Akshay Kumar: The Khiladi of Reinventions

Akshay Kumar has reinvented himself as an actor several times over the decades, and thank god for that.

5 min read
Akshay Kumar through the ages. (Photo: Reuters)

Believe it or gasp, but there was a time, 1996 to be precise, when Akshay Kumar actually lip-synced to a lyric written by Indivar and composed by Anu Malik. It went, “Na hain hum Amitabh, na hain hum Dilip Kumar, na kisi hero ke bache/ Hum hain seedhe saadhe Akshay, Akshaykabhi bang kabhi doong” (I’m neither Amitabh nor Dilip Kumar. I’m not a star son either. I’m just a straight and simple Akshay Akshay…sometimes bang, sometimes untranslatable”

Quite. There was no reason to state the obvious, was there?

Nearly two decades later, the Akshay Akshay of Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi – in which he danced before a smirking chocolate-colour-wigged Rekha and a tearful, moon-eyed Raveena Tandon – is still neither Amitabh nor Dilip Kumar. Fortuitously though, his status has altered dramatically for the better.

Rekha and Akshay Kumar in a publicity still for <i>Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi.</i>
Rekha and Akshay Kumar in a publicity still for Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi.

Hey, apna Mr Bond, Dancer, Khiladi and what-nought of yore, has migrated from cheeseball entertainers in which he was typecast as the grin machine, flashing fists of fury, breaking into a hippy hoppy shake (classic guilty pleasure: Tu cheez badi hai mast mast of Mohra) and black-belting out every trick in the Bollywood book, with the notable exception of that bare essential known as acting instinct.

Moreover, there was this love-‘em-and-leave-‘em image which shadowed him. In fact, on the sets of a Juhu college for Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi, there I was dithering to sniff out a cover story for Filmfare.

His steady date, Raveenaji, was distraught, it was raining rumours that our Akki had been ensnared by Rekha Ma’am. He denied the chitter chatter glumly, Raveena flashed her eyes heavenwards, angrily I may add, to convey, “Yeah, right!” And hayye rabba, Rekha dropped a quotable quote, “Akshay is as pure as the Gangotri.” Still figuring out what that meant.

Cut to the here and now. Akshay Kumar all of 49 is no longer yoked to the Khiladi image, and from all verified accounts is thoroughly domesticated, blissed out, thanks to Twinkle Khanna, a cool teenaged son and adorable four-year-old daughter as affirmed by on-happy holiday pictures on Instagram.

And what do you know? He has re-re-re-re-invented his screen persona as well.

Mr K literally and figuratively ran circles around me at this shoot #lodha ##MyHomeAmāra

A photo posted by Twinkle Khanna (@twinklerkhanna) on

One re- is for Dhadkan where he went yaay-so-romantic, another re- for Jaanwar which hauled him out of the box-office dumps. The third-re was a downer, the watchamacallit 8 x 10 Tasveer pyscho-drama by Nagesh Kukunoor (at least our hero tried to go artyish) and the last re-for Airlift and Rustom, culled from real-life stories, in which he was as real as it gets. Sadly though, the reality check didn’t exactly fetch him nominations or awards of the quasi-credible kind.

But, who cares! There’s an upside; Akshay Kumar has turned over an entire tree, not just a few leaves, a feat, which say, a Jeetendra couldn’t quite pull off back in the ‘70s. Around the corner, there’s Jolly LLB 2 in which he portrays a crusading lawyer in a mothballed legal system. The promos do look promising but hang on. In case that sounds too PR-ish, let’s hope and pray that the promises are kept. The first Jolly, with a bravura performance by the less marketable Arshad Warsi in the lead, could well be a tough act to follow. And erm, also our hero’s voice is on the weaker side, thin as papyrus. Since courtroom dramas do require fire and fillibuster, can the Khiladi carry out the dialoguebaazi? Let’s see and hear.

No biases, pro- or anti-, please. By the way, writing about Akshay Kumar is akin to writing about one’s next-door neighbour: he’s been querulous at times, chummy at others. Like all actors, he detests criticism even if it’s warranted as it was for his double role act in the boo-grader Jai Kishen (yup he portrayed Jai as well as Kishen).

And there were many more of such teakwood performances, prompting his published statement on the lines of, “Who does that man of Malabar Hill know?”

Correct, I have always lived in the neighbourhood, which he implied was cut off from the mass audience. ‘Twas amusing, never brought that up with him, or posed the counter-question.

So how can an actor, living in a swishy home and working out in a private gym, be in touch with ground reality?

That passed. Then there I was - by invitation - on the location of Namaste London in Chandigarh. Abracadabra, Akshay Kumar saab was courtesy personified, to the extent of dropping me off at the airport, seating me in the lounge and requesting the airline’s staffers to make every wish of mine their command.

At the lounge, he talked about his grandma who used to live in the Paranthewalli gully of Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, he talked about a woman, a social activist working in an NGO in the capital, whom I should meet. He talked, talked, talked convivially till I dropped.

Akshay Kumar with Katrina Kaif in <i>Namastey London. </i>
Akshay Kumar with Katrina Kaif in Namastey London.

Was this a dream sequence? Nope. The man from Malabar Hill was experiencing the goodfella side of the complaint-box of an actor. Lime had turned cordial. Years elapsed, I moved on to do the same old shtick of reviewing but not in any mainstream newspapers. Akki saab moved on to metamorphose by selecting above-the-cut scripts with directors of some sense and sensibility, most notable of them all being Neeraj Pandey (26 Special, Baby, Rustom) and Raja Krishna Menon (Airlift). And for the record, Toilet Ek Prem Katha and Padman, dealing with social issues, are in the works.

That swerving away full time for the rowdy-dowdy-blingy formula won’t be feasible though, I suspect. There will always be a Housefull sequel (tsk) and there will always be a couple of non-brainers interspersed to keep his production company hot and happening in cash terms. Current trade talk is that he has inked a contract for a film to be produced and directed by a not-so-cinema savvy individual. Can’t disclose the name since it’s just talk of the idle kind, touchoak.

Yet clearly, the larger picture is that his choice of projects has evolved, mercy be.

Last month I bumped into Akshay Kumar, donning a serious and ever-so-mature facial expression in an elevator of a Juhu multiplex.“Hello, hello,” we chimed politely. Didn’t go beyond that. Neither of us wished to. Perhaps because diplomacy and a safe distance are the best policy.

(The writer is a film critic, filmmaker, theatre director and a weekend painter.)

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