Mumbai’s Filmalaya studio in Andheri West is buzzing. The cameraman is in heated discussion with the director, jabbing his index finger at the two cameras, comparing and contrasting the two frames. Crew members in black T-shirts are muttering into mikes and scribbling on their spreadsheets. It’s noisy and over-airconditioned, making the constant supply of coffee and tea a necessity. I feel useless, perched on my chair amidst the hullabaloo.
After waiting for three hours, four cups of tea and countless yawns, I get to meet Akshay Kumar. My first impression is, “He’s so fit and tall for his age!” (Kumar is 48 and five feet eleven.) He says, “Oh! You are the one who has flown in from Delhi?” and introduces himself, “Hi. I am Akshay. Sorry to have kept you waiting.”
I get to discover that Kumar is a man of few words. Sample this:
“Are you treated like a celebrity at home?”
“No, I am not.”
“Do you regret that you didn’t complete your education?”
“Yes. But my college principals don’t.”
Maybe he’ll talk about his son, Aarav, who got a first degree black belt in Japanese martial art Kudo after nine years of training.
“How’s your relationship with your son?”
I wait for a few seconds and hope for more words to tumble out. But I’m disappointed, yet again.
“This can’t work,” I think. ‘How’ll I ever get a story out of one-word answers?’ Perhaps I’m thinking out loud because Kumar says, “Oh! You want detailed answers? To aisa bolna chahiye na.”
In familial terrain
Suddenly, Kumar opens up and becomes more loquacious – about family, the industry and a lot more.
“I have a very good rapport with my son – more like a friend than a father… I don’t know (if he wants to be an actor). He is just a 13-year-old boy. That question is not even in my head right now. I want him to become a good human being,” says Akshay. “He has his own footsteps, he has his own mark, he has his own vision, his own perspective of life. I wouldn’t want him to follow in my footsteps. I want him to have his own ways, I will be very happy with that.”
Akshay Kumar and his wife, Twinkle Khanna, married for 15 years, are opposites. “For instance, she is blunt, I am diplomatic. I like vegetarian food, she likes non-vegetarian. I don’t have much anger in me; she gets angry easily. So we are poles apart, and that’s the best part.”
After Kumar’s wife decided to quit movies (her last was E Nivas’s Love Ke Liye Kuch Bhi Karega in 2001), Kumar became the celebrity of the house. But today she is not just a star wife, but a talked about columnist, author (her first book Mrs Funnybones was an instant hit) and opinion maker with a strong point of view. Does her success make him insecure?
“Why should I feel insecure about anything? I am more glad than anybody. It makes me happy that she can find a new career, from being an actress, from being an ace interior designer, to something else. And she can change whenever she wants to, whatever she wants to, because her mind is brilliant.”
The chosen one
The downside of interviewing Akshay Kumar is that he (like so many in Bollywood) tends to talk in clichés. His years in the industry have been “amazing and unbelievable”. He is thankful to his fans who have given him “so much love and affection”. He wouldn’t be where he is today “if it weren’t for my fans who buy tickets for my films”. He dedicates his journey to “the people who come and watch my films”. But there is some wisdom in these clichéd responses.
Because acting was never part of Kumar’s plan. “I didn’t realise (that acting is my calling) till I got my first film. It has a small emotional story attached to it, but it just happened!” I prod him. “This is one question that I’ve answered ten thousand times,” he says wearily. “People who are going to read your interview, know it by now. They may shoot you if I say it again.”
But I’ll take the risk and repeat the story. In 1989, Akshay got a modelling assignment for which he had to fly to Bangalore in the evening. “I had woken up at 5 am to exercise and at 5.15, I received a call saying: ‘Where are you?’ to which I replied that I was at home,” Kumar said on The Anupam Kher Show. “I was told that I was extremely unprofessional and would never be able to work. That was when I realised the flight was that morning itself! I literally cried and when I did manage to reach the airport, the plane had already left.”
That evening, he wandered into Mumbai’s Natraj Studios where he met director and producer Pramod Chakraborty’s make-up artist Narendra Dada. “He asked me: ‘Beta, hero banna hai?’ At that point, if he had asked me if I wanted to become a character artiste, I would have agreed to that as well. Then, Pramod da saw me and said: ‘Photo achhi hai tumhari, hero banoge?’” And he signed a cheque for Rs 5,001 as token payment for the first of three movies starring Kumar. “If I had made it for the flight in the morning, I would still have been a model in Bangalore. After that day, I have never looked back.”
Kumar’s family was elated. “Who wouldn’t be? To get to see their son on screen – that is the biggest thing for any family.” Especially when your family is composed of movie buffs. Going to the movies was the only form of entertainment Kumar’s family knew then. “We would buy Rs 15 tickets, even Rs 8 tickets for that matter… From Kanti Shah’s films, to Yash Chopra’s to Karan Johar’s – till today we watch every film.”
Kumar reminisces about the first day on the sets of his first release in 1991 – Raj Sippy’s Saugandh opposite Raakhee and Shantipriya. “The first shot that I gave was a handstand. My legs were coming towards the camera. Log sabse pehle apna chehra dikhaate hain, maine apne taange dikhaayi thi camera ko,” he laughs. “And the second scene was Rakheejee slapping me.” He laughs even harder.
From modelling to ranking 9th on Forbes’s global list of the highest-paid actors in the world (outdoing actors like Shah Rukh Khan, Leonardo Di Caprio and Brad Pitt) in 2016– Akshay Kumar has come a long way since the day he missed his flight. He has done more than 100 films (including Rustom).
To B or not to B?
Over his 25-year-long career, Kumar has been no stranger to criticism. “A lot of people called me a B-grade actor. I did feel nice because I thought a B-grade actor was a ‘bread and butter’ actor... I considered every film as a film, regardless of what grade it was. Automatically, I became an A-grade actor,” said Kumar on The Anupam Kher Show.
This June, Housefull 3 garnered (unanimous) bad reviews from film critics: Anupama Chopra from The Hindustan Times rated it a 1.5, calling it “racist, sexist and willfully rude about people who are differently abled. But the worst sin, in my book, is that it’s just not funny”; the Indian Express headline read thus: “Me to Brain, ‘leaving you behind for a bit, don’t mind’” and its film critic, Shubhra Gupta, decided to grace the movie with – no stars.
However, Kumar is impressively unfazed. He says casually, if given a chance, he’d choose a continuous five-week run on the box office over a five-star from a critic. “I would give up my five-star rating for a one-star in exchange for ten weeks on the box office… Box office numbers are what matter! And if anybody says otherwise, woh jhoot bol rahe hain.”
Housefull 3 crossed the Rs 100-crore mark in a matter of days, making it one of the highest-opening week grossers of 2016. But Housefull 3 wasn’t his only hit this year. There were two other Rs 100-crore hits in 2016 – Airlift (about the evacuation of thousands of Indians trapped in West Asia during the Gulf War) and Rustom (based on the infamous Nanawati shootout case).
That is not to say that Kumar is oblivious to criticism. There are some critics “who talk sense” and whose reviews he reads and values. But he has a problem with the thousands of people who exploit the power of the pen (or Internet) and masquerade as know-it-alls.
“In cricket, when a cricketer performs or doesn’t, it’s the doyens of Indian cricket commenting – a Sunil Gavaskar or a Ravi Shastri,” explains Kumar. “These are people who have seen the world, have knowledge of the sport, who know what a ball is, what a mid-on is or a mid-off, who can judge as soon a person lifts the bat if he is a good batsman or not. But then there are some who assume that kyunki hamare pass ab kalam aa gaya hai, to bus ab hum band bajayenge”.
Has leading a life where every minute can become the subject of headlines taught him to be thick-skinned? “Thick-skinned? You mean to ask if I have become a rhinoceros?” laughs Kumar. But he concedes that the need to stay away from controversy has made him diplomatic over the years. “But also I don’t think I have the right to talk wrong about anybody.” Surely, having an opinion about something is not wrong. “It isn’t. But one should keep one’s opinion to oneself… I have a very strong feeling about this, that I don’t have the right to give my opinion about anybody and to tamper with someone else’s mind about somebody. There is a saying that goes ‘mind your own business.’”
Twenty-five years. Over 100 films. And numerous hits. Yet Kumar has never been part of any Bollywood ‘camp’. From Neeraj Pandey’s Special 26 to Milan Luthria’s Once Upon A Time in Mumbai Dobaara!, Akshay Kumar has worked with an array of directors and producers.
“I do not believe in camps. In my head, I live in a palace and I have lots of space for everyone. I do not belong to cramped camps,” he said in an interview in 2012.
It was not deliberate, he tells Brunch, accepting that it was because he didn’t get many offers from big production houses. “If I had got a big banner (film), I would have loved to do it. But at that time I didn’t get one. So I kept doing (whatever I got) and I kept working hard. Because you have to survive. And when you are a survivor, you just keep working and then from that I created opportunities.”
There was a time when Kumar delivered as many as 15 flops, one after the other. “I am not a loser. I don’t give up; I keep on trying. This is what self-defence and martial arts has taught me,” says Kumar. That is why the actor tackles four films a year, when others stick to one.
Kumar is one of the most disciplined actors in the industry. “If there is one aspect of Bollywood that I’d want to knock out, it would be unpunctuality,” says Kumar. “(Punctuality) has been embedded in me since childhood. Even if I have to enter a plane, I want to be the first one to enter. I don’t want to be the last, because I would be very embarrassed? Ki iske wajah se plane late ho gaya!”
Does it get difficult to work with other people? “Things change. When I shoot, most people come on time. They respect the fact that I respect time,” says Kumar.
What has not changed? He thinks for more than a few seconds, and says: “The people who make bald wigs, they still cannot make them properly.” Of course, he looks very serious.
Twinkle Twinkle’s Little Star
The proud wife talks about her good husband
* Akshay has done different kinds of films. What is your opinion of his choice of films?
I really enjoyed Special 26 and Baby along with his first Hera Pheri , which is my favourite in a way. I think he is at an interesting phase in his career where one never knows what he is going to come up with next, like the cameo he did in Dishoom.
* What is the best thing about being married?
It is wonderful to spend years with a mind so unlike yours and to learn and grow, imbibing the best in each other.
* Akshay thinks he is diplomatic and you are blunt. Comment.
He has a great sense of what works and yes, he is very diplomatic and I am outspoken. But we enjoy these differences between us.
* What kind of rapport does he share with the kids?
He is a very hands-on father. I’ve left the kids with him when I travel and when I come back home, the kids always look fine. But the house seems to fall apart for some reason, right from the computer to the doorbell.
* Your book, Mrs Funnybones was a hit. How supportive was Akshay through the process of finishing the book?
He reads everything I write first and then like a school child I wait for him to give me marks, he has always been my biggest supporter. But he is also my censor board at home as sometimes I do go too far.
* What’s life with a workaholic like?
I can’t even think about working at the pace he does. He has always been a workaholic, but he also comes home every day at 7 pm and disconnects from the movie business, so that evens it out.
What the others say
Mayank Shekhar | Film critic
“Akshay Kumar is a machine. He is like a company that delivers quarterly results. That’s how he has done what are called B and C grade movies – which he calls his butter and cheese movies. If you have that kind of output, and if the idea in any case is to continue to entertain the audience in some form and keep them ‘entertained’, and make your buck and move on to the next – then he is the guy. He is more McDonald’s than a gourmet meal.”
Anupama Chopra | Film critic
“He has become a far more interesting actor, because he is juggling the very standard masala movies, with far more interesting films, which require him to act. He will do a Gabbar Is Back, where there was a character named Gabbar, and a lot of nostril-flaring moments. And then he will do an Airlift, a Special 26, and put his might behind movies that are far more textured than the things you normally see him in... He has been around for over 20 years. For an actor to last that long, and be at the top of their game – it’s not easy. But because he does so many films (3-4 a year), he mixes quality with quantity. So you are looking at a lot of mileage.”
Sajid Khan | Director (Housefull, Heyy Baby, Housefull 2)
“If you Google the word ‘professional and punctuality’, I think his name will come up. Besides that he is great fun to be with. He takes work very seriously. The way he looks after his mother, his sister, his kids, his wife – he is a very nice family man. He is a picture-perfect person, professionally and personally.”
Anees Bazmee | Director ( Singh is King, Welcome Back)
“For any director, working with Akshay Kumar is a kamaal maamla because I don’t think there is anyone as punctual in the industry. Once he builds his trust with the director, he is absolutely non-interfering – full faith ke saath puri picture karte hain... Also, another good thing about him is that he is very normal – when you meet him or when he comes for shooting, you don’t feel that you are working with a star.”
From HT Brunch, September 11, 2016
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