Going by their differing styles of acting, it seems implausible that South Indian superstar Rajinikanth is the one who’s most influenced Akshay Kumar. But it’s not Rajinikanth’s acting style as much as his credo – that to be a good actor one has to be a good person – that Akshay swears by.
‘I’ve followed this philosophy since the beginning,’ says the 48-year-old, during a break from a hectic shooting schedule in Mumbai. He grins mischievously on seeing our disbelief.
Then he leans forward in his chair. ‘Before I decided to go to acting school, I was told to read a book about acting,’ he says. ‘So I went to the library, opened a book, and the first sentence was: “To be a good actor, one must first be a good human being.” So I closed the book, didn’t even borrow it, walked out of the library, saved a fortune by cancelling acting school and went into my first film knowing I had what it takes…’
End of acting lesson. What?! ‘Yeah,’ he grins easily. ‘I’ve never looked back since. I know it might sound cocky, but I don’t need anyone else to tell me I’m a good person. I always try really hard to make sure I am [good] to everyone who crosses my path.’
If it had come from any other star, most people would have dismissed it as a lot of pompous talk. But from Akshay, it has the ring of truth to it. There is nothing cocky or faux modest about Akki, as he is fondly known. Whether it is the clothes he’s wearing right now – casual black shirt and a pair of denim jeans that has clearly been through many washing cycles – or the big smile that takes over his face, he is affability personified. Match that with his clean-cut youthful looks and it certainly doesn’t add up to Bollywood swagger.
Marry that with goodness, and you get Akshay Kumar. And he’s not being tongue-in-cheek when he says he practises very hard at being good. Unlike most Bollywood stars he has never shied away from loosening the purse strings while spreading goodwill.
From starting a 30-bed hospice for cancer-stricken policemen and contributing Rs5 million (about Dh274,500) to Salman Khan’s Being Human Foundation, to donating Rs9 million to drought-hit farmers and an additional Rs5 million to drought-affected people, Akki is even known to have given to charity half of the mind-boggling fee he earned for endorsing a brand.
This is clearly one star who puts his money where his mouth is. And also one who doesn’t take his star persona very seriously.
In a country that is obsessed with Bollywood, where actors are considered as role models, he’s quick to debunk a notion that most stars tend to perpetuate. ‘Follow your dreams, and not your idols,’ he says measuredly. ‘Even heroes make mistakes.’
In these times of violence and hatred, he encourages his fans to focus on the positive. ‘Even when the negative is slapping you in the face, don’t let it affect you… terrorism will never win,’ he says. ‘Just remember that, when days are dark, follow the light, don’t fixate on the dark, that’s where your troubles will begin and your enemies will trap you, at work and in life. A positive mental attitude can fight all forms of weakness.’
This is the new mature Akki, who wants to now constantly explore his talent and accept roles that take him out of his comfort zone. His role in last week’s release Rustom is an example. A crime thriller, Rustom is based on the real-life incident of Indian naval officer Kawas Manekshaw Nanavati who, on April 27, 1959, shot his wife’s lover Prem Ahuja with his service revolver.
‘It was thrilling to portray a character who has nothing but love and patriotism in his heart, but commits a crime,’ he says. ‘And a crime is a crime, even if it is committed by a hero.’
The film also highlights the role of women in a highly patriarchal society, a subject very close to Akshay’s heart.
For him, gender equality can happen only when we stop putting women on a pedestal that decrees that they should do no wrong. ‘Women have been fighting for equality for centuries,’ he says.
And though female empowerment is stronger now than it has ever been, Akshay feels society has a tendency to put women on a pedestal and constrict them. ‘They just want equal rights, pay, opportunities and freedom, and everything that comes with it,’ he says. ‘But when it comes to infidelity [the theme of Rustom] there are double standards. My take is it is wrong whether committed by a woman or a man.’
Akki believes that his films Rustom and Airlift have taught him about love, faith and honesty.
These days, Akki looks for takeaways from the roles he does, and Rustom fulfilled that need as well. ‘The movie taught me not to expect happiness but to create it, that all actions have consequences,’ he says. ‘Think before you move, breathe before you pass judgement, and analyse all options before throwing your life away for the sake of revenge.’
However, it would be a mistake to think that Akki is into just serious cinema now. The secret of his success has been in his versatility. From action to comedy, Akki’s earnings prove that he has been successful at whatever he does. In 2015, he was ranked 9th on Forbes’ global list of highest-paid actors in the world with earnings of US$ 32.5 million (about Dh119 million). Not a distinction to be sneezed at, considering he outran the likes of Hollywood stars Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio that year. In fact, in 2013, Kumar was the Hindi film industry’s highest advance taxpayer, forking out a mammoth Rs190 million that year.
However, Kumar’s real achievements go deeper. For someone who came in from the cold, minus a star papa or even a Bollywood godfather, it has been the proverbial sweat of his brow that has taken the actor, once dubbed the poor man’s Jackie Chan, places. That, and a burning ambition to achieve.
The truly amazing part is that even after getting to the top, he hasn’t sat back and grown smug. Matching an astounding output – he has at least four to five releases per year as compared to his contemporaries who manage just one film, if even that – with some unusual content-driven choices, Kumar holds his own despite the domination of the Khans.
It helps that he has cleverly balanced his offbeat cinematic ventures with crowd-pleasers like Oh My God, Gabbar Is Back and Housefull 3. It also helps that he is innately secure, believing that there is more work in Bollywood than there are actors, leaving plenty of space for all its denizens and eliminating the need for competition. Most of all, it helps that pride hasn’t managed to carve a chip on his shoulder.
Industry insiders who have witnessed the rise and rise of Akshay Kumar talk of his respectful mien and his lack of ego, and the general ‘goodness’ he radiates in a hard-bitten industry. His ready smile, his refusal to take himself too seriously or forget his roots… all play a part in making Akshay Kumar, born Rajiv Hari Om Bhatia, a hero for real. Even Salman Khan recently alluded to him as the Rustom-e-Hind or Champion of India, referring to his forthcoming release Rustom.
All this is not lost on Akki, but he chooses to brush it all aside. He’d rather concentrate on the job at hand: promoting Rustom. ‘It taught me a great deal, about love, life, human faith and honesty,’ he says. Then like quicksilver his serious demeanour vanishes and he quips: ‘Soon it will be your turn to tell me what Rustom taught you… August 12, book your ticket now or forever hold your peace! Just kidding.’
Many have attributed this late flowering of his zany sense of humour to his beautiful, witty writer-wife, Twinkle Khanna. In fact, he’s said to be involved with the editing of her articles penned under the pseudonym Mrs Funnybones.
His grin widens: ‘I’d say I’m one proud husband right now… but then again I always was. Fame, fortune, success or failures, Twinkle has done nothing but surprise me and bowl me over since the day we met. But I’ll tell you one thing, my wife has so much more in store for all her readers – get ready to be stumped!’
Twinkle appears to have been just what Akki needed, when he hung up his boots as B-town’s most wanted bachelor and tied the knot in 2001. They have left the cynics baffled, as they evidently share a relationship that has only grown in strength over the years. Earlier this year on their 15th wedding anniversary, Akshay had shared a throwback picture of the couple on Twitter, writing, ‘Found this old pic and nothing’s changed, couldn’t and still can’t take my eyes off her… Happy Anniversary.’
So, what’s the secret to keeping their marriage going in times when so many are falling apart?
‘No one knows how to make a marriage successful; if we did we could all apply that magic,’ he says. ‘Unfortunately life is unpredictable, you’ve got to ride the storms like a surfer on a wave and embrace the good times in the hope they never end. No one wants their marriage to fail; sometimes when things fall apart the last thing you want to hear is how you should have kept the flame burning bright… I’m just counting my blessings that I’m still on my honeymoon, 15 years down the line.’
However, there’s more to the Akshay-Twinkle marriage than blind luck. Spending time together appears to be their trump card in this notoriously fickle industry. The family spends multiple vacations together every year, including one lengthy summer holiday.
In fact, Akki is a big fan of the family vacation. He has gone on record to urge every working person to take time away from their jobs and spend quality time with their families.
Akshay loves going on holiday with his family, including mum-in-law Dimple, son Aarav, wife Twinkle, and daughter Nitara.
‘They are also the most important memories in any household,’ he insists. He and his family made more memories on their recent break, during which he says he devoted every waking hour to his wife and kids, even substituting as their butler, driver, clown, cook and tour guide. ‘We toured Italy’s mountains and lakes this time, with the odd waterfall here and there,’ he reveals. ‘We then jumped across the pond to New York, our regular holiday destination with best friends and family.’
‘The Bhatias/Kumars/Khannas are absolute legends on holiday!’ he declares. ‘We make the most of every day, and don’t sit down until we fall down!
‘And we centre everything around the kids, the happier they are the better the survival rate of each adult will be,’ he deadpans.
Akki clearly cherishes the time he spends with his children. He has spoken about how he has learnt so much more about his daughter Nitara, being able to spend time 24/7 with her, and not just having to take her to school. The little tot has her daddy wrapped around her finger. Son Aarav, Kumar dubs as ‘the greatest person on earth to spend every waking moment with’.
And he’s not the kind of father who would insist that his children follow in his footsteps. ‘It’s got nothing to do with what I want… I’m the kind of parent that never enforces anything on my kids,’ he says. ‘Only then can they grow at their own pace and surprise you with their own goals, rather than living only to fulfil our own.’
An empowering father, on a recent holiday he enrolled his son, who enjoys cooking, in a special cookery course. Akki is known for his culinary skills, so was there any pressure there?
‘Again, I had nothing to do with that,’ he clarifies. ‘My son asked me to help him join a cookery course in New York so that he would be able to cook and fend for himself when he went to London later for his summer training camp. When a parent doesn’t push, kids take the wheel and use their own initiative most of the time. Sometimes you got to pull on the reins, but fortunately my son mostly tends to do what’s right before even dreaming of doing what’s wrong.’
It’s time to wrap up the interview. So what’s his secret? How does he keep succeeding while most of those who started with him have fallen by the way? ‘I am hungry,’ he allows. ‘That’s why I keep dabbling in different genres, styles. For instance, I want to do a horror film; it’s something I’m waiting to dabble in.’
He pauses, running what he just said in his mind. ‘Of course, I’ll always have my funny bone and fighting fist at the ready, but I do like to explore the unknown. Stepping away from the stereotypes and finding my feet on shaky ground. Let’s just say it is the #NewPassionOfMine!’