ever be playing Sardar Udham Singh in a film. My native place is two hours away from Jallianwala. I visited as a child. It was overwhelming to see all those bullet marks! When you look at the well, you can feel that suffocating feeling — to think that these people had no way out; that thought does linger. 1,650 rounds fired on unarmed families, not on warriors or soldiers,just normal people — children and grandparents. You can never look at it as just a number; it has an impact on you.
PLAYING UDHAM SINGH
The advantage that I had, in terms of nailing the lingo or understanding the culture of the character, is that I am a Punjabi who was raised listening to these stories. In fact, I feel like it was culturally engrained in me from an early age. The challenge was in recreating a person who was really a man of mystery… there isn’t much first-hand information on him to go by. He had different names and identities, he was under the radar for most of the time, nobody knew where he was, or who he was.
THE JOURNEY WITHIN
We took what we could from facts and documents (about Sardar Udham), but, for me as an actor, it was important to touch the honest note of his emotional state of mind. To understand how a person can live with this pain and angst for 21 years; what he must have seen on one evening that just changed him as a person forever. I relied greatly on Shoojit da and his vision. His take on revolutionaries is completely different, so he sees Udham Singh as a friend or an ally and that’s how he wanted me to portray the character — not as some superhero, but just as one of us.