At the recent first look event of 2.0, special guest Salman Khan paid a lavish, if apt, compliment to Akshay Kumar: “He’s the only one among us who is growing, growing and growing! We all remain stagnant!”
And that’s a shrewd perception of an actor, 25 years old now as a leading man in the industry, who began with a fleeting cameo in Mahesh Bhatt’s delayed Aaj, which was released in 1990 after being ready for three years!
In the roster of our superstars, therefore, Akshay Kumar is the proverbial tortoise, the man who walked “slowly, slowly” and then became a winner. Another fact that clearly sets him apart from the rest is the fact that, today, he does three or four films a year when everyone dedicates their “all” to just a film—or stretching a point, two movies in a year.
His reason for multi-film tasking is equally solid: yes, he does make more money, but in the process, so does the industry, down to its lowliest labour force that gets more work in a big film. And he still gets time off from very meticulously organized work to relax and go for vacations with his family, for, as he puts it, there are at least a 100 days in 365, when he is free!
The evolutionary graph that Salman spoke about is very clear: till 2011, everything was about the star Akshay Kumar, who won some, and lost most. He was retaining his stardom only due to his sheer professionalism, his persona and his approach to work. And then, in 2012, he produced and starred in a key appearance as a modern Lord Krishna in the purposeful OMG—Oh My God!.
And those who thought such purposeful cinema would be a one-off thing from him (after all, he also co-produced the corny Khiladi 786 alongside) got a great surprise: in 2013, we got Special 26 from him; in 2014, it was Holiday; 2015 saw, first, Baby, and then Gabbar…Is Back; and 2016 has already witnessed him zooming with Airlift and Rustom sandwiching his masala movie Housefull 3, and beating the latter in collections.
In retrospect, even though the actor co-produced the above-average Marathi film 72 Miles—Ek Pravas (2013) after OMG—Oh My God!, his image as an action and comedy star preceded him. And it is here, that Neeraj Pandey, the visionary filmmaker, decided to look at him differently: for the serious role of a con-man in Special 26. Sagaciously, the star accepted the film that began his true evolution, which he had, in a way, been planning ever since the early millennium, when his wife Twinkle Khanna, expressed the desire that he win at least one National award!
As Akshay once said, sarcastically, “I did 8 X 10 Tasveer with this in mind, but the film was only watched by 8 or 10 people!”
Others soon cottoned on to the diverse colors of this man, like A.R. Murugadoss, who wrote Holiday with him in mind, and then made its southern version first as Akshay was busy, and Raja Krishna Menon who directed Airlift. But the Neeraj-Akshay equation kept evolving by the film—Baby, Rustom (which Neeraj co-produced and overviewed) and now the forthcoming Crack (a thriller about a schizophrenic) and the political satire Toilet—Ek Prem Katha (with Pandey only as a producer).
Coming up also are Akshay’s turn as a lawyer in Jolly LLB 2, Farhan Akhtar’s and Ritesh Sidhwani’s sports-based period drama Gold, and above all, in terms of expectations, 2.0, the Shankar sequel to Rajinikanth’s blockbuster Robot. Buzz is that the South mega-star will give him top billing as he has termed him “the real hero of the film”, despite his negative role as a crow.
The insignificant ‘90s
Signed first by the veteran Pramod Chakravorty for Deedaar, his first release was, however, Saugandh (1991) helmed by Raj Sippy, which was claimed as a modest success. Dancer, Mr Bond and Deedaar followed and flopped, but Khiladi (1992) was the first turning-point: Akshay Kumar became a star, probably the first and only conventionally good looking actor of his generation.
Still, in 1993, he had only the tepidly successful Waqt Hamara Hai (his first film with multiple film co-star Suniel Shetty) in a slew of flops. 1994 was better, for after the super-hit Mohra came successes and hits like Elaan, Main Khiladi Tu Anari, Jai-Kishen (his first dual role) and Suhaag. It was here that he also starred in the breezy romantic comedy, Yeh Dillagi.
From 1995 to 1999, the actor had a poor innings as, predominantly, an action star: Sabse Bada Khiladi, Khiladiyon Ke Khiladi, Jaanwar and International Khiladi were his only successful films among some 20 releases! Little wonder then that the actor was nicknamed the Khiladi Kumar, though Mr & Mrs Khiladi was a flop. This label stuck to him well into the millennium, despite the failure of Khiladi 420 (2000) and no Khiladi film being made all the way to Khiladi 786.
And yes, Akshay sparkled in the 1997 Dil To Pagal Hai in a sweet special appearance opposite Madhuri Dixit.
A funny thing happens
Besides Pramod Chakravorty and Neeraj Pandey, Akshay also owes it to South whizkid Priyadarshan: the man who saw both action hunks Akshay and Suniel Shetty as funny people, and thus cast them in his dark comic masterpiece Hera Pheri (2000). He kept casting the actor in more funny capers like Garam Masala, Bhagam Bhag, De Dana Dan and Bhool Bhulaiya. Other filmmakers followed suit with Awara Pagal Deewana, Phir Hera Pheri, Welcome, Singh Is Kinng, Heyy Babyy, the Houseful franchise, Singh Is Bliing and finally, in the screamingly hilarious cameo in Dishoom.
It is with and in this phase that Akshay Kumar in the true sense, earned his stripes as a superstar rather than a mere star. The more serious films that came in were Dhadkan, Ek Rishtaa, Andaaz, Namastey London and Waqt—The Race Against Time on the romantic or dramatic side, and Ajnabee, Aankhen, Khakee and Aitraaz among the thrillers.
But his comedies had become so prominent that when Akshay Kumar returned to a full-fledged action role in the 2012’s Rowdy Rathore, it became no less than a mini-event!
The complete star
Akshay has done a lot of things besides acting. He has produced films under two banners—‘Hari Om Productions’ (named after his father) and ‘Grazing Goat Pictures’ (with partners), sung a promotional song in Special 26 with rare flair, hosted television shows, promoted and trained in martial arts, opened fitness and self-defence institutes and owned a kabaddi league. Today, he is a Padma Shri recipient.
But what is unique about the actor is his multiple film screen teams with a variety of talents: actresses Karisma Kapoor, Raveena Tandon, Kareena Kapoor and Katrina Kaif, co-actors Suniel Shetty, Saif Ali Khan and Amitabh Bachchan, filmmakers Raj Sippy, Abbas-Mustan, the Jains of Venus, Sajid Nadiadwala, Firoz Nadiadwala, Suneel Darshan, Keshu Ramsay, Priyadarshan and now Vipul Amrutlal Shah and Neeraj Pandey.
Clearly, even with associates, Akshay Kumar continues to have a “high repeat value”.