Between 2007 and 2009, Akshay Kumar was perhaps the most reliable or ‘saleable’ actor in Hindi filmdom along with the Khans, with practically all his films in this period taking a huge initial at the box office. What’s more he developed from an action hero in B movies to a reasonably fine actor, in particular, displaying impeccable sense of comic timing in films like Garam Masala (2005), Bhagam Bhaag (2006) and Heyy Babyy (2007). And like Shah Rukh Khan, he has made it to the top rung of Bollywood without any ‘film’ connections whatsoever.
Akshay was born Rajiv Bhatia on September 9, 1967. Growing up, he lived in Chandni Chowk in New Delhi, a member of a large joint family of 24-25 members. Following college, his interest in martial arts saw him go to Bangkok for further learning and where to earn his living, he did a stint as a chef at a small town dhaba type of place. He did it all – the cooking, the serving and the washing up, sleeping in the kitchen. Incidentally, the dhaba had a poster that Akshay put up of his favourite actress, Sridevi! Quoting Akshay “We used to start work looking at her, and before sleeping we used to look at her!”
Coming back to India, Akshay became a peon in a Kolkata travel agency, worked in Dhaka for a while, traded in ‘Kundan jewellery’ in Delhi before coming to Mumbai where he became a martial arts instructor, training both, grown-ups and children. He then began modeling changing his name from Rajiv Bhatia to Akshay Kumar. He also worked with photographer Jayesh Seth for 8 months and instead of taking remuneration for his work, requested Seth to shoot his portfolio. Filmmaker Pramod Chakravarty (Ziddi (1964), Love in Tokyo (1966), Jugnu (1973) etc) saw his portfolio and decided to launch him in Deedar (1992) opposite Karisma Kapoor.
However Deedar got delayed and Akshay made his screen debut instead with Raj N Sippy’s disastrous Saugandh (1991). The film did absolutely nothing for Akshay and neither did his subsequent films, mostly tacky B-grade action potboilers like Mr. Bond. Having no filmi contacts, Akshay had no one to guide him, to tell him what sort of films to do and not to do. And to make things worse, when Deedar did finally release in 1992, the film flopped miserably. Leave alone the box office fate of these films, the critics came down heavily on Akshay, labeling him a total non-actor, a block of wood – a piece of furniture with a weak voice to boot. Looking back at those old films, Akshay does admit,“I don’t think I was furniture but a furniture showroom. It was quite bad.”
Akshay finally had his first big box office success and mass acceptance with Abbas Mastan’s musical-thriller Khiladi (1992). The film, ‘inspired’ from the Rishi Kapoor-Neetu Singh starrerKhel Khel Mein (1975), scored high at the box office with a chart-busting soundtrack by Jatin-Lalit. The film was also the first in a series of films with ‘Khiladi’ in the title starring Akshay. However though he made his initial presence felt in the Hindi film industry, it would still be a while and a few films more before Akshay could break through to the A-Grade in 1994 with the success of Yeh Dillagi, Mohra and Main Khiladi Tu Anari.
Yeh Dillagi, in particular, saw Akshay score heavily cast against type for the first time as the soft-spoken sensible older brother to Saif Ali Khan’s playboy younger brother. The film, a remake of the Audrey Hepburn starrer Sabrina (1954), with Kajol in the Hepburn role, saw Akshay get his first Filmfare Award nomination for Best Actor for his sensitive, understated performance. Mohra and Main Khiladi Tu Anari, the latter again pairing him with Saif, saw Akshay play the super tough cop after the baddies to perfection. Not juct action, Akshay had by now proved to be an extremely competent dancer as well as the success of the songs Tu Cheez Badi Hai Mast Mast from the former and the title song and Chura ke Dil Mera from the latter would testify.
In this period, Akshay even got a film opposite Sridevi – Meri Biwi Ka Jawab Nahin. It was a dream come true for Akshay and he readily agreed to the film even if it centred around Sridevi. However , the film directed by Pankuj Parashar got stuck and limped to an indifferent release almost a decade after it was started in 2004!
Akshay had major success as a slick action hero with Sabse Bada Khiladi (1995) and Khiladiyon ke Khiladi (1996), the films in the ‘Khiladi’ series getting bigger and bigger. Simultaneously, he began getting films with more substance and depth to his roles especially in his films with the Darshan brothers, Dharmesh and Suneil. He made a strong impact in the former’s Dhadkan (2000) as the earnest, soft-spoken, too-good-to-be- true patient, understanding husband to Shilpa Shetty, even if frankly his character is unrealistically nice and the latter’s Jaanwar (1999). He continued to do films with the brothers in films which were more ‘relationship based’ rather than action and violence based like Haan…Maine Bhi Pyaar Kiya (2002), Bewafaa (2005) – a terrible re-working of BRChopra’s Gumraah (1963) and Ek Rishtaa: The Bond of Love (2001), giving a reasonably good account of himself even if none of these films had the impact of Dhadkan or Jaanwar. Among his other films where he did make a strong impression, was in a special appearance in Dil to Paagal Hai (1997), where though he loves Madhuri Dixit, he lets her go when he realizes she and Shah Rukh Khan are in love with each other.
But action was still Akshay’s mainstay and he continued with big action films like Sapoot (1996), Daava (1997), Insaaf: The Final Justice (1997), Zulmi (1999), International Khiladi (1999) and Khiladi 420 (2000).
Re-uniting with Abaas-Mastan, the men who gave him his first hit, in Ajnabee (2001), Akshay perfectly essayed the negative role of a man who has killed his wife for her wealth and who frames Bobby Deol. He ensured his character was likeable in spite of its negative shades and he is the saving grace of the film, which though reasonably successful, was not one of the director-duo’s best efforts. Akshay’s fine work saw him winning the Filmfare Award for Best Villain. By now he had become a saleable actor who got audiences into the theatre even for none-too-good films like Andaaz (2003) and Waqt: The Race Against Time (2005) and it must be mentioned here that his performances were more than adequate in these films.
Akshay has widened his scope and concentrated more on comedy and has proved to be a fine comic actor with a great sense of comic timing, in particular in the films directed by Priyadarshan. Though initially totally out-acted by Paresh Rawal in Hera Pheri (2000), even if he does have his share of moments in thefiilm, he has more than held his own against Rawal since not only in the sequel, Phir Hera Pheri (2006) but also in films like Garam Masala, Bhagam Bhaag and Bhool Bhulaiyaa (2007). In fact, he won the Filmfare Award for Best Comedian for Garam Masala. But then David Dhawan had already discovered a goofy side to Akshay in Mr and Mrs Khiladi (1997), where Akshay made a major impact as a loveable good-for-nothing who just wants to marry a rich girl and enjoy life. Mujhse Shaadi Karogi (2004), again directed by David, where he played Salman Khan’s nemesis, Heyy Babyy and Welcome (2007) are further proof of Akshay’s ability as a fine comedian.
2007 was a bumber year for Akshay as all his four releases – Namastey London, Heyy Babyy, Bhool Bhulaiyaa and Welcome were huge hits at the box office. He became the most dependable actor in the film industry and is now giving the Khans not just a run for their money in the domestic market, but his films are doing extremely well overseas as well as he has built quite a following in UK, USA and Canada.
But there’s more to Akshay than just action, dancing and comedy. In Humko Deewana Kar Gaye (2006), Namsatey London, both with Katrina Kaif and in the more serious portions of Heyy Baby he has proved to be equally adept in the emotional department as well. In fact, today Akshay has developed into a verstatile actor who can do all kinds of roles and what’s more even rise above scripts when the need be. He effortlessly steals Tashan (2008) from the rest of the cast and proves to be the sole saving grace in a otherwise terrible film. His entry with the ten heads of Rawan in the film is a hoot and he is just wonderful as the small town goonda who is full of awe of Bhaiyyaji (Anil Kapoor) and would kill for him but is totally tongue-tied and endearingly bashful in front of Kareena as he tries to tell her he loves her. Even in Singh is Kinng (2008), Akshay Kumar single handedly carries the film on his shoulders. He gamely rises above the hackneyed scenes be it slapstick like chasing a hen around the village and causing mayhem in the process or in the emotional love story track as he smiles through his hurt as Katrina gets ready to marry Ranvir Shorey. In fact, it is he who makes the film watchable if at all.
However, the quality of the films that Akshay was doing began to tell. 2009 was an extremely weak year for him. Chandni Chowk to China, said to be partly autobiographical, was expected to be a blockbuster but proved to be a dismal flop at the box office. what’s more, the film was generally panned by critics as well. 8 X10 Tasveer too has proved to be a disaster, both commercially and critically. Blue and Kambakkth Ishq were major disappointments and though De Dana Dan (2009) did take an initial, it was no bumper hit. 2010 was mixed for Akshay with Housefull becoming a hit but Action Replayy and Tees Maar Khan did not live up to their hype though the later still took a huge initial thanks mainly to the Sheila Ki Jawani item number, while in 2011 he continued his struggle with the box office as Thank You and Patiala House too did not have the required impact.
Akshay’s box-office disappointments continue to pile up 2012-15 with only Housefull 2, Rowdy Rathore, OMG: Oh My God! (all, 2012), Special Chhabis (2013) and Holiday: A Soldier Is Never Off Duty (2014) passing muster at the box-office. This against some huge flops like Khiladi 786, Joker, Once Upon A Time In Mumbai Dobaara!, The Shaukeens, Boss and It’s Entertainment. His new release, Gabbar is Back (2015), disappoints as well, though he is one of the few saving graces in the film.The message is clear. While Akshay is at his peak as a performer and entertainer, he needs to start choosing better scripts.
Akshay has also taken part as himself in a documentary series Seven Deadly Arts with Akshay Kumar (2004) and as his popularity soared, following Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan, Akshay too took on hosting a TV Programme, Khatron Ke Khiladi, a take off on Fear Factor. The response to him mentoring a bunch of gutsy babes has been phenomenal. Viewers are unanimous that Akshay brings just about the right balance of professional indifference and personal touch to the entire proceedings, at times encouraging the girls and at times chiding them to achieve the near-impossible.
Linked with leading ladies Pooja Batra, Raveena Tandon and Shilpa Shetty among others, Akshay fell in love with his Zulmi and International Khiladi co-star Twinkle Khanna and married her in 2001. The couple have a son, Aarav, born in 2002 and a daughter, Nitara, born in 2012. Today Twinkle runs a floursihing interior decorating business and writes a witty column even as Akshay continues to do what he does best, act and entertain.