A mission accomplished

Superstardom was not his seeking but Akshay Kumar has nonetheless been a star who’s amiably won his spot in the limelight with his earnestness, writes Rajiv Vijayakar

He insists on doing three to four films a year — we remember a film colleague opining in the early 1990s that of the new lot (our current major superstars and some others were all ‘new lot’ then), Akshay Kumar was the “only one who looked as good as the heroes of the past”. Today, again like the old big names, he does multiple films a year. This year, after Kesari, it is Mission Mangal on August 15.

The man for all seasons (a film every three or four months) smiles and sincerely expresses surprise about why his contemporaries do just a film a year. “I heard that Salman Khan recently said that everyone should follow what I am doing. I do it because I can do it. Look, I finished Mission Mangal in 28 days. Fifteen years ago, Mujhse Shaadi Karogi took 32 days. It is so easy. Many actors express surprise about how I can ‘manage’ this kind of output. I don’t understand why they should be. I can take Sundays off, work half-day on Saturdays, get a week free after every film and can take off for a month’s holiday anytime!” We postulate the possibility that, unlike some contemporaries, Akshay does not get deep into the physicality of a character like weight and even psychological aspects like method acting. “Look, every journalist from a bunch of dozen journalists is different. So are actors. This is my way. I do not overdo the prep. But I now do one film at a time.”

Not insecure

Akshay admits that films are evolving even as audiences do. “There is more experimentation today, people like to see diverse themes,” he says. “The industry is concentrating on scripts, taking risks and showing maturity in general, just like the audience. Things are moving in the right direction, unlike in my early days when it was next to impossible to break images. Look at my career — I was the Khiladi forever, doing nothing but action, action and action! And I am truly grateful to Priyadarshan, Rajkumar Santoshi, Tanuja Chandra and Dharmesh Darshan who broke my image and made me do different things like comedies, drama and love stories.”

Akshay is one hero (the other is Ajay Devgn) who has repeatedly rued the current idea of top stars doing films alone. “This kind of thinking is not healthy — it reflects insecurity. I came to know that one hero, who is doing a two-hero subject, insisted that his producer release his solo poster first! I was quite shocked to hear this.”

He goes on, “Why can’t we do two-hero, three-hero and even four-hero films today? Why can’t we make an Amar Akbar Anthony? In my early days, I have worked with so many heroes. In Khakee, where there were four heroes, I would have a small role and also die quite soon on screen. I even did a seven-hero film called Jaani Dushmun—Ek Anokhi Kahani!”

Akshay is content, having seen “three downs” in his 29-year career. “It is a scientific and proven law that day follows night and night follows day,” he states philosophically. “You have to face it, take it, be bold and get ready for the next phase. After some 14 flops in a row, they had once said, ‘Akshay is finished!’ and after a hit, they said, ‘Akshay is back!’ Why only careers, even personal lives have ups and downs!”

His approach is clear: “I go by the script, and my character should be interesting,” he says. “I had a cameo in Dishoom, a small role in not only Khakee but also in OMG — Oh My God! and the heroine has had a better role than me in so many films. In Mission Mangal, there are five heroines!” This, he admits, is because the story has those characters, as it is based on India’s first mission to Mars. “This film is 80 to 90 per cent facts,” he says. “But I like to add commercial value. Drama, laughter, emotion, two or three small songs, we have to say things in an entertaining way and not make a documentary. Tell me, what would you rather eat — boiled chicken or chicken masala?”

He smiles and warns that just because he has been doing so many purposeful films, people should not brand him again. “You might be disillusioned that I am also doing thorough entertainers like Housefull 4, Sooryavanshi, Ikka and Bachchan Pandey. Yes, I was warned against taking up films like Toilet — Ek Prem Katha and Pad-Man. But I was warned against taking Khakee as well.”

On a mission

Coming to his latest co-production Mission Mangal again, he admits that the just-announced actioner Ikka with the same director, Jagan Shakti, was decided first. “We were working on that when Jagan told me that his sister was a scientist who had told him about a story and gave me the one-line idea. I told him, ‘Why don’t you write it?’ After 20 days, he gave me a brief script that he had written with Balki. And we decided to make Mission Mangal first.”

Despite that, Akshay declares that there was nothing planned about releasing the film on Independence Day. “We did not even know till a couple of weeks ago that ISRO (the Indian Space Research Organisation) will complete 50 years on the day of release!”

However, the film could not have come at a better time, he admits. “The earlier governments had allotted two or three per cent of the budget on space research. This time, they have increased it to 18 per cent.”

About his five heroines, he simply says, “Women are making a mark in so many professions traditionally earmarked for, or considered only for, men. No one earlier could imagine depicting a scientist, a policeman, an engineer and so on as a woman. Now, even a lady who managed the finances of her home once, and then worked in a corporate office, has been the country’s Defence Minister and is now our Finance Minister!”

Gender bender

Akshay says that he personally always felt that women were equal or stronger for decades, but the overall perception was different. “The build-up, our training — everything was different. Even in our textbooks, the only woman whose story was narrated to us was Rani Laxmibai! I could have made women-oriented stories much earlier, but I was not a producer.”

Does he expect this film to get a tax-free status? “I cannot say!” he replies. “Most of the time the government declares this too late! The first week is when it really matters!”

About yet another clash on release day, this time, with another patriotic film in Batla House, he only points out, “It is always good for everyone if clashes are avoided, especially among big-ticket films. But with 210 films being made every year and 52 Fridays, clashes are unavoidable and will become more frequent. What can anyone do?”

Finally, does his family share his excitement? “I am very excited, as this is Hindi cinema’s first real story on space and it is my company that has made it! My family does watch my films, is happy about them, but there is no dramatic excitement!” he says with a placid smile.

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