Akshaye Khanna marches to a beat that is all his own
Akshaye Khanna is dragging intently at his Marlboro Lights. We are in a studio in Mumbai’s Sun Mills Compound area where a photographer has been taking his pictures for well over 45 minutes. The studio is air-conditioned but Akshaye is not too comfortable. “I’m uncomfortable sitting on the floor in these tight jeans,” he says to the photographer. Arrangements are made for a looser pair of jeans and the shoot proceeds with professional ease over the next half-hour amidst smoke and dust. Shaggy is belting out ‘Lucky Day’ over the speakers much to Akshaye’s disgust and he goes over to replace it with a Madonna CD.
This is the new, professional Akshaye Khanna. The actor with no attitude problems. Though he’s still comparatively inaccessible, once he’s made a work commitment, he’s there on time. And the shoot proceeds with the minimum fuss, even if his make-up man and a clothes stylist hover protectively. Where are the star tantrums? Where are the unreasonable demands? What gives? “I never wanted to be known as an unprofessional actor,” says Akshaye, loosening his tie. “Maybe there were people who, in the past, said that I was unprofessional and that was not a comfortable feeling. That it was actually being written about made me think. I knew I had to change and so I did. Today I think I’m very clear about my professional priorities.”
It’s something his directors will vouch for. The accolades are still pouring in for Deewangee, his latest release in which he played the upright lawyer to Ajay Devgan’s love-obsessed maniac. “I’d heard of Akshaye’s so-called ‘unprofessional’ attitude but surprisingly he was a dream to work with,” says Deewangee director Anees Bazmee. “He was always punctual, focused and immensely involved with the character he was portraying. His energy levels on the sets were infectious and he was a director’s delight. If this means that he’s changed, then we should all welcome the change.”
Talking to Akshaye there’s the unmistakable feeling that here’s an actor who’s crossed a major threshold. His father Vinod Khanna’s made-to-tank Himalayaputra may have launched him as a leading man, but in the cycle of ups and downs during the next seven years, he’s proved his mettle and has matured considerably, even if he is just 27. Recently with Dil Chahta Hai and on a different note with Humraaz and Deewangee, a different actor personifying ‘cinematic cool’ has emerged. While his fans may have to settle with a release only once in six months, with it comes the assurance of quality.
The actor himself is well aware of his USP. For better or for worse, here’s a star who’s stuck by his guns, maintaining that he would never accept a role that didn’t interest him. Critics may carp that the two-year hiatus he took between 1998-2000 when he didn’t sign a single film was professional suicide for an actor but Akshaye thinks otherwise. He calls it the best thing he’s ever done “something that did me a lot of good because I could sit back and see where I was heading.”
But two years—hasn’t he heard of the ticking biological clock that comes attached to a leading man’s shelf life? “You know what, I started my career at 19. Taal was released when I was 25 and already six years into the business. That’s very, very young. Naturally I was immature and I did a lot of projects that didn’t work—although I learnt a lot from them. Right now, I’m not at that stage when I have to worry how many years I’ve got left. Every actor has his own career graph and I’ve got my entire life left. I was never thinking ‘Oh, you know I’ve wasted two years’. In retrospect it’s the best thing I ever did for my career and for myself as a person.” In those two holiday years he “played squash, swam and listened to scripts”. Obviously nothing was interesting enough. Fame, success and money be damned.
Somewhere along the way, a young filmmaker called Farhan Akhtar offered him the role of the young, introverted artist, Sid, in love with an older woman and Akshaye’s instincts revved into full gear. He ended his film hibernation by signing up for Dil Chahta Hai. Ask Akhtar and he’ll say that Akshaye was originally slated to play the light-hearted role of Akash. Aamir Khan who was shooting for Lagaan at that point needed some frivolity to balance his oeuvre and so opted to play Akash and the role of the more serious Sid went to Akshaye. “I never regretted that decision for a moment, because Akshaye was simply brilliant as Sid. He’s an intelligent amalgamation of technique and charisma and fitted the role of the sensitive artist to a T. If you look at it in a certain light the role is a dramatic extension of what Akshaye is in real life—he is an extremely sensitive person,” says Akhtar.
Mention the word to Akshaye and he almost bolts out of his chair. “Sensitive! In what way? You know I kind of resent that word because somehow it tends to imply that I don’t fit in, that I’m a misfit. Maybe I’m sensitive, maybe I’m not. What difference does that make as long as my performances are satisfactory?”
Dil Chahta Hai was followed by Humraaz where Akshaye’s role as the villainous head of a dance troupe, thwarted in love, had fans buzzing, even if some did wonder why he bothered to turn hero if he wanted to play villain. Obviously it’s something the actor has heard before. “Humraaz was a great role—not the typical villainous Shakti Kapoor, Amrish Puri kind of role. My character, Karan, was the best part of the film. When I heard the script, the only parts that sounded interesting to me were when he was onscreen. Moreover, he was a very lovable kind of villain in a crooked kind of way. Even though you hated him, you enjoyed him.”
“Sensitive! In what way? You know I kind of resent that word because somehow it tends to imply that I don’t fit in, that I’m a misfit. Maybe I’m sensitive, maybe I’m not. What difference does that make as long as my performances are satisfactory?”
So did he try to make Karan likeable? He ponders: “Not at all. What is very important for me while tackling any film is to be honest to the script and to my job. If I’m trying to be a hero when I’m playing the bad guy, I’m not doing justice to my role. Unless, of course, my director feels making him likeable is okay. The point is that I’m not trying to overshadow the hero or trying to be something the script hasn’t accounted for because I’m afraid that I’m playing the bad guy. Besides, if you look at most of our leading men, they’ve done negative roles at some stage of their careers.”
What of the danger of being stuck with playing villain for the rest of his career? “Yes, it’s very easy to be stereotyped; it works that way in the Hindi film industry,” he says, “But it’s an actor’s job to avoid the pitfalls. Once in a while, one attempts to do something different, maybe even shock people. Just so that when people come in to watch the movie, they don’t really know what to expect. I’d like to keep them guessing. I know that it may be a path fraught with as many hits as misses but the humdrum route doesn’t interest me.”
Akshaye did get stereotyped in a peculiar sort of way following the big misses in the early part of his career. Bollywood does not trust him to carry a film on his own, and so he invariably ends up being cast as a second or third leading man. In Humraaz, there was Bobby Deol, in Dil Chahta Hai there was Aamir Khan and Saif Ali Khan. He has his own explanation. “If you look at the history of Hindi cinema, I’d estimate that close to 80 percent of our biggest hits, not only the biggest hits, but our best films have been with more than one leading actor,” he says. “The reason why I do a particular film is because I like the script. Now if I like the script and there’s only me, I’ll do it. But if I like the script, I’m not going to turn it down just because it has more than one actor. That would be foolish.”
But considering he was launched as a leading man in Himalayaputra, shouldn’t he be opting for the more prestigious solo hero projects? “That’ll come,” he says, “I’ve done plenty of films as the sole hero and I’ve done many which are multi-starrers. It doesn’t bother me that I haven’t had a solo release in three years. It’s not something I’m afraid of. A lot of people keep harping on that. They’re the kind of people who are in the business of criticism, the business of running down people. Sure, my last three-four films have been films where I’ve had other actors working with me. But to put you in some sort of pigeonhole because of that, it’s weird.”
His most recent release, Deewangee has him in a ‘safe’ role once again with Ajay Devgan playing the erratic foil to him and Urmila. While the box-office reactions to the latter have been gratifying only in certain territories Akshaye’s mobile nevertheless has been boogying to congratulatory calls for his performance for weeks. It’s a role that he’s happy to talk about: “Deewangee turned out exactly the way I had envisioned it after I read the script. The fact that Ajay’s role was author-backed doesn’t seem to have made a difference and people have told me that I seem to have held myself well and come out tops. Naturally, praise feels good,” he exults.
What he’s really looking forward to, though, is his next comedy directed by Priyadarshan and co-starring Aftab Shivdasani which is due for release next year. That their previous project together, Doli Saja Ke Rakhna bombed disastrously at the box-office hasn’t affected Akshaye’s faith in his director. “Sure everyone goes wrong once in a while. I’m not saying Priyan went wrong with Doli but it’s true that nobody can really control the box-office outcome of a film. But this one is a script in which the comedy is inherent to the structure, so unlike the inane ‘comedy track’ that most films have. Priyan, Aftab and I are really keeping our fingers crossed about it.”
Co-star and colleague Aftab incidentally happens to be an Akshaye Khanna admirer. “Akshaye has a wondrous, subtle sense of comedy,” says Aftab. “His comic timing is perfect and though we barely had a couple of scenes together, he’s definitely an actor to reckon with. People talk about scene-stealing and all that bullshit but we’re two mature sensible actors and it’s not really about one-upmanship.”
Akshaye himself is loath to admit admiration for anybody in the industry though on occasion he has been heard to say complimentary things about Aamir Khan. Perhaps Aamir with his track record of one or two releases a year comes closest to Akshaye’s selectiveness in terms of film roles. When asked about this affinity in terms of handling their careers, Akshaye remains deadpan. “If I’d like to be compared to any actor in the industry, it would be Aamir, but please don’t compare me to him. We’re two totally different people, totally different actors, we have totally different styles. It’s all about having a totally different approach to our work. You must understand that I’m not doing it because Aamir’s doing it. I’m not following him. I have my own intelligence and I’m conducting my career, choosing my scripts and films according to my own intelligence. When someone says something like that, it belittles my own efforts.
“I don’t think there are very many actors in our bracket who aren’t selective about what they do,” he continues. “There may be certain actors who do random films, who do any film that comes their way. But I think the majority are very, very careful about what kind of work they’re taking on. Of course I’m extremely choosy but I’m doing probably 30 percent less films than an average actor, which is not something extraordinarily low.” The statistics may be entirely his own but that doesn’t stop us from asking him whether he’s ever felt threatened by the brawny heroes—the Hrithiks, Salmans and Sunjay Dutts of the industry who have built their careers as much on their physiques as on their action roles. No, he says emphatically. He was never into bodybuilding and it’s not his ambition to have 18-inch arms. Or a 45-inch chest. “It’s not something I give a shit about. As long as I’m fit, it’s fine. I aspire to be the best actor that I can possibly be. To be in the best films that I can be in and to work with the best people on the best scripts. Yet I’ve always been fit. I’ve never let myself go with regard to my physicality and my fitness. But I don’t spend hours in the gym. In fact, I don’t enjoy being in the gym at all, I prefer playing squash, running, more that kind of exercise. Once a week I do go into the gym and fool around, literally for half an hour. It’s not like with Salman Khan who came back three years after Maine Pyar Kiya with a new set of pectorals. Not like that at all.”
Akshaye is unique in his personal life too. Here’s a hero who hasn’t been associated with the flings and one-night stands that are so much a part of the Bombay film industry. No controversies or jilted women screaming betrayal in the filmi press for him. No women linked with him, no gossip. He, in turn, is very candid about all this. “I’m open to a relationship, though I’m not in one right now. It’s just that I have not met someone in the recent past who really interested me or someone who I would like to pursue. I’m sure that it’ll happen but it’s just not happening now.” Well then, what will the woman he pursues, be like? “I can’t really define that. I can’t say what attributes she would have, what size she would be. But I do know I have to genuinely like someone to be involved seriously. It also happens that sometimes the person you least expect to fall in love with, is the person you eventually commit to.”
He is indeed far removed from his flamboyant father, who made no secret of his likes and dislikes in the film industry and outside. Actor-turned-politician Vinod Khanna may not have been the best father to his children when they were growing up but it’s not something that his actor son will allow to come in the way of their relationship now. “I think I regretted the fact that my father wasn’t there for us, his disappearance into the Rajneesh Ashram in America for five long years, bothered me as a child. My mother brought Rahul and me up single-handedly since I was five because my father never lived with us. So obviously she’s been a greater influence on us. But as you grow older, you realise why things happen. I’m of the opinion that it’s perfectly correct that if two people are not happy together, then they shouldn’t be together.” He’s quick to dismiss the impression that his father’s attitude in the past still rankles him with a “I’ve-very-good-relationships-with-both-my-parents” wave of the hand. But he adds, rather emphatically, “We’re fully aware of what a wonderful mother Gitanjali has been to us. And how at times it has been very difficult, for her to bring up two young boys on her own. We’re fully aware of that and we don’t take for granted that, in spite of all the odds, we had such a secure, wonderful, happy childhood. That was purely because we had our mother at our side.”
“I’m open to a relationship, though I’m not in one right now. It’s just that I have not met someone in the recent past who really interested me or someone who I would like to pursue. I’m sure that it’ll happen but it’s just not happening now”
Having made his peace with his father, he also gets along fine with stepmom Kavita because “she’s a wonderful person”. It’s not a typical stepmom-stepson relationship, it’s more informal, friendly, pleasant and close, he says. And no, they don’t party together as we might imagine, it’s just that both he and his dad are invited to the same parties “hundreds of times”. That’s why.
As for brother Rahul, there’s no rivalry between them because they’re a very happy family. There was no question of Rahul becoming an MTV VJ in order to leave the film field clear for Akshaye, because they’re not into the Karishma-Kareena Kapoor tradition of doing things. “We both love each other and we wish the best for each other in every conceivable way. Rahul’s success is my success and mine is his and we both enjoy each other’s success. That’s what being a part of a family is all about. I don’t think there’s any place or any scope for rivalry. Not in our relationship at least.” But there was a period when the brothers had refused to be photographed together for media pictures. Did that, then imply some insecurity? “I don’t have any problems with that. Although what I’m very careful about is that we have our own distinct individuality. I must be known as who I am and what I’ve done and what I’ve achieved; I don’t want those lines being blurred at all. I think the same holds true with Rahul.”
Akshaye has been quoted, more than once, saying that he cringes when he sees his own movies. “I’m someone who hasn’t ever been satisfied with any of my performances. I’ve never reached any level of acting work worth writing home about. I was okay in Border and Dil Chahta Hai but nothing great—I haven’t done anything that makes me thrill. I don’t think I’m ever going to be satisfied with what I’ve done. I hope I will, because it’s very hard on the nerves to constantly not like yourself. I’m not a pessimist, but I just feel that I can constantly do better.”
At the end of the day we note, creativity be damned, is he at peace with himself financially? In other words, does he have enough moolah to be secure? And do we notice some kind of smug pecuniary satisfaction that comes from being the successful actor son of a financially sound actor father? “Let me tell you one thing,” he says with a glint in his eye. “I think that for any actor, small or big, it’s extremely important to be wise with money. Because if you’re not, your decisions will be affected by your financial position. An actor ought to be able to lead a comfortable life whether he works or not. So if he’s being offered films that suck, he should be in a position to sit at home and play golf, as opposed to doing a shitty film because he needs the money.”
“I’ve done tons of stage shows,” he adds. “I’m not like Ajay Devgan who refuses to do advertising and shows. I’m open to advertising as well.”
And with that he obligingly goes off to give another series of shots to the waiting photographer. That’s Akshaye Khanna. Practical in his attitude and individualistic in his thinking. Very much his own man.
Photographs by Ashima Narain
This story was first featured in our December 2002 issue