I don’t think Akshaye Khanna likes me very much. I say as much to his PR person as we’re heading home and she collapses into an avalanche of assurances. This is the first time he’s had a PR team, she tells me and that she would have known if he thought I was an asshole. Well, it’s not my job to be liked by celebrities, only to ask them questions and Khanna does answer them — in his own way.
When I walk into Willingdon Club in South Mumbai to interview the star, I remember distinctly feeling like I’ve walked into a ‘90s film on Bollywood celebrities. I’m the nosy journalist and Khanna, in his white polo shirt, is the celebrity whom I’m going to write a Page 3-esque story on. We are sitting next to a swimming pool with huge white umbrellas over our heads and a butler is serving us drinks. I ask for a black coffee (“Are you sure that’s all you’ll have?”) while Khanna asks for some sort of soda. He lights a cigarette and I feel as though everything is in sepia and moving in slow motion. I almost expect Madhur Bhandarkar to creep up on us and yell “cut!”
(Image Credits: Avinash Gowariker)
Khanna’s honesty is disarming, and it is evident that none of his answers are neat little pieces which have been fed to him by his manager or public relations team. Naturally, the first thing I tell him is that his film, Article 375, is going to divide people because of the controversial nature it deals with.
And it has. A Firstpost review states that Section 375 isn’t a bad film but furthers a dangerously toxic ‘message’ in the garb of being nuanced while the Times of India calls it a “courtroom drama that keeps you on the edge”. HuffPost India asks which world the film’s makers live in and The Hindu calls it a “myopic, ignorant train wreck”. The Economic Times praises the sensitivity of the writer and director and says that Khanna shines throughout. “Definitely there are two ways of looking at a subject like this with differing opinions. There’s two ways of morality and about what is moral or immoral. So that debate is a very natural response to any subject of this nature,” Khanna tells me.
I am not satisfied with this answer and push for more as politely as I can. After all, the film deals with a false rape case in a country where multitudes of women don’t receive justice even after filing a complaint. In this post Me Too era, won’t the film seem like a beacon for those who would rather shut their eyes to the atrocities surrounding us?
“I always feel the discussion is healthy. The conversation is always good, the debate is always good. No matter how frivolous it is in social media world,” he says, adding: “As you pointed out, we live in a certain age of social media where people have voice, everybody has an opinion that can be expressed and therefore, it is humanly impossible to address everyone.”
It’s important, at this juncture, to talk about social media. Khanna’s not on it. “Most people that I speak to especially from the film world, I don’t see them being very happy on social media. They continue to do it because there are certain benefits that might come with it. In terms of just being relevant, being available to people — whatever they feel is helping them out. But the flipside to that is that they have expressed to me a sense of anxiety that comes with being on social media. And I don’t think you have to be a celebrity or a person who is in the public domain to feel that anxiety,” he says.
We’ve come to expect diplomatic answers from celebrities and yet again, social media is to be slightly blamed for it. For instance, look at the trash that actors like Swara Bhasker and Aamir Khan had/have to face for stating their views. Khanna doesn’t do diplomatic answers, however. It probably comes from his disconnect with social media — he doesn’t have to be constantly worried about being attacked or ‘cancelled’. He freely admits to being sensitive, having a thin skin and getting extremely defensive when someone equates him to anything other than a mainstream actor. I tell him how that’s a compliment since most of the mainstream movies being made these days are frankly trash. He laughs and says “I agree” but I don’t know if he buys it.
Khanna views himself as a commercial actor and nothing more. There are certain people, he says, who try to put him in a slot and perhaps, mark him as a niche actor and while he understands where they are coming from, he doesn’t necessarily agree with them.
“It’s always simple with me. There’s nothing complicated with me. I may not be a typical commercial actor but I am one. This is how I view myself. That’s all I am saying. I am not saying whether it’s right or wrong, good or bad, compliment or not. I don’t want to be perceived as anything but a commercial actor,” he says with a sense of finality.
“There’s somewhat a general view, within the intelligentsia — or within whatever category of people you would like to say — where commercial actors are viewed as not very good actors. And therefore, that distinction is constantly trying to find its place where if you are viewed to be good at your craft, you are perceived to be not someone who can fit in and do commercial cinema. That is a very wrong perception or way to look. It’s not like that all,” he adds. He goes on to tell me that he hates doing interviews at times because he always feels the need to defend himself. When I ask him why he feels that way, he tells me frankly that he doesn’t really know the answer to that.
We’re interrupted by some torrential rainfall and a club attendant rushes across the length of the swimming pool with an umbrella in hand. Actually, he needn’t have done that, it appears, because Khanna has gotten up and decided to battle the huge white umbrellas on his own. There’s something very old-school macho about him. He’s not from this time at all — I wouldn’t be surprised if he told me he knows how to build a table or ride a horse. He’s a Gatsby-cum-southern cowboy through and through.
I also get the distinct impression that the actor is a very no-nonsense person. There are things he just won’t agree to do (“We cannot get him to say something like “if you liked the video, share and subscribe” because that is just not him,” his PR person tells me). He’s an actor I wouldn’t take a selfie with because I’d feel like he’d respect me a little less if I did that.
Khanna suddenly goes on a different tangent altogether just when I had almost finished my interview. He tells me how difficult it is to engage with people these days. “There are times with my childhood friends — I consider them my brothers — and you know they have changed. I go to lunch or dinner with them and you just cannot engage with them. Within 10 or 15 seconds, they’ve moved on to something elsewhere they are either on their phone or something or the other. There’s no engagement or proper conversation anymore. And I even tell them, it pisses me off so much that I go away from the lunch table and just walk off. There’s no substantial give or take — there’s nothing,” he says, adding: “So, what happens with that one tends to take people’s observations and comments less seriously because they are not coming from any depth or maturity. It’s not backed up with a thought process or a rationale and because everything is so frivolous. However, one should not come across as cynical or you state that life is not the way I like or how I think it should be. That’s the way life is, deal with it and move on. You can’t let these things upset you or irritate you.”
There’s silence after this statement because of its weight. I’m unprepared for it and not entirely sure what to do with it. I drink the last of my black coffee while he stubs out his cigarette. The rain is still pouring on.
The attendant is walking briskly towards us with two umbrellas. He needn’t have bothered. Khanna has already walked into the rain, on his way to play squash. He makes sure that I get a cab – he personally talks to the doorman about it. He has a very firm handshake, I notice. The type that makes you swoon while also making you slightly wince in pain. And then he’s off, his white polo t-shirt disappearing amidst the lawns and club houses of Willingdon Club.