Akshay Kumar: ‘I think movies have evolved, along with us’

There’s a story I’d heard from the beginning of Akshay Kumar’s career about his secretary negotiating with producer Mukesh Bhatt for a film. While displeased with the amount the secretary had demanded on Akshay’s behalf, Mukesh anyway asked him to come over and meet him at 11 am on a Sunday at JVPD Scheme in Juhu. The secy showed up on time. He called Mukesh to check where he was. Mukesh told him to look towards Amitabh Bachchan’s bungalow on that road. “You see the crowd outside (his house)? When Akshay gets the same crowd, negotiate with me,” Mukesh told the secy, and hung up!

Sabse Bada Khiladi
Sabse Bada Khiladi

There’s a reason I bring up this Bachchan analogy from so many years ago with Akshay, when we meet at his plush office, also in Juhu, in the same building as his massive, secluded villa, facing the beach/sea. Much about Bollywood has changed since the ’80s when Bachchan was famously the ‘one man industry’ — a term coined by Francois Truffaut to denote, among many things, Big B’s annual commercial output, which used to be huge for practically all top stars (three-four films a year) up until the late ’90s. All of them, younger ones included, let alone the three Khans, roll out, usually, a film a year.

If you were to pass on Bachchan’s ‘one man industry’ tag to anyone in Bollywood then, it’d simply have to be Akshay Kumar. “I think the others evolved. People say, you must. But I forgot to! I still remained the same. Maybe I’ve been one of the lucky ones in that respect. In 1990, I used to do four films a year. In 2017 as well, I’m doing four films. Every human being has his own way of working,” Akshay reasons. The obvious positive outcome of this relentless harvest is that while other star-actors annually pin all their hopes on one film, often going into minor depression if it doesn’t cut it with the masses, as we speak, Akshay says, he already “has three films lying finished,” ready to be served!

Akshay in Mohra
Akshay in Mohra

There ought to be a production model — that others are unable to adopt, or choose not to — which explains that spanning two and half decades, without a break, Akshay’s robustly commandeered a one-actor economy, delivering consistent quarterly results, with a fairly balanced P/L account, presently producing most of the films himself, assuring employment to hundreds every few months. What’s the fail-safe formula?

He says, “I learnt something from a dear friend of mine, who makes buildings. He never sits and counts the bricks, cement, or gets into other nitty-gritty. He just buys the plot. Then he calls a big company, like a Larsen & Toubro, to build. He says he’ll be there — likewise (in my case) producing it, being the face of it.

“I ask the company how much they will charge. They quote Rs 10. I tell them, I’ll give you Rs 12. But you deliver the film on time. If you don’t, I’ll start subtracting your money. That’s why I work on six to seven films a year. But how many people work in my office? Five. I outsource. I don’t work much myself either, devoting around 180 days of the year for shoots — I take a vacation for a month and half, which I just returned from. I don’t work Sundays, Saturday’s and half-day…”

Death of the solo-producer
What’s equally remarkable about this business model is that, over the years, his films have inevitably scaled upwards, by way of size, polish and reach, starting off as he did with what can be called ‘B’ and ‘C-grade’ movies: “I’ve done films, which are not even C, they’ve gone to D and E! I still remember one incident from my life, should I tell you?” Akshay asks. Of course.

“I was doing a film, where I play a disco-dancer. They got me white shirt and blue jeans to wear. The director said, ‘No, I want four changes (of clothes) for this (song) sequence.’ The producer got to know that the director’s gone mad (given the budgets)! He spoke into the cameraman’s ears, who just stared back at the producer, stunned, for two minutes. The cameraman then went up to the director to ask what colour shirts he was looking for. He put a blue gelatin paper on the lights, and along with my shirt, even I became completely blue, from head to toe! The director was like, ‘Yeh kya hai!’

One of the early photoshoots Akshay Kumar did was at Juhu. Today he owns a house at the same spot
One of the early photoshoots Akshay Kumar did was at Juhu. Today he owns a house at the same spot

“You’ll not believe this. With Rs 10 for that song, they bought four gelatin papers, aur charon colours mein dikha diya mujhe (he showed me in all four colours).” This is downright hilarious. That song would be YouTube gold. Is it around, online? “Yes.” Akshay promises to pass on details, which he hasn’t yet.

It’s stories like these that make conversations around desi films and showbiz deliciously fun. And something that, on this occasion, has naturally drawn us to the Punjabi, earthy raconteur, so he can take us through a whole generation of old-world Bollywood he’s been through.

Which was once controlled by colourful characters —mostly producers who ran showbiz like family, not out of nepotism, but simply as a homely enterprise, surely with its own version of kitchen politics. One such producer, Pramod Chakravorty, on the basis of portfolio pictures and a rudimentary screen-test, gave Rajeev Bhatia a break (Deedar, 1992) and the name Akshay, along with the casteless moniker Kumar, in line with heroes with similar pseudonyms in the past (Dilip, Ashok, Rajendra, Manoj).

I bring up several producers’ names — Suneel Darshan, Keshu Ramsay — who Akshay would have done around a dozen films with. We rarely hear about them anymore: “It just happened one fine day, huh? Ek din ke andar khatam ho gaya sab kuch. Pata bhi nahin chala. Bahut kam jan reh gaye hain (There are few such individual producers left). I do miss them.”

“With solo producers, there would be ‘ghar ka khana’, coming from their homes, to the sets. Now there is a studio system, run by those doing 9 to 5 jobs. Ab wahan se khana toh aane se raha! Everything is impersonally corporate. Ab jo hai so hai (It is what it is). That’s why I enjoy working with a (traditional) producer like Sajid Nadiadwala — that personal touch is there.”

Akshay suggests it’s his loyalty towards the producer and his money that he’d vowed to be mindful of throughout his career that’s helped him tide over serious troughs, including the time he’d delivered “14 flops in a row”. That should put anyone outta business. When was this? “(Thinks hard) It was ’97, ’98, ’99. And then I gave eight hits one after the other. Then again I gave about six to seven flops! Even on my 14th flop, I had three movies ahead of me. Here’s what I tell newcomers, and those struggling to get into the industry: ‘Actor unnees-bees chal jayega. But if you’re a producer’s actor, you’ll keep getting films’.

But ’14 frickin’ flops’ (I’ve heard 16 before)? “That’s fine, I would finish the films. The producer would say, ‘Do hero ka subject hai. Acting ke liye woh hero ko lete hain. Action ke liye isko (referring to himself) le lete hain. Jaldi khatam ho jayega. This is how it would work.”

What he loved most about that period, he says, laughing through it all (unless this is a slyly directed hint) was “the fact that you had to do no publicity. You were only visiting temples before a film’s release. No journalists, media, TV studios — kabhi Haji Ali, kabhi Siddhivinayak, aur kabhi Gurudwara.” With the film’s print, I ask. “If you’re the producer then the print would come to you. Otherwise you’d go on your own. And if the heroine was your girlfriend, then you took her along with you!”

’90s the new retro
The reason we’re harping on Akshay’s formative years in Bollywood is if you look online, you realise how the ’90s have become the most loved longing of our times — the new retro, as it were — with millenials, in particular, fishing out music, photos, and bizarre film clips from the decade, turning them into funny memes and viral videos. Also, you can sense, Akshay, 49, enjoys nostalgia. He reminisces with much fondness.

A lot of the sharable stuff on the Internet is centred on the odd fashion of the era (yes, it’s an era now). Akshay recalls, “We had to wear jeans up till here (points to his navel). But everybody — from Ajay (Devgan) to Aamir (Khan) — was wearing it (like that). Belt was here (going up even further). I had my long boots. The jeans used to be tucked inside my sock! Collars up. Apna apna style thha sabka. Now, everything is about red carpets, slick look. There’s fashion police waiting to catch you, so you have to be in sync with Paris!”

While fashion is fairly cyclical by nature, and God knows those jeans tucked into socks might return, the general consensus over what we consider ‘good-riddance’ so far as the ’90s are concerned, was the callous portrayal of women in Bollywood. Recently, when Akshay released the trailer of his next, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, he got pulled up quite strongly for apparently stalking the heroine in his film. This eventually leads to the two getting married. Are we rightly getting sensitive over such matters? “Too sensitive,” Akshay asserts.

“Well, in the film, she’s aware of what’s happening. He’s not a stalker. Par mere ko ek baat bata. Newspaper photographer jab khada hota hai, does he seek permission before taking a (celebrity’s) picture? Then you also treat it like baap ka maal and publish those photographs. Do you ask, ‘Beta permission liya?’ Woh bhi toh stalking hi kar raha hai.”

It’s at this point in the conversation that Akshay’s wife, celebrity writer Twinkle Khanna, walks into the room to hand over a speech she’s written for him to deliver at the Vogue Beauty Awards the following night. “Good timing,” Akshay says. “When the trailer released, even she said it was stalking. I was telling him, aren’t (press) photographers stalking as well?”

Hey, come on, it’s not the same thing as a girl being stalked by the local gunda or good-looking Joe, who was once shown as the hero in our films, unwittingly sending scary signals to audiences. “I think (back in the day) we were also not evolved, or aware of consequences, or happenings in the world. I think movies have evolved, along with us. So have people who work in the movies,” Twinkle agrees with me. Relief.

Which brings me to the other top oddity from the decade. This concerns a particular Akshay song, although it was a genre by itself: ‘Tip tip barsa pani’ (from Mohra, 1994). It’s raining. The heroine, Raveena Tandon, in wet yellow saree is dancing seductively. The hero doesn’t care. He looks insouciantly away. He sits and gets pampered incessantly still. I’m sorry what kinda hero is this? Did Akshay find it odd shooting this? Makes no sense.

“Maybe they were married for 16 years,” Twinkle teasingly interjects, laughs, and leaves the room to run an errand. Okay then. Awkward silence (in my head). “We didn’t think or understand much. Choreographer jo bolta tha kar lete the. I don’t think he thought much also,” Akshay says, in his usual, endearingly visceral response to most questions that attempt to dig deep.

The ’90s films though had a certain deep connect with vast masses that is hard to replicate for various reasons —perhaps one of them being multiple media vying for the same eyeballs. An exhibitor friend who runs a theatre in Purnea hasn’t stopped telling me over so many years the impact Akshay’s film Jaanwar had (it remains the biggest ever hit in his region), when it released in the winter of 1999. People from far-flung villages, covered in thick blankets, travelled in bullock-carts, to fill up his hall — registering 100 per cent attendance on all shows, for nearly 100 days flat!

Akshay is suitably impressed, “I loved Jaanwar. It is one of my favourite movies. Usme mitti ki khushbu hai. I love doing mitti ki khushbu wali filmein, which appeals to all cinemagoers. The scene really changed with multiplex audiences coming in. But I never forget my single-screen audiences, who are also, slowly, changing, by the way.”

Money matters
Of all the phases he’s traversed as an actor, and God knows there’ve been far too many over 25 years — pure action, relationship-drama, action-comedy, pure comedy — the one furthest from Akshay’s predominant persona is the stage he’s currently in. He’s picks up what in trade-speak are called “high content” films (Special 26, Airlift, Jolly LLB 2, Rustom), playing key, well-defined characters rather than merely wearing stardom on his sleeve. It appears he even preps hard on the roles. Was there a pivotal moment when his career took a decisive turn, or U-turn, as it were? Akshay credits that turning point to Mahesh Bhatt’s Sangharsh (1999), which doesn’t quite tally with his trajectory thereafter.

I settle for Twinkle’s explanation instead: “His evolution is his own. He’s a fast learner. His sister (Alka) is also like that. They stay relevant with the times very easily. Which is most important.” Also, Akshay argues, “The audiences now really want to see the hard-work that you’ve put in a film. It’s become unbelievably hard to satisfy audiences for the cinema they’d like to see. I joined the industry with only one agenda in life — to earn money. Mere ko aur kuch nahin chahiye. Mere ko paisa kamaneka hai. That’s it. This isn’t the case anymore.”

Being a one-man-industry who’s generated an inventory of over 120 moves, his annual earnings estimated by Forbes at $80.5 million (80th richest celebrity in the world), I’m curious to know what Akshay does with his money. For instance, does he own a private jet, yet? “We don’t have a private jet. But I take my family on private jets. This is the only bad habit I have. I like going on private jets.” Twinkle admits, “We argue about this (extravagance).”

Does he own multiple homes, villas, maybe a private island tucked away instead? “I prefer keeping my money in bonds and deposits. I don’t do anything else. I like to live my life without any stress. I don’t deal in stocks or anything of the sort.”

This is quite in line with the general image of a teetotaler super-star, who goes to bed early, jogs and runs up stairs for exercise, is hardly known for throwing tent-pole celeb bashes, let alone drugs or rock ‘n roll. I’m sorry, but this is really boring for a showbiz rockstar.

“I do these things not because I want to be a good boy. It’s just that I don’t enjoy the concept of parties. Mere ko maza hi nahin aata hai. I don’t enjoy drinking tea or coffee either,” Akshay says, while he’s been relishing a bowl of milk and cereals all through our conversation. Has he ever had a drink though? “Yeah, I’ve a glass of wine, on rare occasions, like my wife’s birthday, or mine.”

Has he ever been through a phase of late-night excesses, that so many of us are prone to? “I’ve done so much of it in my life.” Thank you. There you go. That’s what I thought. “This is when I wasn’t in the film industry — working in Bangkok. There, everything is in front of your eyes. I’ve seen it in close proximity for five to six years. Everything is available to you. After that, when someone tells me, ‘Oh tujhe party accha nahin lagta?’ I’m like, beta tere se pachees guna zyada party dekh chuka hoon. Chal na!” He’s had his fill then? “Well, then as well, I didn’t drink or anything. I was into martial arts. Also, I couldn’t even afford it at the time.”

Speaking of money, Akshay recounts for Twinkle the Mukesh Bhatt story we’d started our chat with. “So he was telling me about how Baliji got a call from Mukesh Bhatt… It didn’t happen, huh,” he laughs. “You told him about the producer who didn’t pay you? And what you did to him?” Twinkle asks. He laughs again. “Say,” she nudges him more.

Finally, he recounts: “Okay. So this guy (the producer) owed me some money. It wasn’t much, say, about Rs 75,000 or so. Picture released. Picture flopped. He said, ‘Paisa nahin hai. Flop ho gaya picture.’ I went and rang his bell. I needed the money very badly. He opened the door, looked at me.

“He thought, ‘Abhi marega mujhe’ (laughs). I just walked inside the house. I looked around. I saw a National Panasonic two-in-one tape recorder that used to exist in those days. I took it. Then I took a small fan in the other hand. He didn’t a say word. I didn’t say a word. He let me go. I sold the stuff, and told him later, Rs 18,000 is still in balance.”

Toughie Akki’s toughest ever:

Stunt: Ran and jumped from the seventh floor of a building to the fourth floor of another, with traffic beneath, in Angaarey (1998). And Mahesh Bhatt (the director) ran away, saying, “Karo. Mere ko nahin dekhne ka hai. Yeh ladka mar jayega abhi.”

Slapstick comedy film/scene:
Garam Masala (2005). In that whole film, Mr Priyadarshan put two cameras, asked me to learn my lines, and speak for (chunks of) four minutes straight, in all the scenes. It was like doing a play.

Character: When I played the husband who’s swapping wives, in Ajnabee (2001).

Narration: There was a very big Bengali writer that I was so happy was narrating his script to me. But he would narrate for 10 minutes, and then ask, from the first scene: “Woah heroine ka naam kyaa hai?” “Heroine ka naam? Ummm…” “Tum baraabar sunta nahin hai.” And he would go back and start from the first scene, narrate for 15-20 minutes, then quiz, “Aabhi woah hero kiska ghor mein gaya?” “Kiskaa ghar? Apna ghar.” “Naai, tum barabar sunta nahin hai.” We had a narration for five and half hours, my secretary had fallen off to sleep, I had gone mad. For two years after that, I didn’t hear a script. I’d say, ‘I’ll just do your film!’

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