Made of precious mettle

Scene-stealer: How did Akshaye Khanna prep for his role in 'The Accidental Prime Minister'? How did he bag the role?

The year 1997 seems a long way back. A new star-son (of Vinod Khanna) made his debut and was almost there despite a flop beginning (Himalayputra) because of a scene-stealing performance in Border. The films he did next were a mix of good and bad, hit and flop, from the cult Dil Chahta Hai to the taut Humraaz and Race and comedies like Hungama and Mere Baap Pahele Aap (which flopped in its first run but became a satellite television favourite). But Khanna made a reputation for himself as a strong actor.

A favourite with men like Abbas-Mustan and Priyadarshan, he was a scene-stealer especially in ensemble films, and looked at the macro picture rather than the conventional. As he put it, “My role in Humraaz was of the hero — I had the best lines, the best scenes, and yet so many leading men had turned it down because they looked upon him as the villain!”

His brave approach was not appreciated and soon, Akshaye’s market collapsed despite his fans craving for him and his occasional terrific turns. In the last four years, Akshaye’s turnover is only three films — as a cop in Ittefaq and Mom and as a criminal in Dishoom. However, Akshaye claims that he is very content with life, and reveals that he is also doing a romantic comedy after eons.

As he puts it, “At least with me, an actor by himself is never enough. He needs to be used well by a good director. Gabbar Singh was made by Ramesh Sippy. And though I am attached emotionally to every film of mine, no director has used me as well as Vijay Krishna Gutte, the director of The Accidental Prime Minister.”

“I am so hungry for good work I am almost starving!” he quips. “In this scenario, I cannot take risks. So the obvious question about whether I was considering a new director like Vijay a risk has a simple answer: I tested him a lot! How? I interacted with him a lot. When he initially offered me the role of Sanjaya Baru, Manmohan Singh’s constant associate, I liked the script but not my role. Vijay simply said, ‘Give me another chance.’ When he came back, it was a great role!”

Akshaye elaborates: “A film like this could have gone horribly wrong. Manmohan Singh-saab is not an ordinary man. He has put in over 50 years in public service. He has been our prime minister. He could not be disrespectfully presented. And this is not a biopic but an inside account of 10 years in his life during the UPA reign from 2004 to 2014. Singh-saab had made Sanjaya leave his job and join him at any cost. Sanjaya was no ordinary man either. He had an illustrious past as a political commentator, author and even editor of (The Financial Express).”

The newbie director, says the actor, handled the “screenplay-unfriendly” book and subject with great maturity. He once told the actor, “If you don’t understand my vision, why should I make the movie?” And Akshaye replied, “If you cannot explain your vision, why am I here?” And Vijay’s vision was that the actor should smile throughout the film, no matter how serious the scene! Admits Akshaye, “I have done exactly that in every scene, and it has worked well!”

He also stresses that the real Sanjaya has been so clean and non-controversial that even after the book was published in April 2014, there was not a single person who challenged it or took him to court. “Whatever he has said in the book is in public domain,” he notes. “In the last two years, Singh-saab’s hard-earned reputation has been taken away from him because of the scams in the UPA. This film will bring back the respect he deserves! The idea here is not to stir up a controversy but to start a national debate, and that is where the media must support us.”

Continuing raving about the film, he says, “Most often, the books I have read are superior to the films made on them later. With this film, that will change! Also, what will also change for good is our own as well as global perception of the freedom of speech and expression we have in India. It’s a beautiful story, full of humour. So many of our politicians are known for humour, like Bal Thackeray and many more.”

We come to his co-star Anupam Kher, playing Manmohan Singh, in turn raving about Akshaye in a tweet last week that went, “Dear @akshaye_khanna!! I know I will get many opportunities to thank you but today being the release of our trailer of #TheAccidentalPrimeMinister I want to say that you have been an amazing and most giving co-actor. Your brilliance rubbed off on me and it helped me bring out my best. You are an inspiration. See you at the trailer launch. Jai Ho.”

Akshaye reciprocates by simply saying that in the limited films he has done, he has been “extremely lucky” to have worked with such giants, the others being his father Vinod Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna, Hema Malini, Sridevi, Kader Khan and Amrish Puri. However, despite his late father having been in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Akshaye says that he personally has no connection with politics and will never have. “I am in public life, not a public servant who works for the government. Unlike them, I am not accountable to society as long as I do not break the law. But why should we not hold public servants accountable? People can speak against my father even now — they have all the right.” Despite Anupam and him just playing characters, someone has filed a Public Interest Litigation against them. How does he take that? “How am I concerned? Let the courts decide.”

And we would like to initiate another — on whether Akshaye should do many more films. And he reveals a shocker: “I was given a look-test for Sanju, and it did not work out! I would have loved to do a Rajkumar Hirani movie!”

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Made of precious mettle

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