Why Akshay Kumar is India's most bankable actor
Rated by Forbes as the highest paid actor in India and the fourth-highest in the world, the 52-year-old action hero of yore has toted a score of over 130 films in a career.
It's been raining movies for Akshay Kumar. With the premiere of the ticklish comedy Good Newwz worldwide on December 27, this will be his fourth avidly-anticipated release of the year. After all, laughter is the best panacea currently at the cash counters.
Earlier this year, Housefull 4 - whatever you may think of its quality - preceded by the period drama Kesari and the reality-based Mission Mangal, also made whoopee at the box office.
Rated by Forbes as the highest paid actor in India and the fourth-highest in the world (topped by Dwayne Johnson, Chris Hemsworth and Robert Downey Jr), the 52-year-old action hero of yore has toted a score of over 130 films in a career that kicked off in 1991 with the almost-forgotten Saugandh, set against a feudal order.
The debut was far from auspicious. Yet, his co-star Rakhee Gulzar had categorically stated, "Mark my words, this boy will go places." Also, Kajol, his heroine in Yeh Dillagi (1994), had remarked, "Of all the actors on the scene today, he is the fittest and most camera-friendly."
The actor's policy, or call it his selection of roles, has been smartly strategised. Alternating between formula action-comedy entertainers, more plausible social tracts and fervent patriotic sagas, Akshay - born Rajiv Hari Om Bhatia in a middle-class family - has kept his eye trained on commercial success as well as characterisations, which take him off-the-beaten track. Plus, there's the ace of sheer quantity up his sleeve. Unlike his peers, especially Aamir and Shah Rukh Khan, he doesn't dilly-dally over signing up new projects.
Already, he's been shooting around the clock for his next year's line-up, which include the cops-versus-criminal saga Sooryavanshi, the horror flick Laxmmi Bomb and the historical pageant Prithviraj, in which he essays the role of the legendary warrior king Prithviraj Chauhan. In other words, Akshay Kumar isn't resting easy on his laurels and as a workaholic, appears to be ensuring that he's never out of the public mind.
When I met him lately at a five-star hotel in Mumbai, he appeared to have mellowed with age, warmly embracing every journalist questioning him for bytes for the TV camera.
Fortuitously, Akshay doesn't take himself too seriously, I suspect, and that unassuming demeanour has become his most likeable quality. This is in sharp contrast to the younger Akshay, who would be wary of the media determined to ghettoise him in the image of the 'Khiladi' or the Roving Romeo. In addition, the reviewers (and this includes myself) wouldn't exactly praise him to high heaven.
For one, his reed-thin voice lacked modulation. During emotionally dramatic scenes, he was hopelessly wooden and his facial expressions lacked variation. His forte was incredible bouts drawing from his training in the martial arts, besides a natural-born talent of executing the quintessential Bollywood dance sequences with elan.
I can't honestly say that he has now become an accomplished, complete actor but, unarguably, he has improved both his on- and off-screen persona. In recent years, sincerely-felt performances were executed by him in Airlift (2016), Rustom (2016), for which be bagged the Best Actor National Award, Jolly LLB 2 (2017) and PadMan (2018). When a screenplay gives him an opportunity to vary himself before the camera, he has asserted that he can deliver the goods.
On the personal front, his image today is that of a caring husband to Twinkle Khanna and a doting father to their two children - 17-year-old Aarav and seven-year-old Nitara. Whenever he can get some time off, pictures of the star on holiday with his family go viral. Those liaisons with actresses Pooja Batra, Raveena Tandon and Shilpa Shetty have been erased from the memory files.
That Akshay can tap into his personal experiences to enhance his performances should be a given. Before entering show business, he had waged a Herculean struggle to find his calling. He worked at a travel agency in Kolkata, at a hotel in Dhaka, as a jewellery salesman in Delhi, as a waiter and chef in Bangkok, and as a photographer's assistant in Mumbai. His childhood was largely spent with his grandmother in a small house on the famed Paranthe Wali Gali in Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi. Here's the stuff that biographies and biopics are made of.
The Akshay Kumar we see on screen, though, is far from being down-at-heel or vulnerable - perhaps because the audience wouldn't like to see him as a downbeat struggler. He dresses way better at the film soirees and responds to controversial questions with a practised sense of humour. He may be trolled for asking Indian prime minister Narendra Modi if he eats mangoes in a televised interview. Yet, with smart rejoinders, the trolls have been silenced.
Clearly then, the Akshay of today isn't the sulking, somewhat involuted actor when he was facing a slump in his career. To prove the naysayers wrong, he remained resilient, and now occupies an unshakable place in the A-list of Bollywood heroes.
Postscript: I didn't pose any questions to Akshay Kumar on meeting him lately. There was no point. The success story of the boy from Chandni Chowk speaks for itself. Patience and self-conviction pay.