He is the man who loves to mix spice (as in masala movies) with substance. Since 2012, he’s been on the trip of coming up with one high-intensity subject each year — OMG! Oh My God! on superstition and religious mania, Special 26 on a team of conmen, Holiday about a soldier who does his duty even while on leave, Baby on India’s anonymous anti-terrorism operatives, and Gabbar Is Back on vigilantes decimating society’s corrupt forces.
A patriot by nature
Amidst entertainers as varied as Singh Is Bliing and It’s Entertainment, it is these films that have given Akshay that extra edge and appreciation, and also brought in the box-office baton. But Akshay does not, by any stretch, consider himself the next Manoj Kumar aka Mr Bharat.
“My patriotism is in my heart and I do not have to scream about it from the housetops. I am a proud Indian and I truly think that our country is the greatest. I am happy that today’s youth are particular about the do’s and don’ts and are vociferous about their views. Today, something wrong is exposed and cannot be hidden.”
Akshay also has clear views on the current touchiness about the nation. “Every country goes through its highs and lows, but we have become hypersensitive and I prefer not to talk on matters like intolerance and other aspects of which I know little or nothing. It’s also good to be circumspect in what we say, for we do not know who will be upset by which remark.”
But he does seem to have done patriotic films with extraordinary success. “Yes, God has given me the body structure of a cop, a soldier or a RAW agent that makes me believable in those kind of roles. In Baby, a lot of things RAW agents were shown doing were completely authentic, and I like doing such subjects.”
Airlift, his latest film, is another movie he is extremely proud of in his career. “But this film is not a war drama and is not about any subject!” the actor declares. “It is a true story of the time when Iraq and Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait because he wanted oil and money. Kuwait had a population of 1,70,000 Indians and some of them were billionaires, but they were reduced to paupers overnight as their bank balances became zero! That is the time when the Indian government launched an operation to evacuate them all.”
Though as per Wikipedia, the film is about one of the billionaires, Ranjit Katyal, who took personal charge in the selfless mission, Akshay puts the record straight.
“The film is real, authentic, but the operation was so covert that no one yet knows the real name of this character,” he reveals. “Ranjit Katyal is just the name of my character in the film, and the real name has never been disclosed by our government, which had its reasons even then for all the secrecy. He was a man with a wife and a daughter who had the chance to escape safely to India, but decided instead to take responsibility for all the Indian employees who had left their country and were working for him. He could not leave them bereft of help and hope in a foreign land.”
Akshay says that the greatest tribute was, however, deserved by Air India pilots who flew in for the evacuation. “They were commercial pilots risking their lives in a war zone, because large planes were needed for the mission,” he points out. “1,70,000 Indians could not be hidden.”
Reality on reel
He is visibly moved when he narrates a couple of stories he got to know of that phase. “We Indians and Kuwaitis have the same skin colour and I met this man who was 16 at the time, who had a gun pointed at him to prove that he was not from Kuwait. They asked him for his papers that he naturally did not have. Finally, in desperation, he sang an entire Hindi film song and they let him go.” Yet another meeting was with a nurse who was ordered to cut off the life-support of Kuwaiti patients in a hospital.
Says the actor, “Our director, first-timer Raja Krishna Menon, has lived the story long before he thought of making a film on it. He had many friends living in Kuwait at the time.”
With a superstar like him in the lead, and T-Series as one of the producers, was his role altered in any way from the original character for dramatic or commercial purposes? “I am happy to say it was not!” he replies promptly. “I even spoke Arabic by cramming the words. My director had researched the story so well that he took the realistic way out with straight storytelling. You will find no technical gimmicks here. And we are reliving history, history that needs to come into students’ textbooks today. After all, how much of Akbar and Shah Jehan can you learn? They lived 400 years ago. Isn’t what our government and such heroes did 25 years back more relevant?”
What does he have to say about his new co-star, Nimrat Kaur? “One is The Lunchbox, and I am a Boxer!” he quips and laughs. “She was great fun, but she embarrasses me all the time by praising me in public. And we would usually converse in Punjabi.”
When he manages four films a year comfortably, why has he not tried to work in Hollywood? “To answer the first part of your question, I am the tailor who stitches a shirt with two metres of cloth, not the entire roll. I cannot spend a year on one film,” he grins. “As for the latter, what’s wrong with being a hero here? You guys will be the first to laugh at me if I do a bit role over there and will tell each other, ‘Oh, he had only a two-minute role!’ “
A proud moment for him is being signed as the antagonist to Rajnikanth in Robot 2. “But I cannot talk about it now because shooting will begin only after two months,” he replies.
Finally, he is naturally proud of the fact that his wife Twinkle Khanna has become famous on her own steam as a writer and columnist, with her maiden book Mrs Funnybones going into the eighth reprint in as many months on Penguin. As he puts it, “I always knew she was funny, but I had no idea that people would love her writing and frankness so much. In her book she refers to me as the man of the house, but I think she feels that I am the comedian of the house!”