Give a woman a child delivery scene and a man a big weeping scene — chances are that they will walk away with all the major acting awards of the year. Other big movie moments that can get the acting community thanking everyone, from their moms to cooks, are emotional outbursts, physical disabilities and grandiloquent death scenes.
Now Akshaye Khanna covers the entire gamut of these winning tricks — except the physical disabilities unless you count a wild variety of beards ranging from the bushy to the bushier. There is little doubt that his performance in Gandhi My Father, should earn him an armful of statuettes, medals and trophies. The upbeat news is that the actor will be more than deserving of the laurels. The strongly written part of Harilal Gandhi, the loser whom history chose to ignore, is raised to another level by Khanna.
<b1>Unafraid to play a character, his warts and failures revealed in merciless close-ups, Khanna indicates that paragons of virtues are dead. Today’s movie hero can be a failure and proud of it. Over the years, most actors have softened their characters’ weaknesses by doctoring scripts or by just bullying directors to make them obscenely heroic. At long last, now heroes have stopped springing from the womb of fantasy: the more believable the more convincing.
Khanna, at 32, has been in 24 films and has always been more credible in roles that connect to the real. Besides Gandhi my Father, he has been at his best as the implosive soldier in Border (1997) and the taciturn painter in love with an older woman in Dil Chahta Hai (2001). By contrast, he hasn’t been entirely at home with the potboiler peregrinations, evidenced most horrifyingly in Shaadi Se Pehle (2006), Aap Ki Khatir (2006) and the recently released Naqaab.
Obviously, like most actors he would like to be successful in senseless as well as sensible cinema. His forays in the ‘sensible’ have been infrequent but memorable. Schooled at the Bombay International and Ooty’s Lovedale, he could have gone to Wharton University but the younger son of actor Vinod Khanna and his first wife Gitanjali Talyerkhan chose to debut in Himalayaputra produced by his father. The hodgepodge of a love story-cum-actioner laid an egg but a sensational newcomer was hatched.
Shadow of James Dean
Staying at Hanging Garden with his mother and elder brother Rahul, Akshaye Khanna is more of a punctilious, south Bombay townie than a robust Punjabi. Unlike most actors, he reads books and like most actors, he is complicated. Some eight years ago, a magazine cover shoot with his Taal co-actors, Anil Kapoor and Aishwarya Rai, was a nightmare. He discarded a heap of jackets for the shot without saying why, sulked in a make-up room and then suddenly materialised as if he were Mr Congeniality.
Whether he’s mercurial or just moody, Akshaye Khanna has often sported that I’m-a-loner James Dean-like attitude. Lighting up a cigarette, he can stare at a wall blankly, without giving a clue about what’s buzzing in his head. On the other hand, he can laugh at jokes uproariously (he never cracks one) and can even cement an unlikely friendship with Anil Kapoor who’s as gregarious as Khanna is introverted.
Riddle of contrasts
From all accounts, Khanna is a disciplined actor, known for his punctuality and involvement in a project — when it is going in the correct direction. Disappointingly, there have been instances when he has not kept his word, like promising to show up at an event and then not offering a word of explanation why he didn’t.
Most journalists are scared to interview him, others are indifferent because he rarely yields copy that goes beyond the usual if-you’re-interested-in-my-private-life-SCRAM! If at all, he will respond vaguely about Tara Sharma, a teenage-hood friend, whom he was expected to marry, till she announced her engagement to another. “I wish her luck,” Khanna stated on record, his voice masking any flicker of emotion.
Auspiciously Akshaye Khanna is far more accessible and paradoxically ‘real’ in the movies. Often in the course of Gandhi My Father, you wonder how a closed-in person like him could uncork his bottled feelings — and that too with conviction and empathy.
His hairpiece, loopy smile and make-up may not be perfect in Gandhi My Father at several points. But in emoting, he is flawless as a son in the shadow of the Mahatma. That one scene in which he rushes into a railway platform, half-drunk, and hands Kasturba a dry orange, the token of his love, is performed poignantly. So is his anguish before his wife’s dead body and his helplessness on accepting a whisky after weeks of giving up alcohol.
Once in a while there have been unconfirmed reports that Khanna Jr is planning to set up a film production company and that he has been toiling at a script. Be that as it may, he is at his most likeable while portraying a man who is well-intentioned but ends up hurting others… and himself. No one could have done a Harilal Gandhi with more psychological accuracy than our very own James Dean.