It’s 5am, and we’re at Filmistan studio in the suburb of Goregaon, in Mumbai. Akshay Kumar is due in an hour, and the set is still being hammered in, the lights are still being put up and his shirts are still being steamed. When he walks in, Kumar carries with him a quiet menace. People are intimidated, even though his voice doesn’t rise above a whisper. This is probably what makes him so convincing as an action hero.
In three decades, Kumar has appeared in more than a hundred films — a feat you can’t manage unless you’ve had a punishing work schedule. Every year, you can expect him to appear in one comedy (It’s Entertainment, The Shaukeens), one action-drama (Gabbar is Back, Brothers), and in recent times, one film that tugs at your conscience (Baby, Airlift). His future releases, Housefull 3, Robot 2.0 and Rustom, too, follow the same pattern.
Among his countless comedies and thrillers, some are tolerable, some are execrable. Kumar defends his choices by saying that all he ever wanted to do was work. “I enjoy action films and comedies the most — always have, always will,” he says. But, since Special 26 (2013) and working with film-maker Neeraj Pandey, he has started looking for something more meaningful. “I want to be a part of worthy cinema as well as rib-tickling entertainers. I yearn for scripts that push my boundaries. There’s something about real-life dramas that gives you an edge, a purpose, a certain kind of inspiration that makes you feel like you’re not just making films for the sake of it, but you’re actually making a difference, changing people’s thought process, opening minds, bringing to people’s attention the facts that have been long buried. This is the kind of movies I look forward to nowadays,” he says. Like the recently released Airlift, which is the kind of film that makes you wish he’d never laid eyes on any of the Sajids in the Hindi film industry.
The other thing that Kumar makes frequent appearances in is his wife, Twinkle Khanna’s, newspaper columns as ‘the man of the house’. Khanna is self-deprecating about their cushy life, and caricatures her man delightfully. Kumar couldn’t be prouder of her success. In an email interview, Kumar reflects on his long career, his sharp wife, his loved-up children and turning 50 while still somehow looking 35.
How important was the success of Airlift to you? Were you nervous about the audience’s reaction, considering the nature of the film and your role?
The success of Airlift was always the second priority on my list. My first priority was to make people proud — proud of India, proud of its people, proud of its history. Airlift wasn’t about making a successful film; it was about bringing to life a story that was forgotten and sadly underappreciated in recent times. ‘A real hero is just a man trying to be an honest coward like everyone else.’ Airlift’s mission was to touch people’s lives, more than anything else. We never had this kind of success in mind, knowing it’s not a commercial film by any means. We knew our audience may be limited. The immense appreciation for the film gives me so much faith that the Hindi film industry, thanks to its audience, has the ability to be far greater than the world assumes. I’m hoping this has opened many more doors for many more untold stories.
Why and how did you pick this film to produce?
Because it was so real and so honest, it captured my attention and my soul from the very beginning. How I chose it is all in god’s hands. To be offered something as heart-warming and inspirational as Airlift is almost a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I couldn’t and wouldn’t give up something like this for any amount of money or success. Sometimes, a man just needs to do what his heart says — to make films whether it has fame or success attached to it or not.
How would you describe your equation with Neeraj Pandey [director of Rustom, Baby and Special 26]?
My equation with Neeraj sir is on a highly respectful level. We are both huge admirers of each other’s work. We knuckle down and work hard on our craft. We don’t wine and dine on each other’s time. We work and slave over our scripts, and give the people something tasteful and intriguing. We are both workaholics, and as much as people thought we’d never be able to work together, I probably have the greatest understanding with this man than I’ve ever had with any of my directors.
You will be turning 50 next year. How would you personally assess your career in the Hindi film industry?
I’d personally assess it by saying you only live once, so why live with regret? I have literally done everything and anything I set my heart and my mind to. If I wanted something, I’d go all out to get it, even if it took me years to achieve. I’ve had goal after goal, idea after idea, obsession after obsession. I’ve lived off my passion for my work, like it was food keeping me alive.
What are the biggest lessons you have learnt in the Hindi film industry?
Trust no one. In an industry that survives on putting people down so others can thrive, one must remember, these are not friends. These are just trespassers trying to use you as another rung in their ladder towards success, to get exactly where they want to be, no matter how many they crush along the way. You are only important as long as you are needed. The minute you become dispensable, make sure you’ve got a crash mat handy, because the fall can sometimes break you in more ways than one. Life is 10 per cent what happens to you, and 90 per cent how you react to it. Don’t let anyone affect you. Create your own world, and don’t let anyone but your nearest and dearest inside of it.
In Shankar’s Robot 2.0, you play a baddie. What made you take up that role?
My inner desire has always been to play a villain. It’s so refreshing not to be saving the heroine all the time. Sometimes, I just want to get down to the nitty-gritty of a role, not care about anything but my character and how I can become a memorable part of a film in which I won’t win. Making people feel for the bad guy is a very powerful part to play. Robot 2.0 is about to push my boundaries to my absolute limits, and I can’t wait to start rolling. I’m about to experience something that I never thought possible in India.
Is age only a number for male superstars in Bollywood? From the success of your films, it looks like you are good to go for many more years.
Thanks for that. I actually reckon every single one of us has grown so much better with age. We’re like fine wine. We just taste better with each and every year that we mature.
Male superstars like yourself and three of the Khans continue to do well even in their fifties, while leading women stop getting roles when they enter their mid-thirties. Do you think the film industry is biased against women?
It’s not the film industry that’s biased against women. It’s more the audience’s acceptance that can be judgmental at times, where men get appreciated the older they get. Unfortunately, women are not given the same humane treatment. The turnover in a woman’s career is much more short-lived. After a certain age, expectations of them settling down start floating in the air. Once that happens, people automatically start looking for the next one to idolise for the next 15 years. It’s far more ruthless for women, but I can say, hand on my heart, that things are changing for the better. Women are coming into their own glory, earning like heroes and creating waves of success on their own merit. It’s about time equality started to present itself in our industry. I’m proud of all of them.
You made it big in films without a godfather. You are also married into one of Bollywood’s most prominent families. How does it feel going from struggle to success within ten years of your bursting onto the scene?
What can I say, I’m a lucky bugger. Everything that’s happened in my career, I’ve worked hard for, but I never asked for it. My struggles were my struggles. I never made them someone else’s; I never asked for help. I’ve always felt that with hard work comes great opportunities. It may not be in that moment, but good deeds don’t go unnoticed in this world. I believe I found my wife because I must have done something truly amazing in my last life. But, like I said, good things can happen to good people.
Was there any one person or actor you idolised when you were growing up, and why?
For sure, I idolised my father-in-law Rajesh Khanna, like you wouldn’t imagine. I would sing his songs to all my girlfriends back when I was way too young to even deserve one. Never in a million years did I ever think I’d meet him, let alone marry his eldest daughter and become a part of his family. Life has a way of painting one’s path far greater than even our own dreams can take us.
As one of the highest paid actors in the world, what does money mean to you?
Money doesn’t make me tick. What I can do with that money and the amount I can help and pamper those who I love and care about is what makes me truly tick and strive for more. I genuinely spend nothing on myself. I’m an extremely minimalistic kind of guy. I only give to others, spend on my family, and look after as many people along the way as I can. Otherwise money to me is just a pain. It’s painful to earn it, and it’s painful to spend it, but it’s my favourite part about having it.
You’ve always led a regimented lifestyle. Tell us about it.
I believe we are what we eat. If we eat like pigs, then we tend to look like them. I follow the blood group diet, in which I eat in moderation. Diet fads can be dangerous, as they are impossible to maintain. So, you end up fluctuating and so does your cholesterol level. My fitness is what keeps me in shape more than anything. The more I train, the more I can eat. For a Punjabi, that’s a pretty good deal. I enjoy swimming and hydrotherapy in summer, but I’m an all-year-round parkour, martial arts, grappling, rock climbing, cycling, functional and calisthenics kinda guy. We like to vary our sessions, so that training stays exciting. There’s nothing worse than dreading going to the same old gym and lifting the same old sweaty weights.
Creative people are often drawn to chaos, but you’re incredibly disciplined and organised. How does that work with your co-actors and film-makers?
If I’m loved and hated for one thing, it would be my punctuality. It comes in handy when people need me on time, but my co-stars can also resent me for being the first on set. But, at least they know that the earlier we start, the earlier we can finish. Now that most of them are family-oriented, it’s kind of a win-win for everyone, especially our producers.
Has social media made any difference to your life?
Yes. I’ve never taken so many photos in all my life. The best thing about social media is that our fans and the people who follow me or are just intrigued by what I do get to learn the real me, rather than a journalist’s or a critic’s point of view. When people talk bad about something, I’m able to speak up and straighten things out in my own words. I can prove where I was and when, because everywhere I go, there’s someone asking for a selfie. I can show people a part of my life that my job or the national media are not able to capture. It’s nice to be in control of my own image now, rather than the earlier days, when the media would paint a version of me that I had no say in whatsoever.
Was it unnerving when you started appearing as ‘the man of the house’ in your wife’s columns? Did you expect Mrs Funnybones [her book] to do as well as it did?
It is actually an honour to be called ‘the man of the house’. Trust me, there are many other names my wife could have called me. So, believe me when I say I was more than thrilled with this one. As for the success of my extremely talented wife, I knew she had it in her to blow us all away with her wit and charm, but what I loved most about Mrs Funnybones is her uncanny way of sharing what goes on in her million-dollar, eccentric head.
You’ve spoken often of how your father is the reason behind your success. How has fatherhood changed you?
Fatherhood changes you in every way possible. I was lucky, because all I ever had to do was be like my father. I already knew what to say and do when my kids came along, because my father is in my every step, my every breath, my every movement. I sound like him; I discipline my children just like him; I talk to them just like he would talk to me. I come from a home that didn’t need much discipline, as our conscience spoke louder than words. Home life should be tranquil, a place like no other. It shouldn’t be full of rules; it should be full of magic.
Would you like your son to become an actor like you, or a writer like your wife?
My son is happily paving his own path. As of now, he’s already writing a screenplay at his school and starring in his own play, without the help of either of his parents. So, Tina and I are flipping coins as to which field he’s going to thrive in. I’m on acting, but my wife’s genes of wit and words could easily win. Either way, I’ll still be the happiest father there could be.
Your wife recently wrote about dealing with teenage rebellion. Is this something you think about — the heartbreak that comes when your son starts asserting his independence?
For a father, it’s different. We wait for the day our boys grow up, for that is when they turn to their dads and see us as friends rather than guardians. As every year passes, I feel closer and closer to my boy. Manhood has started to kick in, and we have more and more in common. As a kid, all they ever really need is their mother. So, it’s harder for moms when they start to cut the strings that tie them together. As for rebellion, my son is too wise for his own good. It’s not rebelling I’m worried about. It’s the fact that he’s so sensible — I fear he may miss out. I’m a really lucky father in that respect.