Happy Birthday Akshay Kumar!

As the ‘Gold’ superstar turns 51, Subhash K Jha explains why Akshay Kumar is so important to Bollywood
Happy Birthday Akshay Kumar!
Akshay Kumar's birthday celebration

As Akshay Kumar turns 51 on September  9 and his  new release Gold touches  the all-important  100-crore mark, I find it hard to believe  that his  journey as  an individual and an actor has taken him so far. For me Akshay will always  remain that goofy guffawing prankster who would call me up every morning, bright and  early,  on  the way to the studios.

He would be in the middle of the  conversation when suddenly he would mention a brand  of lingerie  loudly. He had just  passed a  hoarding and decided to include the brand in the conversation. Just like that.

Fortunately Akshay’s performances made more sense as  time passed by. Today, Akshay occupies  a unique place in Bollywood. Wedged as he is with supreme  sang-froid,  between  the three Khan superstars and the new generation of  promising stars Ranbir, Ranveer, Varun.
Akshay  brings muscle and message to the screen. And  nowadays you can’t miss him on screen because he’s part of every film that  we see. The  unwatchable ugly anti-smoking statutory warnings that accompanied  every feature film has now been replaced by the affable Akshay Kumar  patiently  explaining to a domesticated dimwit that he should buy sanitary pads  for his wife instead  of blowing up money on  cigarettes.
The role  of the social  crusader suits  Akshay. He has the  correct  profile for  it.  But somewhere  has he forgotten  to have  fun in pursuit  of  a politically  correct image?

Not so. We shall soon  see him in  House Full 4,  having a  blast. Don’t let  the serious image  fool you. At  heart  Akshay is  still the mischievous  prankster who has an  endearing nickname for everybody. And  who can give  any politician, evangelist  or any other pulpit-holder a run of his money by  showing the world  why Shakespeare  called it a stage.

Akshay plays to the galleries. The  image  of  the   Noble Indian is  carefully cultivated. But not insincere. Akshay believes  in  the  power of goodness to cure the world’s  most complex maladies. I’ve known  him for 20 years and the hunger to improve with every film remains. When I first met Akshay he had just completed his first baby step towards being taken seriously as an actor. The film was Suneel Darshan’s Jaanwar where he played a father grieving for his adoptive son. Unknown to the world, in real life Akshay’s father was dying .

So I guess this was his first brutal and  harsh encounter with method acting. Soon after, Deepa Mehta signed him to play the lead in Water, and Akshay couldn’t stop enthusing over the character. Since  he was required to speak in Sanskritized Hindi (the  kind of language we hear in dubbed ‘Hindi’ versions of big Hollywood  films) he began practising his dialogues on me every morning. Ultimately Water was made with another cast.

It  was  fun while it lasted. Akshay was fun in those days. Fun and unguarded. At one point he was not sure  whether he  wanted to  marry Twinkle Khanna or another actress whom he was dating simultaneously. A  moment came when he had to decide which one to marry. I remember he had decided he  would make that decision on a flight back to Mumbai from Canada.

Some nail-biting lip-chewing hours later, Akshay made his choice. And he  chose well. His street-smart wisdom has held him in  good stead, whether  it is in  his personal life or career decisions. The marriage  with Twinkle has worked out so well not because they make the Perfect Couple  but because they know each  other’s blemishes and blind spots and  have worked their way around them.

God’s chosen one? Probably. But there is more to Akshay’s success than meets  the eye. He is far more clever and sensible than  most of his peers. And  he isn’t afraid of making mistakes. Films like Baby, Rustom and Airlift in 2015 and  2016 could have easily gone wrong in their creative calculations.

But Akshay stuck it out. He was specially brilliant in  Raja Krishna Menon’s Airlift where he conveyed the  dilemma of an entrepreneur forced  to think beyond self-interest  during a time of  crisis. Akshay should have got the National award  for Airlift. Instead the jury headed by Akshay’s friend filmmaker Priyadarshan awarded  him for, ha ha, Rustom. Imagine Shabana Azmi getting the National award  for Amar Akbar Anthony in the year of Arth. And you get the picture.

In his recent films Akshay is not afraid to look his age. He  makes telling use  of his greying beard and  receding hairline to project himself as  man who has grown wise  beyond the cosmetic veneer.  His street wisdom serves him well. Even when crusading for social reform, he remains a rogue who is converted into a reluctant hero. That’s why calling him the new Manoj Kumar is  doing disservice to Akshay Kumar. Akshay plays  his cards  too well to be just a paper-nationalist. He  is a super-canny entrepreneur with a penchant for tapping the nation’s hankering for heroes.