Discipline and disruption make Akshay Kumar Bollywood's hit machine

The need to 'self-disrupt' and a keen sense of discipline and professionalism have kept Akshay Kumar at the top of his game even after 25 years in the movies. And it's getting better

I am particularly interested in the corporate and financial worlds, having tracked the evolution of India's securities and financial markets over two decades for some of the country's best-known business newspapers. I have also reported in depth on the maturing of the country's financial regulatory framework. But it's not all serious stuff, though. I enjoy following the latest developments in the world of show business, which is serious business too.

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Forbes India Celebrity 100 Rank No. 4
Images: Jatin Kampani


It’s around 6.45 am and there’s a slight nip in the Mumbai air as the sun rises gently on the horizon and early morning runners on Juhu beach get on with their paces. Emerging from the ground floor of Prime Beach, the apartment complex overlooking the beachfront, Akshay Kumar greets us with a warm handshake and his trademark smile.

Kumar has had a swim and is looking fresh and sharp, sporting a salt-and-pepper moustache, a Superdry sweatshirt and a GAP cap. He takes a quick look at his Mercedes GL350 SUV and decides he’s going to drive it himself to Kamal Amrohi Studio in Jogeshwari, where he is wrapping up the shoot of his forthcoming film Jolly LLB 2. His fitness trainer Jennifer, who also trains his 14-year-old son Aarav, is around too. Aarav even comes up and gives her a hug to see her off as she leaves in another car.

Kumar gets into the driver’s seat and we’re off to the studio. At that time of the morning, traffic is expected to be light, but Kumar takes care to drive slowly, ensuring we have enough time for our conversation.
 
This typifies the concern for those he deals with, an attribute ingrained in Kumar, 49, who has completed 25 years in the hugely competitive, and often fickle, world of Hindi cinema. Kumar rules the box office even after a quarter of a century, and is known as one of the most bankable stars in the business, along with the three Khans —Salman, Shah Rukh and Aamir.

A self-confessed producer’s actor, Kumar is clear that the producer, who takes the risk with a film, is the one who he needs to take care of as the lead actor. “In this industry, it’s not about how good an actor you are. It’s all about how good you are to your producer,” explains Kumar. “In my nearly 26 years in this business, I have learnt this. It’s how well you protect your producer that matters.”

His producers couldn’t be happier. 2016 has been a huge high for Kumar, born Rajiv Bhatia, who has churned out three mega hits. Movie website boxofficeindia.com lists three of his films—Rustom, Airlift and Housefull 3—among the top 5 box office grossers of 2016 to date on the basis of worldwide collections. Kumar’s plate for 2017 is also full, with four films—Jolly LLB 2, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, Crack and Robot sequel 2.0 (where he co-stars with Tamil superstar Rajinikanth and plays a negative role)—slated for release. Not surprising then, that Kumar moves up to No 4 on the 2016 Forbes India Celebrity 100 List and figures at No 12 on the Forbes list of the world’s highest paid actors for 2016, ahead of Hollywood A-listers like Leonardo DiCaprio and Matthew McConaughey.

THE PRODUCERS’ FAVOURITE
However, in his trademark calm drawl, Kumar underplays his success. “There was a time in my career when I had 14-15 back-to-back flops, and there was no sign of stopping,” he smiles. “But I still had at least three to four films in hand, and good films. The producer would think, let’s take Akshay as one lead actor, and someone else as another. The acting will be done by the other hero, and Akshay can do the action. That is how it used to work.”

Despite his lean patch then, the producers, Kumar says, cast him because he was always punctual on the sets and would help complete the film on time. In an industry where lead actors are notorious for reporting late to the sets—often by several hours—this was one of Kumar’s most valuable attributes: A keen sense of professionalism and discipline, something which he carries with obvious pride even today despite his huge box office success. “They [the producers] used to think that at least Akshay will come and go on time and the movie will be completed and they won’t be hassled. The director won’t be crying that the hero isn’t coming on time, or not even emerging from the vanity van,” Kumar says with a laugh, adding that he’s not too affected by the ups and downs in his career. “Something or the other always keeps happening, and in a better way… whether it is 2016, or 2015 or 1996 when I had a slip disc after a number of action hits like Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi and Main Khiladi Tu Anari (1994). My whole career has been about ups and downs. On the downs too, it’s been great.”

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Real estate billionaire Vikas Oberoi, who has known Kumar for 25 years and is one of his closest friends, says the actor’s discipline is one of his biggest plus points. “I know some film directors and they say it’s a dream to work with him. Producers love him. Along with Mr [Amitabh] Bachchan, he is one of the most disciplined guys in the industry.”

“I only think of the producer and what he must be thinking. This is the only industry where the boss is a naukar (servant),” says Kumar. “The producer is standing outside your van which he gave you! How the hell did he land outside? That is one thing I have told Vedant [Bali, his business manager]… never make a producer stand outside. Call him in first.”

That, he says with satisfaction, is the reason why over 130 films later, he does not have even a single film in the can and incomplete.

DISRUPTING HIS OWN GAME

Today, Kumar’s purple patch has taken a new turn with the kind of roles he’s been doing, many of which have redefined him as an actor. Importantly, many of his recent movies—whether it is heist caper Special 26 (2013), Airlift or the recent monster hit Rustom—are out-of-the-box storylines or based on real-life events.

Talk about his film choices gets him animated. Kumar says he makes a deliberate attempt to “self-disrupt”. “It’s a conscious decision [to do different parts]. I just can’t be typecast. I need to destruct what I constructed and build something new again. For example, if your company is going smoothly, but it’s becoming stagnant, you need to disrupt it completely and start from scratch. This is what I want to do all the time. I want to disrupt the whole thing and construct it again in a new way,” he says.

Kumar’s varied parts of today are a result of the stagnation he was faced with in the earlier years of his career when he was called upon to play the action hero most of the time. “I’ve done 13-14 years of only action. The fight master would come and tell me in Punjabi—you’ve got two punches and three kicks. If you are lucky, you’ll be able to fall down once!”
 
It is this monotony that he chose to break away from towards the second half of his career, doing comedy with effortless ease with directors like Priyadarshan (Hera Pheri, 2000) and goofy roles in films like the Housefull franchise. “The process is amazing, but it’s also very difficult because you keep on challenging yourself, making yourself and then breaking it. You become good in comedy, then break that whole thing to do something different.”

Ajay Bijli, friend and founder of PVR, the country’s largest multiplex chain, who was introduced two decades ago to Kumar by Oberoi, says Kumar has remained at the top of the charts because he constantly reinvents himself. Says Bijli: “Whether it is with films like Special 26, Baby (2015) or Airlift, he is always doing different things. He’s there for the long run and he changes with the times.”

The need to constantly do new things also means Kumar loves to work with newcomers—whether they are directors or his leading ladies. “I always prefer to work with new directors till [such time] they have the greed for doing something different,” he says. Whether it is Neeraj Pandey (Special 26, Baby) with whom he has collaborated several times, or others like director-duo Abbas-Mustan, Guddu Dhanoa, Naresh Malhotra, Sajid Khan or Rustom director Tinu Suresh Desai, Kumar enjoys teaming up with people who bring in fresh ideas and perspectives.

He also encourages new music directors and keeps a robust stock of about 350 songs with him, which he buys in raw—or scratch—form first from them. If the director likes some of them, Kumar asks the music director to flesh the songs out. “There are ideas they [newcomers] come up with and have been sitting on them and guarding them like snakes. It’s their best and they keep the best for themselves. Quite a few do go loose and don’t concentrate later. But till your greed is there, you will always excel in whatever you do,” he reasons. “If you’re getting in new talent, it’s also good for you. I like a new idea. I would like to hear new stories. I can’t listen to all the stories, so a lot of the time Vedant or others in my team listen [to them]. They know the movies I’d like to do. I have always said give me a movie which is odd.”

His forthcoming movie Toilet: Ek Prem Katha is as “odd” as it gets. It is based on a true story about a couple with the socially relevant issue of the need for toilets in rural homes providing the backdrop. “I am so excited about Toilet… I can’t tell you. Imagine, 65 percent of India doesn’t have toilets. I thought it was a great subject to make a film on, a powerful message,” Kumar says.

He says audiences internalise social messages better when the medium is entertaining. “Trust me, people don’t want to see a documentary on it [toilets]. When a man spends Rs 150, he internalises the message. But when you watch a documentary on TV, you switch channels. Tell me a story, show me a song, show me some fights and tears. Take Rs 150 from me, that’s all right. And from that, I will, on my own, take the message. Don’t try to be my dad.”

KEEN BUSINESS BRAIN
Even as he plays the self-disruptor, Kumar is also a very smart businessman, who is associated with three production companies—Hari Om Entertainment (named after his father), Grazing Goat Pictures and Cape of Good Films. But Kumar likes to keep things lean and simple at his own end, and prefers to outsource the nitty-gritty of the actual production work to other production companies which execute his projects before they are sold to the big studios.  

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Akshay Kumar’s friend of 25 years, realty baron Vikas Oberoi, is all praise for the actor’s acute business sense and his analytical skills
Image: Sameer Joshi / Fotocorp



“I learnt the art of outsourcing from my friend Vikas Oberoi,” he says. “He tells the construction company: ‘You make the building, I’ve got you the land. I’ll give you more than what you want, but I will test out the quality. I will come on a particular date and take delivery. If you don’t give [the project] on that date, I will impose a fine’. I do the same. I tell the executing production guys, ‘I will give you Rs 110 instead of Rs 100. I will of course come on time myself. You will have a contract with the studio, so you have to now give it to them’.”

Kumar points out that whatever be the case, the studio which buys the final film should never be made to suffer losses. “The studio should come back and buy your next movie too. These are simple deals and I work with everyone, from studios like Viacom18, Eros and Fox to T-Series, Sajid Nadiadwala and Karan Johar.”

In an industry also known for its intense rivalry, Kumar underscores the fact that he isn’t part of any camp. “I don’t believe in camps. Camps are made of cloth. If there are strong winds, they tend to tear!”

Despite his status in the industry, Kumar says he has just four or five key people as staff. And his outsourcing model allows him to keep his set-up lean and mean. “I don’t want to complicate things. If things get complicated, I’d rather leave. If I am in a partnership and the person is haggling about money, I’d rather say you take more and let’s finish it off now and think in my mind that I would never want to work with the person again,” he adds.

Oberoi, on his part, cannot over-emphasise Kumar’s business sense. “He has an amazing business brain. Akshay could match an MBA in business, dollar to dollar, and probably beat them because he’s got more than that. He’s got experience, guts and grace. Everything put together, he’s better than many of the trained businessmen I have come across.”

His planning and business sense also extend to the way he gives dates for his films. “I may give block dates of, say, 25 days and then another 12-15 days to someone else. By the time I’m shooting in the second set of dates, the first guy is able to edit the first block and he’s ready for the next phase of shooting,” explains Kumar. It is this meticulous planning that allows him to complete three to four films every year, more than many of his other superstar peers.

Adds Bijli, who has also distributed some Akshay Kumar starrers: “He’s brilliant. His philosophy is that of a diligent person who understands his craft, his forte and the fact that his day job is that of being an actor. And since he is finishing every movie in 60-90 days, he can easily do three to four films a year.” And Bijli, the distributor and exhibitor, is delighted at the prospect of three to four Akshay Kumar releases every year. “Producers and exhibitors want a superstar’s movie coming as often as possible. So if there are four Akshay Kumar productions in a year, we know there’ll be a hit every quarter from him.”

A PEOPLE’s PERSON
Kumar does not allow his superstardom and busy schedule to get in the way of his relationships. His friends and staff swear by him. Says Oberoi: “Nobody around him has ever left him. His friends, his staff… he’s looked after everybody. He’s much more than a friend to me, an older brother, somebody who trusts me immensely. He’s a very good soul.”

Take Vedant Bali, Kumar’s business manager and go-to person, who has known him since he was eight. Bali’s father was also associated with Kumar.

Oberoi first met Kumar 25 years ago when he wasn’t the megastar he is now and Oberoi Realty wasn’t the top-rung real estate company it is today. That friendship has now extended to their wives—Kumar’s wife Twinkle Khanna and Oberoi’s wife Gayatri are good friends and their families go for holidays together as well, twice a year.

“He is very curious and will ask you relevant and good questions,” says Oberoi. “He’s a good observer and analyses people very well. The thing that really works is the trust factor. He trusts my judgement immensely.”

“All my fitness is completely outsourced to him. He’s my biggest influencer… the gym in my house is literally created by him. If I had a brother, I’d probably not be as close to him as I am to Akshay,” says Oberoi.

A part of the Kumar persona is his clear work-life balance. Kumar works strictly eight hours a day and takes Sundays off to spend time with his wife, son and four-year-old daughter Nitara. “On Saturdays I work from 7-2 pm. If you’re free after 2, it’s almost like getting the Saturday free,” he says. “I love being at home. We watch lots of movies, mainly at PVR Juhu,” he says with a smile.

Though he insists he doesn’t want to get into any business outside films, Kumar has close ties with the world of business. He is also good friends with Rahul Sharma, the founder of mobile handset maker Micromax. Sharma’s wife, actor Asin, was introduced to him by Kumar who starred with her in Khiladi 786 (2012). His sister Alka is married to real estate baron Surendra Hiranandani.
 
Kumar says he loves to absorb lessons from the experiences of others, particularly his businessmen friends. “I love learning from my friends and their experiences. Why do you become a guinea pig when you have so many other stories you can learn from? How did they become successful? Why did they fall?” says Kumar. He says he also draws from the experiences of his late father-in-law, yesteryear superstar Rajesh Khanna. “I learnt a lot from him… how his fall happened. He was the biggest superstar India has ever seen. What happened? Why and how can it go wrong? I learn from Amitabh Bachchan—how he picked himself up from the crisis he faced. The examples are in front of you, the mistakes are in front of you.”

We have reached the studio, and the curious onlookers are waiting to catch a glimpse of Kumar. Also present there is Ganesh Acharya, who will direct the song sequence that Kumar has come to shoot.

Kumar parks his SUV in front of the studio and continues talking.

Where does he see himself ten years later? “Still struggling in this industry,” he says with a smile.

We talk about his fitness even at 49.

“Fitness is important for me. My only prayer to God is to give me good health. Age is catching up. I’ve used and abused my body a lot… jumping from helicopters and buildings. I’ve hurt my back, fallen... it’s not an easy job to be an action hero. I come from an era when there were no mattresses… we had to jump straight on to the ground or on cardboard boxes. There are a lot of effects which are still there on my body. Every day, one has to do physiotherapy, swimming, stretching to keep fit.”

Kumar gets out of his car. It’s time to get into the hustle and bustle of his work schedule. Another firm handshake, and he heads into the dusty studio.

The hit machine has begun whirring again.

(This story appears in the 06 January, 2017 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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