Not only in 2017. This has been going on for some years. Akshay Kumar, the full-nationalistic package, blending the best of desh-bhakti with consumerism, represents that rare breed of star-actors who have constantly evolved and become more watchable with each passing year.
Included in this rarefied breed are Mumtaz, Rekha and Sridevi. Among the male stars I can think of no one else as Bollywood’s ambassador of evolution.
Like wine (which he doesn’t touch), Akshay gets better with every passing year. I’ve known him for 18 years and his hunger to improve with every film remains. When I first met Akshay, he had just completed his first babystep towards being taken seriously as an actor. The film was Suneel Darshan’s Jaanwar where he played a father grieving for his adoptive son. Unknown to the world, in real life Akshay’s father was dying.
So I guess this was his first brutal and harsh encounter with method acting. Soon after, my dear friend Deepa Mehta (who is, regrettably, no more my dear friend) signed him to play the lead in Water and Akshay couldn’t stop enthusing over the character. Since he was required to speak in Sanskritised Hindi (the kind of language we hear in dubbed Hindi versions of big Hollywood films) he began practising his dialogues on me every morning.
Ultimately Water was made with another cast. It was fun while it lasted. Akshay was fun in those days. And unguarded. At one point he was not sure whether he wanted to marry Twinkle Khanna or another actress whom he was dating simultaneously. A moment came when he had to decide which one to marry. He decided to make that call on a flight back to Mumbai from Canada.
He called me from an airport in transit saying he had still not made up his mind. Some nail-biting, lip-chewing hours later, Akshay made his choice. And he chose well. His street-smart wisdom has held him in good stead, whether in personal life or career decisions. The marriage with Twinkle has worked out well not because they make the Perfect Couple, but because they know each other’s blemishes and blind spots and have worked their way around them.
Career-wise, Akshay couldn’t be better placed. His role selection is not just adventurous and audacious, it could be damaging to his superstardom. Shah Rukh Khan’s decision to do image-defying roles has not been a big success. But when Akshay moves away from the expected, he seems to be fated for a soft landing.
God’s chosen one? Probably. But there is more to Akshay’s success than meets the eye. He is far more clever and sensible than most of his peers. And he isn’t afraid of making mistakes. Films like Baby, Rustom and Airlift in 2015 and 2016 could have easily gone wrong in their creative calculations.
But Akshay stuck it out. He was specially brilliant in Raja Krishna Menon’s Airlift, where he conveyed the dilemma of an entrepreneur forced to think beyond self-interest during a crisis. Akshay should have got the National award for the film. Instead, the jury headed by Akshay’s friend and filmmaker Priyadarshan gave him the award for, ha-ha, Rustom.
Imagine Shabana Azmi getting the National award for Amar Akbar Anthony in the year of Arth. This year saw Akshay in two roles brimming with social conscience. Playing the crusading lawyer in Jolly LLB 2 and a husband fighting societal prejudices to allow his wife space for personal hygiene in Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, Akshay could have easily slipped into the comforting but self-defeating zone of sanctimoniousness.
But his street-smartness served him well. Even when crusading for social reforms, he remains a rogue who is converted into a reluctant hero.
That’s why calling him the new Manoj Kumar is doing disservice to Akshay Kumar. Akshay plays his cards too well to be just a paper-nationalist. He is a super-canny entrepreneur with a penchant for tapping into the nation’s hankering for heroes.