Riding the unusual high that is SPECIAL 26, Akshay Kumar nevertheless tells Shubha Shetty-Saha that he cannot take a 360 degree turn from what has been keeping his kitchen fires burning.
As I walk with Akshay Kumar out of his cosy van to the sets where he is shooting for a bike commercial, I think about the things that have changed, since the last 15-16 years when I first interviewed him. Looking fit in a white shirt and khaki trousers, he looks almost the same, if you don’t consider those faint laugh lines. But otherwise a lot has changed. This was the man who was criticised sometimes too harshly, sometimes justifiably, for his acting skills. He was referred to as a wooden actor, a skirt chaser, diplomatic and worse. Years later, not only did he survive in spite of those unflattering tags, he turned them around and prospered. If this is not a success story, what is? Excerpts from an interview with the superstar…
You were called a carpenter’s shop at one point of time because of your acting skills. From there to films like OH MY GOD and SPECIAL 26, it’s been a long journey…
Why a shop, I was even called a carpenter’s showroom. That doesn’t matter - what does is that the carpenter has also earned in life and learnt a lot in the process. He has learnt much more than what those people who tagged him could ever imagine. It was never to prove a point to anyone; wanting to do something different has always been at the back of my mind. The critics always gave me one or two stars but that was not the point. I wanted to challenge myself. I have always had this urge to push myself, to push the envelope. I tried earlier to do things different, like when I did Nagesh Kukunoor’s 8x10 but that didn’t work. Sometimes your attempt backfires, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take risks. When you told me you enjoyed the film (SPECIAL 26), it felt really nice. When ROWDY RATHORE did well, you didn’t tell me you liked it, because I know you didn’t. But there were other people who commercially liked it. You belong to a different kind of movie audience…
…Admit it, doesn’t it feel special when critics and so-called ‘thinking people’ appreciate your films?
Of course, it does. But what I am saying is this doesn’t mean I will stop making commercial films, because that’s my cinema, that’s where I come from and that’s what I am essentially made of.
You say you always wanted to do something different, but there have been phases in your life when you continued doing the same kind of films, playing safe…
I am still telling you, I will continue doing those kinds of films. I had to stick to playing safe because that’s what the distributors, the theatre owners, wanted me to do. If I had to do action movies, I had to continue doing that or the same with comedy because that’s what the distributors thought worked at that time. I can’t possibly take a 360 degree turn from what has been keeping my kitchen fires burning. I am doing it 10 degrees at a time.
Or is it that now you are at a stage in life where you can afford to think of more than just surviving?
Yes, I admit there were times when I didn’t dare take a risk. Now I can sit and produce the kind of movies that I want to make. If it backfires, it is okay to an extent because the loss is mine and not someone else’s. Also, I do realise that making a film like SPECIAL 26 is a bigger risk because such films have 80 per cent chances of not working, whereas a commercial film has about 30 to 40 per cent chance of flopping. It is all about how much risk you want to take. I think for me one risk a year is enough.
A few years ago you had said you would never turn producer…
Yes, I remember that but you never know. A few weeks back someone asked me if I wanted to turn director and I promptly said ‘Never!’ – and then I added, ‘You never know’. Never challenge your fate. I think 70 per cent of our life is because of our destiny and 30 per cent is talent.
Why do you say that?
Whenever I walk into a studio, I see a lot of boys around, far better looking than me, better prepared than I was because they come from a theatre background and all, with better talent and they don’t have the luck that I have. Luck is the main factor in being at the right time and the right place. I believe a lot in destiny. Destiny has played a major part in being where I am. Just look around you, in a country of 1.2 billion people, only three or four people reach a certain stage in the industry every 10 years. I must tell you this story… Twenty four years back, after a bit of struggle, I had finally managed to get this modelling assignment. I was extremely thrilled. We were supposed to take a flight to Bangalore at 6 the next day. In the morning, I was working out and at around 5 my house phone rang. It was the co-ordinator calling from the airport, screaming at me for being unprofessional and not having reached the airport yet. I was stunned. I had misunderstood and thought the flight was at 6 pm when it was actually at 6 in the morning! I cried and told them to wait for me, that I would somehow reach there. I took my bike and rushed to the airport but by then the flight doors were closed. I felt terrible… I came home and cried to my mother. And you know how mothers are, she said, ‘Don’t worry, you will get better things’. I was totally dejected, but still that evening, as was my routine, I took my pictures and went to Natraj Studios in search of work. One make-up man saw my pictures and showed them to Pramod Chakravarthy, who was shooting inside. Mr. Chakravarthy called me inside and said, ‘I like your photographs and I want you in my film’. And right there he gave me a cheque of R5001 as the signing amount. And I swear, just then he had a clock which chimed and it was 6 in the evening! Do you believe in the role of fate now? If I had taken that flight to Bangalore, I would be something else, but I wouldn’t be what I am now. You can’t fight fate. You can try and change it to a certain extent but you do need that push, that kick, from fate to get you going.
Now you belong to the 100-crore club…
Too much is made out of this 100-crore thing. Why would you call OH MY GOD a hit? Because it was made with R16 crore and made R85 crore. You have to understand the equation. SPECIAL 26 is made with R32 crore. But there are some films like BODYGUARD and ROWDY RATHORE which are made with R65 crore plus, so they are bound to earn about R100 crore to become a hit.
So is it more of an ego-boosting issue for the producers?
What ego-boosting? Just watch, in another two years it is going to be the R200 crore and R250 crore club. Producers don’t have a choice but join the club. Things are changing at such a rapid pace; the theatres are increasing, and the audience wants to see a much bigger canvas than what they see on the small screen. That’s why Hollywood films are doing very well. So a big commercial filmmaker has to invest that kind of money, and expect a huge return.
Don’t actors generally make bad producers?
I learnt these things because I have been around for so long. I learnt about single screen theatres, multiplexes, different areas – the whole equation. But I think actors can be great producers, great directors, because we actors are very smart.
All of you? I have met some dumb ones…
Then they must’ve been pretending. If you have survived here and been successful then you have to be street smart, and that helps in the long run.
About your personal life, you had once said that your dad gave you enough time and that’s what made you confident and secure. Do you try and do that with your children too?
Yes, I do. My son, Aarav is a very confident child. He loves performing on the stage and is always a part of his school plays. In my life, I had done one play and that too I played a gorilla with a mask on my face! He likes painting too, so all you know he might become an architect or a painter or something else. I don’t want to dream for him. I don’t want to put too much pressure on him. Whatever he wants to become… My parents just wanted me to be happy in whatever I do and that’s what I want for Aarav too.
But your situation and that of Aarav’s is very different…you come from a modest background. Sometimes too much luxury in childhood may not be a good thing.
I know what you mean. There are a lot of people who have money but they don’t know how to spend it. They have a very sad way of spending it. You don’t really need much money to truly enjoy life. When we were children, even with limited money, we knew how to enjoy life. Every Saturday unfailingly, my parents would take us to watch a movie. We would not eat on Saturday mornings so that we could go in the evening and splurge on mango stick ice-cream and samosas from Gurukripa. We watched every film in Roopam theatre. Even now my mother watches every film, and I go to PVR theatre every Friday and Saturday. It is not about money, it is about passion. When I go abroad, sometimes I watch three movies back to back in a theatre. About a luxurious life, it is always about how you make your kids value money. Do you know my son always travels Economy? He is now going on a tour from his school and they asked me which ticket they should book - Business, First or Economy and I said Economy. I want him to value money enough to want to earn it himself. It’s not that I cannot afford to give him all the luxury – he knows it too, but he has to understand.
Now that you have children, has money become more important?
In fact, money is no longer important to me now. Five years back I stopped giving it too much importance. Earlier I used to do all my films, thinking of money first. It was an important factor because I needed to survive. But now I am content.
Is that the reason you have stopped doing shows?
Yes and I have also stopped performing at awards shows since 3-4 years. Zaroorat nahi hai, to go through those rehearsals, tension and hassles. When I would agree to do shows I used to give 150 per cent of myself but now I don’t feel like doing it anymore.
This article first appeared in March 2013 issue of Cine Blitz magazine