Akshay kumar is a pragmatic man. He knows fame can be a fair-weather friend. His success has been hard won and he stays clear of complacence. This is why, after 135 films spanning a 24-year-long career, the actor still worries about his place on the bus. It is a metaphorical bus, slowly filling up with the year’s top performers—those who have won their audience’s hearts and proved valuable at the box office.
A seat means you get one more chance, one more year, to play the fame game, says Kumar. But seats have to be earned on this bus, and the price of a ticket is, simply, success. “I need to be careful and work very hard to get a seat on that bus,” he shrugs. “A new set of movies will release every year, and I will be tested all over again, but my seat is ensured only if I have done well every single year.”
It is also why, on December 31, as people get ready to let their hair down and celebrate the year gone by, one of Bollywood’s most hardworking actors will be taking stock of the hits and misses of 2014.
For the most part, it’s been a fruitful year. His film Holiday (co-produced by wife Twinkle Khanna and directed by AR Murugadoss), where he plays the lead alongside Sonakshi Sinha, was a super-hit. Meanwhile, his second film for the year, Entertainment, got a mixed response from fans and critics alike. He’s also returned to television after a two-year hiatus, with a dance reality show, Dare2Dance.
Akshay Kumar’s place on the bus is assured. But he takes little for granted. The teetotaler is driven by the need to prove to himself, and to his fans, that he has what it takes to maintain his reign as a superstar. “I don’t want to live without success. I will not be able to accept it if I am no longer a part of this industry. But that also means I have to keep striving,” says Kumar. This will to succeed, persist and persevere is what, he believes, has kept him in the lead—especially at the box office which, he says, is akin to a horse race at a turf club. Like horses, actors compete every week, and a new hero emerges based on the Friday results.
He’s lost many races, and felt the pain of failure. But then he picks up the pieces and starts again, one movie at a time. “If a film flops on a Friday, of course it hurts. I’ve given six to nine months of my life to that movie. But, by Monday, I try to forget it and move ahead. There is no point brooding; it spoils the future.”
His sister Alka’s recollections of the actor in his youth reveal a softer, sensitive side to the big action hero. “When Akshay got upset after a movie didn’t do well, he would go to mom and curl up with his head in her lap,” says Alka, 43. His mother, Aruna Bhatia, would run her fingers through his hair, and it would calm him immediately. In Punjabi, she would tell him, “Puttar, koi gal nahin. Sab theek ho jaana hai [Son, don’t worry. Everything will work out well eventually].”
Today, the 47-year-old actor, born Rajiv Bhatia, also relies on wife Twinkle and his two children to get over momentary setbacks. Family remains the centre of his universe. It is the backbone of his career; the bedrock of his existence. “His pet name is Raju. And he feels at home among people, his family, who call him Raju,” says Alka.
The actor sticks to an eight-hour work day (one shift in film production parlance), is back home by 7 pm, and spends the evening with his 12-year-old son Aarav and two-year-old daughter Nitara. He never works on a Sunday. “I have one life, and I want to enjoy it. I want to spend enough time with my children,” he says. “I know of many celebrities who barely spend time with their children or family, and then regret later. I don’t want to make this mistake.”
Apart from his wife and children, his extended support system includes his mother, sister Alka and her husband, real estate developer Surendra Hiranandani.
“He is so grounded that sometimes you forget that he is a superstar,” says Twinkle. “The credit for this goes to his parents. It’s the way they have brought him up. Both Akshay and Alka treat elders with respect, and are family-oriented people.”
She says her husband rarely gets ruffled or tense. “At most, his reaction is, ‘Give me 10 minutes’. And then he falls asleep. When he wakes up from his nap, he goes on as if nothing happened. He has a supremely disciplined mind.”
In all this, Kumar draws inspiration from Bollywood’s biggest star Amitabh Bachchan. “Amitji
’s hunger and greed to succeed hasn’t died to date. I look at him and try to absorb his qualities. Bachchan saab
has seen failure, but then he gathered enough courage and brought himself back. Until recently, he worked out with me regularly for almost a year at a hotel gym every morning at 5 am. Nobody his age can pursue such a regimen. That’s what makes him a superstar,” says Kumar.
Bachchan’s refusal to give up is also what motivates Kumar to compete head-on with the Khans of Bollywood. A Disciplined Man
It isn’t easy to keep up with the larger-than-life Khans who dominate the film industry. Here, he draws from the discipline inculcated in him by his father, the late wrestler Hari Om. By virtue of the way he was brought up, the actor rarely attends late night parties (he calls it a day by 10 pm), abstains from alcohol, and follows a routine that would make an army general proud.
In an era where actors insist on doing just one film a year, Kumar’s almost regimented lifestyle enables him to wrap up four films with minimal fuss. Director Murugadoss, who worked with Kumar on Holiday
, says, “It is sheer discipline on his part. He remains fresh for every shoot, is never late on the sets, and reports to work at whatever time the director wants him to come. He understands what’s needed from him, and finishes his scenes quickly.”
A martial arts practitioner and a sixth-degree black belt holder in Karate, Kumar has been following a strict schedule for 30 years. His day starts at 5 am with a workout. He doesn’t pump iron, but relies on cardio—running, cross-training, climbing walls and Parkour, a variant of military obstacle course training—to get toned and fit.
He also eschews artificial supplements, and indulges in a 7 am breakfast of a large rich “Ayurvedic laddoo
” (ideal for a pregnant woman, says his wife), porridge, nuts, vegetable juice, cranberries and scrambled egg whites.
Years of martial arts training have given him an edge, says Twinkle. “He is able to consistently perform and accomplish his tasks. He can ignore a tired body or mind, and pushes himself constantly,” she says.
The actor rarely relies on a body double for complicated and dangerous stunts. He is currently shooting for Karan Johar’s film Brothers (slated for an October 2015 release), where he performs mixed martial arts (MMA), and comes home with bruises after a fight scene. He has shed 12 kg for the role, which demands agility and youth. MMA professionals from other countries have been flown in to help him train.
Training, though, is just one part of the actor’s mantra. He’s acquired several valuable life lessons since he started his Bollywood journey with a seven-second appearance as a Karate instructor in Mahesh Bhatt’s Aaj
A Director’s Actor
Kumar got his break when he played the lead in the late Pramod Chakravorty’s film, Deedar
(1992). “Mr Chakravorty taught me three lessons. The first: Always come on time for shoots, because it’s not just the actor, but an entire film unit that is involved in the production. The producer’s money is at stake when shooting gets delayed. So I always make sure I start a shoot on time,” says Kumar.
The second rule: Always pay your phone bills. “Prior to the mobile phone era, we used to have STD call facilities in hotels, and actors inevitably ran up huge phone bills, which would irk producers.”
And the third is to pay your own staff. “At the end of the movie, I pay my staff [spot boy, bodyguard, make-up artist, hair stylist, etc]. This way, they don’t have to stand daily in line and collect their pay from the producer during shoot days. This also makes the producer happy as he is relieved from the task of dishing out daily payments to the lead actor’s personal staff,” says Kumar.
By adhering to these principles, Kumar has earned the respect of some of Bollywood’s top producers. They know that if he’s on the set, the film will be completed on time and remain within budget. In an industry where flops outnumber hits by a huge margin, an actor who follows a zero-wastage policy is a god-send. “Pramodji
told me that even if your acting is just okay, producers will forgive you. But if you don’t turn up on time and cause expensive delays, producers will avoid offering you movies,” says Kumar.
This non-combative strategy of working with producers has helped his career, and the actor has been cast repeatedly by producers such as Vipul Amrutlal Shah and Sajid Nadiadwala. “He has this amazing ability to do four films a year, and still bring back his fans to watch him every three months. He can connect with an eight-year-old and an 80-year-old because his core value system is relevant to his fan base,” says Vikram Malhotra, CEO of Abundantia Entertainment, the producer of his upcoming action-thriller, Baby (2015).
The film is being directed by Neeraj Pandey of A Wednesday!
and Special 26
(with Akshay) fame. Pandey, too, points to Kumar’s ability to listen, learn and grasp the subject of his films. “Although he is street-smart and quick on the uptake, he is never over-confident about his acting capabilities, regardless of his experience. His keenness to learn and an appetite to grow in his career are what make him humble. Even though he works on multiple film projects at any given time, he’s never distracted or unprepared for my shoots. He is a director’s delight,” says Pandey.
And here, too, Kumar attributes this key learning to Bachchan, whom he respects and tries to emulate—be it in his drive to stay at the top or the will to test his endurance. “I learned how to surrender to the director from Bachchan saab
,” he says. “A director gives me a script that he may have spent two years working on. He’ll tell me, ‘You have four films; I have just one’. So why shouldn’t I follow his instructions when he has invested two years of his life in this project, and thought through each and every scene?”
At the core is a man who unabashedly loves fame and fortune, adores connecting with his fans, and fears becoming irrelevant. “It’s important to not get tempted and lose your balance,” he says. “I have seen big superstars and lead actors working as junior artistes in the later years of their life. This happened because when their movies were not doing well, they pooled in all their savings and invested in a film on themselves, for yet another chance at the box office. That’s the temptation you need to control.”
But Kumar, who is not the product of a Bollywood family, will not allow the empire he’s built from scratch to crumble. And one way to ensure this is to don a producer’s hat. A Businessman in Bollywood
A few years ago, he declared that he would never become a producer. But since 2008, he has launched three production companies, produced 20 films, made a national award-winning Marathi film, 72 Miles
, and also produced the TV series Jamai Raja
. There’s a moral to this: “Never say never. So, at present, I don’t want to be a film director, but I can’t commit to the future,” says Kumar.
For the actor, the tenets of film production are simple: Don’t lose money. Always get personally involved in creative and financial decisions. (As a producer he believes that if he does not take interest in the creative process, he will be cheated.) And don’t lose focus.
Kumar oversees every aspect of his production business. He pays attention to the scripts and sits with his team when key decisions are taken, but does not get involved in the task of daily production. “I outsource that. I can’t do daily accounting. The budget and delivery timelines are pre-decided. We fine them if it’s not done on time, but also reward them if they complete a project ahead of schedule,” he says, adding that he learned the fine art of outsourcing from his close friend Vikas Oberoi (of Oberoi Realty). “Vikas outsources the actual construction of his buildings to professional teams at L&T. This way he will save time, and focus on planning and executing more projects.”
An astute businessman—learnt or inherent—Kumar ensures that he pre-sells the films he’s producing to a studio. “I share the script with them [the studio], tell them how I want to make it, discuss the budget, and so on. I try not to be greedy, but I take care of my profit margin. I cover the risk. A producer friend once told me, ‘Bech ke pachhtao [Sell and then regret].’ That’s the best deal.”
Kumar, however, is working hard to avoid any semblance of regret. His awareness of its inevitability, though, is poignant. “I always tell my wife that I pray to God to give me the power to accept failure, because a day will come when people won’t want to watch my films. A day will come when you’re walking on the beach and no one looks at you,” he says. “You have to have the courage to accept that. That’s when actors go through depression, make the wrong choices, lose their money and the fame they’ve earned. I hope nothing like that happens with me.”
He can rest assured, though. Because, by striving for success—and not assuming its presence—Kumar is unlikely to not find a place on the bus.
(This story appears in the 26 December, 2014 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)