Akshay Kumar: Game changer

From fighting the bad guys and essaying comic roles to doing films based on real life, Akshay Kumar has not just evolved but also hit a purple patch

Published: Dec 6, 2018

g_111311_akshay_kumar_280x210.jpgForbes India Celebrity 100 Rank No. 3
Aalok Soni / Hindustan Times Via Getty Images

The meeting was slated for the third Friday of November at 4.45 pm in Filmcity, Goregaon, deep in suburban Mumbai. Rajiv Hari Om Bhatia was running late by over an hour. In Studio No 5, the shooting of Mission Mangal is on in full swing. Outside, two security guards with walkie-talkies and Bluetooth headphones intermittingly screech “Silence please”.  Mission Mangal is unique not just because it is being billed as India’s first space film but also because it has five women and two men in lead roles.

After an hour, the actor comes out of the studio, rushes to his vanity van, changes from his formal attire into tracks and T-shirt, steps into his SUV and heads for his home in Juhu, roughly 15 kilometres south of Filmcity. “I am extremely sorry for the delay,” he apologies. “I haven’t slept for two days and had to finish a few scenes, so got late.” Visibly drained, the strain of promoting Rajinikanth co-starrer 2.0, India’s costliest movie with a budget of over 500 crore, as well as various shooting assignments, including Mission Mangal, is showing on the face of Bhatia, who changed his name to Akshay Kumar in 1987.

The interview begins. Kumar, 51, is distracted. The culprits are not his ardent fans who can’t look through the dark-tinted glasses of his SUV, but the mobile home screen on which the interview is being recorded. “It’s a Phantom,” he smiles. “I used to love this character.” The way Phantom used to fight the baddies, he continues, and stay fit was amazing. “I even loved Tarzan,” he grins, explaining his attachment with the character. “I don’t wear any rings, chains or even a watch. Tarzan too didn’t believe in such things,” he says before breaking into his signature hearty laugh.  

“It’s prestigious to be on the Forbes India list,” Kumar cuts to the chase. He’s No 3 on the 2018 Forbes India Celebrity 100 List, behind Indian skipper Virat Kohli and actor Salman Khan. Though he has consistently featured among the top 10 on the list over the years, it’s the first time he’s broken into the top three. “What makes Forbes India unique is that the list is credible and can’t be manipulated like many awards,” he smiles, seemingly, in that moment, savouring the success he’s had over the last few years.

Of the seven releases since Airlift in January 2016, six crossed the 100-crore mark at the box office. The one to miss out, Pad Man, has something else going for it; it hits screens in China this month.

For an actor who started his career way back in 1991, success remained elusive, and came in patches. The first stroke, though, came early in the second year when the action-thriller Khiladi became a blockbuster. Kumar soon carved a niche for himself with his daredevilry. More hit movies followed. The multi-starrer Mohra (1994) gave him mass appeal. The actor, though, soon hit a rough patch, with 14 consecutive flops between 1997 and 1999. “It was the lowest point in my career,” he says.

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Image: Priyanka Parashar / Mint Via Getty Images

What helped him survive was his discipline in finishing movies on time. “In spite of flops, I still had movies,” he says. “I was a producer’s man,” Kumar asserts. The actor has had over 100 releases since 1993, twice the number Shah Rukh Khan has had and over 40 more than Salman Khan.   

Being prolific, however, turned out to be a double-edged sword. Though it helped him survive a string of flops, it also dented Kumar’s image as he indiscriminately accepted movies of all kinds, mostly action flicks. “There have been phases when seven or eight of my movies bombed in a go,” he concedes.  

Bold stunts, which helped Kumar create his initial mark in Bollywood, ironically led to his stunted growth as an actor. He was billed as an action hero, producers hounded him with identical scripts and repetitive roles while critics ridiculed him for not being able to ‘act’ and carry movies on his own as most of his success came in multi-starrers. “I should have been selective with my roles,” he admits.  

A ‘COMICAL’ TURNING POINT
“After 14 flops came Hera Pheri in 1999,” says Priyadarshan, director, producer and scriptwriter responsible for letting viewers see the ‘comic’ side of Kumar. “Nobody explored him as an actor. People used him only for stunts and in action movies,” recalls Priyadarshan, who worked in a string of hit comedy movies with Kumar such as Garam Masala, Bhagam Bhag, Khatta Meetha, Bhool Bhulaiyaa and De Dana Dan. The reinvention was complete. “He is a supremely confident actor now who can pull off any role and carry a movie on his own,” maintains Priyadarshan, sharing an incident when he had to shoot a scene 16 times with Kumar for Hera Pheri. “He rediscovered his skills as an actor.”

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Image: Getty Images

Kumar owes his current success to his selection of movies and roles, which are a far cry from his action-hero and comedy days. The common threads are topicality, realism and social messaging. Toilet: Ek Prem Katha revolves around the issue of poor sanitation in rural India. Pad Man is a story of the man who invented a low-cost sanitary pad manufacturing machine. Gold is a sports drama based on how the Indian men’s hockey team won the country’s first Olympic medal as a free nation in 1948. And Mission Mangal, the one under production, is about India’s 2014 Mangalyaan Mars Mission.

“Akshay is on a creative journey,” contends Prasoon Joshi, adman and lyricist. The most important milestones in this journey, he lets on, are exploring, experimenting and taking on new challenges. “He is doing all three,” Joshi asserts. Kumar now is adding a new dimension to his creative side. “He has explored action, comedy and socially significant subjects,” he says. His negative role in the latest movie with Rajinikanth goes on to attest the way Kumar has been experimenting with different genres.

Kumar calls it evolution. “I used to enjoy action a lot. Then I developed a taste for comedy,” he says, adding that now he has realised the need to explore different subjects. “Every movie has to be different. If I continuously do any one genre, I would get bored.”

HERE COMES MAGICAL MANDRAKE
After dabbling in action movies for over a decade and tickling the funny bone with his profound sense of comic timing for the next 15-odd years, Kumar entered the third phase of his career in 2016. The focus now shifted to doing selective movies driven by content.
g_111315_akshay_kumar_with_john_lobo_280x210.jpgAkshay Kumar bagged a National Award for Rustom. Here, he’s seen with John Lobo, former DCP, crime branch, who was in charge of the Nanavati case on which the film was based
Image: Satish Bate/Hindustan Times Via Getty Images

The first was Airlift, a movie on the evacuation of over 1.5 lakh stranded Indians during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The movie turned out to be a blockbuster, raking in the moolah—his first 100-crore movie since June 2014—as well as critical acclaim. “You learn from experience. Some people learn quickly in their life. I learnt late,” he says, explaining his decision to focus on the quality of the script.

There was no looking back for Kumar. Rustom, a period crime drama based on the real-life story of naval officer KM Nanavati, came next. It also hit the jackpot by becoming another 100-crore club entrant. What was of higher value though was the maiden Best Actor award that Kumar bagged at the 64th National Awards for his role in Rustom. The third release in the same year, Housefull 3, the third in a series of slapstick comedies, was a blockbuster too. “I don’t know about magic but I do love Mandrake the Magician,” he smiles. A comic character created by Lee Falk in 1934, Mandrake was a magician crime fighter. “I am still a big fan of the way he used to use his magic.”  
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For Kumar, the magic had begun all over again—25 years after he made his debut with Saugandh in 1991, three movies earned 100 crore in 2016. A year later, two more, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha and Jolly LLB 2, joined the club. With Gold turning out to be another blockbuster this year, Kumar now has nine movies in the 100-crore club, second only to Salman Khan who has 13.
The magic, though, was not confined to his movies minting money alone. His credentials as an accomplished actor were firmly established. Kumar, who was ridiculed for being ‘wooden’ and branded as someone who could only act in action movies early in his career, started getting critical acclaim as well. “It takes courage to select a script like Pad Man,” says Priyadarshan. “Even Aamir Khan would not have done such a movie,” he quips, adding that the magic behind Kumar’s success and turnaround is his dedication and choice of movies.  

Kumar, for his part, doesn’t read too much into his magical run. He credits luck. “You just need to be the right man at the right time,” he says. “Success is 70 percent luck and 30 percent hard work.” He does, however, add a caveat. “You need to keep working hard for that luck to smile on you.”

Agrees Bollywood trade analyst Komal Nahta. The strike rate of Kumar at the box office, he maintains, has been phenomenal over the last few years. Though he is not as prolific as he used to be a decade ago when he had over five releases a year, he still makes more movies than Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan or Aamir Khan. “The quality of movies has improved. Though most are laced with social messaging, they are still entertaining,” he says.  

It’s indeed the entertainment quotient of the man that has made him a marketers’ favourite. From Tata Motors’ commercial vehicles to Fortune oil and HUL’s Ayush to online marketplace for financial products Paisabazaar, the actor endorses over 15 brands. In fact, among the top 10 celebrities endorsing brands on television, Kumar was sixth on the charts in the first eight months of the year, according to data by AdEx India, a division of TAM Media Research. Topping the list was Kohli, followed by actors Ranveer Singh, Amitabh Bachchan, Ajay Devgn and Deepika Padukone.  

What helped Kumar, reckon marketing experts, in cultivating a mass appeal is not having a ‘larger than life’ image like the Khans. “His fan following cuts across all age groups,” says Ashita Aggarwal, marketing professor at SP Jain Institute of Management and Research. “He is a Jack of all trades, from action to comedy to character roles,” she says. “He might not be a superstar like the Khans, but he definitely is the most bankable star.”
   
Kumar, though, doesn’t believe in falling in the trap of stardom or celebrity. “I don’t take all this too seriously. I have seen enough ups and downs in my life,” he says, adding that what keeps him going even after two decades of acting is the fear of losing. “It’s my hard-earned money. I didn’t have any legacy or inherited riches. So I need to work hard to keep earning.”

What if his magical run at the box office ends? Kumar smiles. “It’s okay. It’s life. At times movies will work, at times they will bomb…One just needs to be lucky.”

(This story appears in the 21 December, 2018 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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