As one of the biggest superstars in the last 27 years, Akshay Kumar has shown, perhaps, the greatest evolution among all of them. Starting out as an action hero, he has proved his expertise and also his immense versatility through comedies, romantic films and social message films. He acts in three or four films a year, does not graphically change himself for every movie, but manages to walk the tightrope between entertainment and message-oriented films.
Asked how he looks back on his career, Akshay smiles and says, "It's been a lovely, enjoyable journey. There have been ups and downs, but I have no regrets about anything in life and films. I have loved every bit of what I have done, and enjoyed it, and I am still enjoying what I am doing. It's been a fantastic journey and I think anyone would like to be in my shoes!"
Reborn on the screen
A key to his long innings is his reinvention at every step, right? Akshay nods and replies, "Yes, initially I was termed an action hero, and though I was the first choice for action films among my generation of heroes, I was getting only those roles and nothing else. I began to dislike myself until Priyadarshan visualised me as a comic hero and gave me Hera Pheri, in which I did not even have a heroine."
From that day, the actor started testing his ground on everything. "I became a villain in Abbas-Mustan's Ajnabee, did a love story in Dhadkan and even Ek Rishtaa among others. Eight years ago, I did my first film with a social message in Priyadarshan's Khatta Meetha. It did not work, but if released now, it might. It was about corruption in the municipal corporations, something Mumbai people will instantly identify with even today."
Today, Akshay Kumar is happy that the social media has taken up the issue of sanitary pads as well, with his latest awareness-raising release, PadMan. Even top stars like Aamir Khan and Alia Bhatt are supporting the cause. "Even Hollywood has never made a film on sanitary pads, though there have been movies on condoms and sperms - this seems to be a globally taboo subject," he grins. "In India, however, the dimensions are frightening. 82% of women have no access to sanitary pads - they either have no money, or there is no awareness. They are programmed to think that a wrapped cloth is much better."
Passionately, he goes on, "Cervical cancer, infertility and infections are the results. I think that very soon, a day will come when a girl will ask her father to get a packet of pads while coming home, just like she would ask him to get a toothbrush. And the best part is that a toothbrush and the pads are available in the same shop."
Akshay says that the issue of menstrual bleeding has also been given a needless religious and moral twist. "We were shooting for the film with two local artistes who were acting brilliantly. But on the day they were supposed to hold these pads for a sequence, they did not turn up. They ran away saying that they would not touch such sinful things."
He proudly demonstrates two recent headlines he has stored in his mobile phone - one wherein the Supreme Court will hear all petitions on GST applied to pads, and a second one where the New Delhi Municipal Corporation is keeping pad-vending machines for free for all its female employees. "That is better," he comments. "Pads should be free for non-affording women, not GST-free."
He adds his own bit as well. "Every film unit has a first-aid emergency kit. From now on, all my units will also have a menstrual kit, including pads and tablets for cramps for all women on my sets," he declares. "Also, it has been calculated that for the government, it will only cost a measly Rs 400 a year per woman to have basic sanitary pads free of cost. They should start with the rural women as soon as possible."
His producer-wife Twinkle Khanna and he chose R Balki, he says, to helm the story as they wanted a sensitive and sensible director for such a subject. "We have seen his ad films and the movies he has made. In essence, PadMan is one of the biggest love stories I have seen. Whatever my character does is for his wife's hygiene - he cannot understand why she is saving money that she should spend on pads to get food and milk for the family."
In a witty but hard-hitting aside, he says, "On a flight, we are instructed that during an emergency, we should first fit our own oxygen masks and then try and help others. What is the principle? That one should be healthy to keep others healthy around you. For decades, our cinema depicted sacrificing mothers who went hungry so that their kids would have a meal. Arey baba, pehli tu ek roti to khaa le, to tere bacchon ko sambhaal sakegi (Dear lady, first eat one roti yourself. Only if you are healthy will you be able to look after your kids)!"
Akshay does not consider his social movies (an increasing list) to be a challenge to him. "I never declare, 'Go watch my films!' So, the films challenge not me but societal norms. I overheard four hefty men discuss my film and sanitary pads outside my vanity van. They were awestruck that I was discussing pads and holding one in my film's trailer. Such a small change is enough for me. Can you imagine their parents ever doing that?"
Akshay also remembers his meeting with Arunachalam, the man whose dramatised biopic PadMan is. "He is such an easygoing and humorous guy. I have taken over 50% of his traits in my performance."
But why does he do so many biopics, including Airlift, Rustom, Toilet-Ek Prem Katha and this film, without making them actual biopics? "I want to give messages while entertaining people, but not with a 'biopic' that would become a documentary," he replies. "There has to be a commercial base, songs, ups and downs and masala, and I will quietly pass the message through all that. I have to make people understand things through the medium of a commercial film. I am glad to say that even Toilet-Ek Prem Katha has brought in major changes. Politicians have also started addressing the issue in villages and showing them my film so that they can understand things faster and better."
Akshay reveals that such stories abound in our midst. "While doing promotions for PadMan in Pune, I met this completely fascinating man with a fantastic story. I can see myself doing that role, and have taken his number and intend to meet him soon," he says.
Two more films that are in the biopic zone for him are his new film Gold, and Kesari, the film on a historic fight for freedom, for which he has almost tonsured his head now. "But I am not on any mission to do only such films," he explains. "My next film is 2.0, in which I am the villain whose actions should not be emulated. And it is such a pleasure being beaten up by Rajinikanth-sir. I am also doing Housefull 4."