Akshay Kumar has proved his mettle in Bollywood time and again, first as an action hero, then, in the middle stages of his career, as someone who specialised in doing romantic and comic roles. In recent years, he has done a spate of serious, socially-relevant films that went on to become huge commercial hits. He speaks to Bulbul Sharma about the successes and setbacks of his acting life.
Q. Every actor, be it from the older generations or from the generation that you represent, is defined by the style of cinema he or she has done. So how would you define your style of cinema?
A. I hate being tagged with a particular kind of cinema. I don’t like it when people typecast me as an action hero or the actor who is doing patriotic films. I feel stifled when my work is put into compartments. This is why I am doing Housefull 4 I will be doing Hera Pheri, Good News, and Kesari. I will also be doing a horror comedy soon.
Q. But starting with Special Chabbis (2013), we have seen you in a number of films that delivered strong social messages and were patriotic in tone as well. Movies like Holiday: A Soldier Is Never Off Duty (2013), Baby (2014), Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017) and Padman (2018) all testify to that. Was it a conscious decision on your part to do such films?
A. I haven’t done these films to prove that I am a patriot but I have done these because the stories are so beautiful. Take for example, the story of Gold, which is set against the backdrop of our country’s Independence in 1947. It is based on real events. Everything is going well and we are planning to build a hockey team and then something happens and the entire team falls apart. Following this, I am just left with a year—because the Olympics are starting in 1948—to build a new team. So we have a new-born country, which has just won its freedom. There is no sports ministry, there are no facilities, there are no funds but they still manage to win a gold medal after defeating the British team; and it is so inspiring for everyone. It reminds us how there was a time when players didn’t get anything and yet they attained great heights.
Q. Do you have any specific set of parameters that you consider before signing a project?
A. No, I just go with my instincts. If I like the script, if I like the screenplay, if I love the person who is telling the story, then I just go for it. The film has to appeal to me. I don’t have a team that sits down with me to discuss my professional choices.
Q. You have been a part of many films with an ensemble cast, and your recent release, Gold, is a multi-starrer as well. What is your approach when you are doing such films?
A. We are all friends on the movie sets. We play a lot of games. Even while filming Gold, there wasn’t a single day when we didn’t play games. So I just enjoy with my co-actors. There is no such feeling that I have been in the industry for 28 years now. My only approach is that I want to learn from my co-actors, since all of them are very talented.
Q. Whenever you are doing a biopic or a film that is inspired by real events, what serves as your reference point?
A. I don’t know that man [the subject of a biopic] personally, I have never met him. I don’t know anything about him. So you just start making up things. You decide that he must be having a moustache, he must be having a peculiar hairstyle, he is Bengali, he drinks. You start making a sketch and then you also have a director with you who would help you. And then it just flows. As I always say, once your clothes and looks are right, 50-60% job is done. Zyada acting karne ki zarurat nahi hai [you don’t have to act much]. In fact, acting comes naturally then. I am not one of those actors who lock themselves up in a room for a month to get into the skin of the character. I only need to understand my character well and get the look right.
Q. How, according to you, has the definition of a “Bollywood hero” changed ever since you started your acting career in the 1990s?
A. These days, every hero is a character. It doesn’t really matter now if the hero is able to beat up 20 people. Even if he is beaten up by two people, the audience is fine with it. All that matters now is that the actor must be able to live up to the demands of his role.
Q. In your life as an actor, how did you adapt to this changing outlook of the audiences towards the hero they want to see on the screen?
A. You just keep on learning from your mistakes. I started to adapt to this changed definition after I delivered flops. I started analysing , I thought about why a film didn’t work. I wouldn’t just analyse my own films, I would analyse the work of other actors as well. The audience, too, has become smart. Earlier, in the 1990s, they were gullible, now they are not. They get to know when you are cheating with your character. They forgive continuity problems, but if you’re not honest with your character they figure it out.
Q. How was your experience of working with Gold’s director Reema Kagti, since this is the first time you have collaborated with her?
A. She is brilliant. She knows her job very well. She knows angles, she knows takes and because she has assisted a lot of directors, she is quite used to filmmaking. She has herself written the whole story in English, which was translated into Hindi by Javed Akhtar later.
Q. You have been a part of the Hindi film industry for about three decades now and have worked with some of the best-known filmmakers. Would you consider yourself a director’s actor?
A. Once upon a time, I had 16 flops but I still had four films because I was a producer’s actor, and not just a director’s actor. The producer is the one who invests money in the film. And they would want to take an actor who would reach on time and would be able to multitask. You have to be a producer’s actor first and then a director’s actor. So if you want to survive in the industry, hits and flops would always be there, the only thing that will help you is your reputation of being a good human being. I have heard producers talk about so many heroines and say, “Let’s take her, she takes less than five minutes to get dressed”. This is simple but effective, if heroines understand it. Sometimes a heroine takes an hour or three to get out of the vanity van. Even if you have made it big that way, in the long term you won’t sustain.
Q. From starting out as an action hero, we have seen you evolve into a romantic hero, then into an actor with amazing comic timing and now as an actor who is doing films that are socially relevant. How has each of these phases rewarded you as an actor?
A. I have got paycheques for these. I can answer this profoundly but I would be lying if I would do that. A film releases, it is off theatres after some time and then you move on. However, there are some films that stay with you for long.
Q. In recent years, we have seen numerous successful sports dramas being made in Bollywood. What do you think has led to this trend?
A. It is a good shift. These movies are also doing good business. People are eager to know about sports. Things are changing. With each passing year, the medal count in the country is increasing too. And so, I am hoping that this year at the Asian Games, we will see our athletes doing well. I will be the happiest if our hockey team gets gold this time at the Asian Games.
Q. Gold is a period film, set around the years 1936-48. You haven’t done many period films before Gold, and your upcoming film, Kesari, is also a period war drama. So do you plan to try, in years to come, all those genres that you haven’t yet had the chance to explore?
A. I don’t plan on doing anything as such. I am doing Kesari because I liked its subject and it was the same case with Gold. I did Special Chabbis, which is set in the 1970s, because I liked its story. It is all about the subject matter for me.