TIME 100 Talks
June 17, 2020 5:44 AM EDT

Ayushmann Khurrana has made a name for himself as the rare Bollywood star who takes on socially conscious roles that are also big commercial hits across India.

His breakthrough film in 2012, Vicky Donor, cast him as a sperm donor and dealt with infertility. Earlier this year, he became the first mainstream Bollywood actor to play a gay man in a leading role in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (Extra Special Wedding)—a comedy about a same-sex wedding in a small town.

Khurrana said at the TIME100 Talks event Wednesday that he believes playing unconventional roles can be help bring about progressive change and unite India, which has struggled with social and religious divides, particularly in recent months. The country’s 1.3 billion people belong to a variety of religions, with 22 languages recognized in the Constitution and hundreds more indigenous languages. Some two-thirds of the country live in rural areas.

“We have no dearth of taboo subjects or social issues in a country and that provides a lot of fodder for great cinema,”he said.

Wednesday’s event also featured AI pioneer Kai-Fu Lee, tennis star Naomi Osaka, former U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and a performance by K-pop group Monsta X.

The 35-year-old star said it’s not enough to make meaningful films for critics and art-house theaters. “It’s just like preaching to the converted,” he said. Instead, he would rather “show it in a very engaging and an entertaining way so that it reaches the grassroot level.”

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Last year, Khurrana starred in Article 15, a film allegedly inspired by the 2014 gang rape allegations in Badaun district. Khurrana played a police officer tackling racism and the dismissal of caste-based crimes in rural India. The actor recognizes that telling stories about discrimination and representing marginalized people—as he did when playing a gay man—”comes with a great sense of responsibility.”

Tackling hard social issues doesn’t necessarily mean having “dwell in the darkness” of society, Khurrana said. Instead, he believes it’s important for films to show not just what society is right now, but “what society can become.” From pollution to climate change, Khurrana believes Bollywood should use cinema as a vehicle for tackling difficult subjects.

Beyond cinema, Khurrana is using his platform in India to advocate for social causes. During the pandemic, he has written poems of gratitude for frontline workers. On June 14, Khurrana took to social media to mourn the loss of his friend and fellow actor Sushant Singh Rajput who died by suicide on June 14.

“We don’t take mental health seriously,” Khurrana said about India, which has one of the highest suicide rates in the region. “We need to stay connected. That’s a basic human need.”

If you or someone you know may be contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line. In emergencies, call 911, or seek care from a local hospital or mental health provider.

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