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 The unwatchable ugly anti-smoking statutory warnings that accompanied every feature film has now been replaced by the affable Akshay Kumar patiently explaining to a domesticated dimwit that he should buy sanitary pads for his wife instead of blowing up money on cigarettes.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.