I LIKE to think of Akshay Kumar as the People’s Champion. It is a nickname that was given to Muhammad Ali by Elvis Presley in the 1970s. And then WWE legend Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson gave it to himself recently. It suits Akshay superbly. After 30 years in Bollywood, when he turned 50 last year, Akshay undertook two films whose stories were sensitive Indian social issues that bordered on taboo. No other superstar would have touched them for all the money in the industry or love on earth. The first one, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, that released in August 2017, was critically acclaimed and became a box office blockbuster. The second, PadMan, is up for release on February 9. And it’s the talk of the country.
Open defecation and menstrual hygiene are nobody’s idea of entertaining cinema. Particularly the Indian frontbenchers more used to seeing him do action, comedy and romance on screen. But I have learned not to doubt Akshay’s judgement. He has not only the courage of his convictions, but he also walks the talk. And if he believed that impolite and publicly unmentionable realities like defecation and menstruation could be boldly adapted into big, mainstream films with a relevant message – then nobody was going to discourage him. I saw him do that last year and entertain skeptical and opinionated audiences with Toilet: Ek Prem Katha. Just after he won the Best Actor National Award for his stoic, emotionally controlled performance in the crime thriller Rustom. And I just know he’s going to do it again with PadMan, the film written and directed by R. Balki based on a story from his wife Twinkle Khanna’s bestselling novel The Legend of Laxmi Prasad. Akshay’s put his own money on the table both times to make this happen. Confident that these films will socially make a difference to the country. Also to people’s lives. Not just ring the box office tills for him.
Why he does this, take crazy risks with unusual films whose subjects need to be addressed, Bollywood’s trade pundits are still trying to figure out. I decided to call on the actor and find out. We met at his office. It’s above his sea-facing residence at Juhu Beach in Mumbai. I like meeting him. Enjoy talking to him. He greets me each time with a hug. Crushing me with great strength to his chiseled body until I hear my bones creak in protest; embracing me to his soul. If Sanjay Dutt has the copyright to his jadoo ki jhappi of the Munna Bhai films, then Akshay holds the patent to the bear hug. He was dressed in a snug track suit and gym shoes. And he walked with an energetic, purposeful stride. Like an athlete to the start of the race. His head was shaved bald to facilitate the heavy Sikh turban he wears for his war film Kesari that is under production. There’s something about football great Zinedine Zidane in him. Or maybe David Beckham. Bald is beautiful. I don’t tell Akshay that. He’s bound to know. When I walked in, he was on the phone, giving a radio interview to the BBC correspondent in Somalia who told him there is a huge number of Akshay Kumar fans in the African country. The next time Somali terrorists hijack an Indian cargo ship or oil tanker in the Gulf of Aden and hold the crew hostage, our government should drop Akshay there Rambo-style to sort out the threat. Excerpts from our interview:
It’s the countdown to PadMan’s release, are you stressed?
Stressed? No, I’m not. In my 30 years in Bollywood, I have realized that every film comes with its own destiny. I always tell people that it’s 70% luck and 30% hard work. I’m happy because this is an important film. Not just for me. But also the country and the people. There’s a huge problem of menstrual hygiene here and because of that a lot of women suffer from cervical cancer. They can’t give birth properly. While PadMan does not highlight all this it gives out the message that it’s important for menstruating women to wear sanitary pads. Unfortunately, this kind of subject is only made into a documentary film. Nobody has attempted to convert it into mainstream cinema. Not even in Hollywood. I was lucky to get to know Arunachalam Muruganatham who revolutionised the concept of menstrual hygiene in rural India by designing a machine to make low cost sanitary napkins and make a film on him and present it to the people. It’s a real life love story. He did it all for the love of his wife. And for that, Arunachalam was called a pervert, beaten up, thrown out of his village, his wife left him. But he took it all because of his love for her. And today, he’s one of the happiest men I know.
Aren’t you apprehensive about the audience’s response to a film like this?
Granted, it’s an unusual subject. But I wasn’t apprehensive even when I made Toilet: Ek Prem Katha. If I had any apprehension, if would be before I shot the film, and I would not have made it then. But here I’m putting my own money. Apprehension is the last thing on my mind. And I’ll tell you why. PadMan is already a big hit. I see and hear men and women, boys and girls, discussing the film on social media. So indirectly they are talking about sanitary pads and the problems associated with menstrual hygiene. There’s a sudden awareness. Oh, people are talking badly too. But at least they are talking. This was taboo earlier. Slowly their mindsets will change. That’s the whole idea behind PadMan. For me, this film is not about numbers. It’s not about making 100 or 200 crore rupees. It’s all about the people.
But why do you go looking for unusual social films like this when action and comedy are your forte and there are sequels of Khiladi and Housefull to make?
People ask me this all the time. Why would I make a film like Toilet: Ek Prem Katha? Why would anybody watch a film with a title like that? It’s rubbish! And a lot of times I had no answers to give. So I would be quiet. But it got me thinking. Were people right? My heart told me not to bother about people’s opinions. My mind cautioned me to think again. I went with my heart. It was the right decision with Toilet: Ek Prem Katha. By God’s grace, I was very successful. This time also, my gut instinct tells me that PadMan that my wife and I made will be a hit. But it’s not that I left mainstream cinema. I’ll be doing Housefull 4 next. I find unusual subjects interesting, so I do make mainstream films out of them. I think their subjects are essential so I talk about them. I’m fascinated by the men in these stories. The Madhya Pradesh villager who made a toilet for his wife, the Tamil Nadu entrepreneur who created a low-cost sanitary pad making machine for his wife, the businessman who evacuated 1.70 lakh Indians stranded in Kuwait during the Iraqi invasion, the Indian Navy officer who was jilted and killed his wife’s lover. I look for heroes in the common man. They are everywhere. People say I’m doing all this because I have political aspirations. But that’s not true at all. Cinema is a good platform to create awareness about causes that society otherwise turns a blind eye to. Especially Bollywood, which is the country’s heartbeat for entertainment and the biggest producer of the world’s largest film industry. If I can get a social message across through a film, using song and dance, a bit of comedy, full on romance, and considerable drama, why should I not? I am an actor, after all.
You are leading the Bollywood race for the maximum number of releases in 2018. Producers, exhibitors and your fans know there will be an Akshay Kumar hit every quarter. How do you manage to stay ahead of the game?
Yes, I have got three films lined up for release already. R. Balki’s social drama PadMan in February, S. Shankar’s sci-fi adventure 2.0 with Rajnikanth in April, and Reema Katgi’s sports biopic Gold in August. I should take a 60 day vacation! But I’m now shooting for Karan Johar’s Kesari which is slated to hit the screens in March 2019. I’m good with numbers. And I’m focused in how I allot my dates. I give block dates of, say, 25 days to one producer and then 12-15 days to someone else. By the time I’m shooting in the second set of dates, the first producer is able to edit the first block and he’s ready for the next phase of shooting. I finished PadMan in 37 days flat. That’s how I’m able to do three or four films a year.
You are 50. That’s a milestone in anybody’s life. An age of contemplation. Are you like a batsman at the crease who’s scored a half-century and has acknowledged the praise and is now carefully studying the field and taking guard for the rest of your innings?
I don’t think that far ahead. The morning I wake up and find the passion for making films missing in me, the night I go to sleep without smiling in anticipation of my shoot tomorrow, I’ll know it’s time to quit.
Amitabh Bachchan starts off the PadMan trailer by declaring, “In America there is Superman, Batman and Spiderman, but in India there is PadMan!” The Hollywood actor Pierce Brosnan once told me that he was shooting in the backwaters of Papua New Guinea where people recognised him but could not recollect his name – so they called out, “Hey, James Bond!” Would you mind if people started calling you PadMan?
Not at all. That’s absolutely fine. I would be happy, very happy!
What’s with the bald look? Anybody told you it’s sexy?
It’s for the film Kesari in which I am wearing a Sardar’s turban that is 1.5 kilos. It’s heavy and I feel very hot beneath it. Lot of people said lot of things. I don’t care what people say. I’m comfortable with the look, grey hair, stubble and all. I am what I am.