I often think of Vicky Kaushal as the Rahul Dravid of acting. It’s not that far-fetched an analogy. As a viewer, you feel a certain sense of calm and bankability when he appears on screen. Like all is well, at least while he’s around. No matter how good or bad the film is, Kaushal possesses an anchor-like intensity – not too flashy, not too studied, yet stubbornly committed to his role. He is perceived as gritty and methodical, but he can also turn on the swag if needed. The grafting and muted stardom aside, there’s also a selflessness – a team-player attitude – about the way he approaches his craft. He’s now a bonafide lead in Hindi cinema, but he emerged through a series of superb supporting roles. His under-the-radar turns thrived on an ability to inform the foreground by personifying the language of the background.
And although he disappears into most of his characters (including in Uri: The Surgical Strike (2019) and the Disney+ Hotstar film Govinda Naam Mera), he always manages to retain a sense of self. It’s a distinct Dravid trait – the bat being an extension of the human, not the body. Kaushal plays fictional people as an extension of the real person we see in interviews and adverts. Despite his versatility, he never stops being Vicky Kaushal, choosing to expand the meaning of who he is rather than who he isn’t. I suppose that’s the mark of an artist who keeps improving, trying, failing, succeeding and being. He’s only eight years into his acting career, but it feels like he’s been around longer. Perhaps he plays for time as much as runs.
On that note, his birthday is as good a time as any to write about my favourite Vicky Kaushal performances. Here are the top five, ranked in ascending order:
Netflix India’s first original film, directed by Anand Tiwari, is a playfully contrived riff on Mumbai’s space-crunch epidemic. It revolves around two young bank colleagues – Sanjay (Kaushal) and Karina (Angira Dhar) – who enter into a relationship of convenience in order to buy their own apartment. In a story full of terrific supporting turns (Ratna Pathak Shah as her Catholic mother; Raghubir Yadav and Supriya Pathak as his chaste Brahmin parents), intelligent camerawork, cross-cultural comedy and big-city plotting, it’s tempting to treat the central journey – from fake couple to real companions – as the weak link. But Kaushal conveys just the right amount of millennial restlessness in his first ‘light’ role. His Bollywood-style chemistry with Dhar forms the backbone of a film that’s often guilty of turning its Mumbai-ness into a cultural stereotype. It’s an easygoing and fluid performance. In his hands, Sanjay isn’t so much a sweaty hustler as a naive striver. Even in the scenes that aren’t his – for instance, when he watches his father get emotional on his final day as a Railway Announcer – the actor displays a natural sense of occupation. It doesn’t matter if the camera is on him or not; Kaushal lives rent-free in Sanjay’s head, not the other way around.
Anurag Kashyap’s edgy voyage into Imtiaz Ali-ruled waters rounded up a pathbreaking year for Kaushal in which he Made Supporting Roles Great Again (Sanju, Raazi, Manmarziyaan, Lust Stories). As the mercurial man-child in a Bollywood love triangle – a sexed-up DJ who keeps flaking out on a lover (Taapsee Pannu) who rebounds with an actual adult (Abhishek Bachchan) – Kaushal somehow manages to cut through the prototype and earn our empathy. He infuses the showy North Indian character, Vicky, with both pathos and heartbreaking immaturity, even when he becomes the toxic ex-boyfriend in an equation that refuses to antagonize him. His commitment phobia forces the female protagonist, Rumi, to settle for a well-meaning stranger, but at no point does Kaushal allow it to seem like Vicky is a deceptive person. The cinema of ‘adolescent confusion’ is not easy to portray, and the actor deserves credit for influencing the story without quite being around. It’s a bit like Rajkummar Rao’s cameo in Queen (2015), except Kaushal manages to embody disappointment in a strangely endearing manner.
Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi is very much an Alia Bhatt movie. As an Indian undercover agent who marries into a high-ranking Pakistani officer’s family, Bhatt’s Sehmat is the narrative core of the nail-biting spy thriller. One of the highlights of the film, however, is the rare humanization of the ‘enemy’. Sehmat’s moral conflict is rooted in the fact that this family is noble, proud and as loyal to their nation as she is to hers. She is so effectively torn between head and heart because her job – otherwise shaped by a ruthless clarity of thought and a calculated sense of numbness – starts to feel wrong. The well-trained young woman’s emotional defences are penetrated, most of all, by her marriage to a good man. Vicky Kaushal’s disarmingly tender performance as this man, Iqbal Syed, is the key to Sehmat’s transformation. Without him – and his shy-boy-trapped-in-army-officer reading of Iqbal’s masculinity – Raazi might not have added up. The reason she is undone by feeling is because Kaushal’s calibration of Iqbal – his romantic awkwardness; that memorable kissing scene; his puppy-dog eyes when he discovers the betrayal – is all feeling. He conveys the sort of blind trust that suggests how Iqbal might have married her even if he knew who she really was. Or maybe he did know but desperately hoped she would change. It’s that kind of soulful turn: Kaushal becomes the drowning Jack to Rose’s sinking ship. Interestingly, his character here is the third wheel – the boring ‘husband material’ that Abhishek Bachchan played in Manmarziyaan – in Sehmat’s torrid love story with a country that repeatedly lets her down.
Vicky Kaushal’s breakout performance is marked by a scene-of-the-year frontrunner: His character, a young man named Deepak, breaks down while drinking with his friends. His girlfriend died in an accident and he simply can’t fathom the pain anymore: “yeh dukh kaahe khatam nahi hota, bey?”. Kaushal’s quivering voice and sunken body language elevate the moment into an image of profound tragedy. But it’s the narrative context – Deepak, an aspiring engineer, is from a Dom family working in the cremation ghats of Varanasi; Shalu was an upper-caste girl – that Kaushal exudes with every broken gesture. His inability to understand his own grief stems from not just his youth or the cruelty of a movie romance cut short, but also the lyrical irony of his job: He guides death for a living. He burns corpses, absorbing the indignity of a grief that’s not his every day. Deepak Kumar is shaped by those flames for better or worse, and Kaushal ensures that we never forget how the shock of losing – not so much the headiness of loving – is what pushes Deepak’s heart towards an actual future. He knows that Shalu’s family would have torn them apart anyway, but he is both undone and rebuilt by the vagaries of fate. Masaan provides the first glimpse of Kaushal’s uncanny talent to be someone else by being the most empathetic version of himself.
The best part about Vicky Kaushal’s career-defining performance is that, for the most part, it doesn’t feel like one. As Udham Singh, the Indian revolutionary who assassinated the Englishman responsible for the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre, Kaushal – like director Shoojit Sircar’s vision – defies the tropes of the modern freedom-fighter biopic. The non-linear film presents him as a sullen, almost indifferent, man whose revenge is more of a marathon than a sprint. He stages rebellion as the loneliest job in the world. Despite possessing the sort of backstory (orphan, globe-trotting spy, multiple aliases, communist, Bhagat Singh comrade) that begs for the Bollywood treatment, Kaushal’s rendition of Udham Singh stays remarkably rooted and distant. Given that the story begins at the end and ends at the beginning, you can detect the actor’s bareboned reading of the role: The man’s patriotism slowly morphs into the boy’s grief. The political collapses into the personal. He is not avenging the broken identity of a nation so much as the wounded humanity of a place. By the time the massacre hijacks the climax in gruelling detail, Kaushal’s physical control shapes the tragedy. The 19-year-old Udham is so consumed by the plurality of loss that he nearly forgets that his girlfriend is among the dead. It’s a full circle from the Masaan moment, where his breakdown was ignited solely by her death despite being surrounded by funerals. But Udham Singh runs out of emotions to feel; it’s why his future – and this film’s past – is so stubbornly meditative. It’s a deeply felt performance that, for some part, begins to look like one.
Kaushal is both a hug and a hoot as the Gujarati Circuit to Ranbir Kapoor’s Sanjay Dutt. By embodying the colourful conscience of the troubled protagonist, he makes a Bollywood caricature look like one of the most endearing best friends in recent memory.
Kaushal overcooks the brood as the sinking cop in Anurag Kashyap’s serial-killer thriller. But his compelling screen presence – and his commitment to the moral abyss of addiction – acts as the perfect foil to Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s blistering performance.