In between his costume change into an ornate black kandura near a stretch of desert close to Al Qudra Lake in Dubai, Bollywood superstar Akshay Kumar was discussing his idea of true happiness.
As if on cue, his phone rings. It’s his mother asking if her 52-year-old son had eaten a hearty breakfast before he got busy filming a song for his comedy ‘Laxmmi Bomb’ in the UAE.
He assures his mom in Punjabi that he was well-fed and had his glass of water, before turning to this journalist and exclaiming: “See, this is what I was talking about, darling.” It’s these little things that make him richer.
“I come from a Punjabi family and to play a board game like Snakes and Ladders with my kids and wife is very important for me. You don’t need money for that and that’s happiness for me,” Kumar said in an exclusive interview with Gulf News tabloid last month.
Eating a ghee-laden paratha and working out for at least an hour to burn his indulgent breakfast off is another source of happiness for this star, who has acted in more than 100 Bollywood films.
Ironically, this top-earning actor — he’s reportedly worth $240 million (Dh881.4 million) — was seated in a swanky black Mercedes-Benz SUV during this sit-down interview when extolling the virtues of those little pleasures in life.
It was his third day filming the song in the UAE in mid-January, facilitated by Dubai Film and TV Commission and local company 7Media. Kumar and his co-star Kiara Advani had been up since 6am to capture a song-dance sequence set in a desert with a gleaming, golden Burj Khalifa cut-out erected in the sand. A dozen or more background dancers in equally sparkling outfits were learning to shimmy to the beats of a song with lyrics that included ‘Burj Khalifa’ in it. So does dancing come easy to him?
“I am not that good a dancer. Hrithik [Roshan], Shahid [Kapoor] and Tiger [Shroff] are good dancers. I just react to the mood. I do more of aerobics than dance … But I am always relaxed,” said Kumar with a laugh. This journalist can vouch for his sunny disposition.
Unlike actors who are usually nervous during filming a scene and prefer to avoid distractions like an interview on set or a selfie with a fan, Kumar, who has acted in the Indian National Award-winning film ‘Padman’, was a portrait of calm as he took us around the location.
“My wife keeps asking me how I have so much patience. I don’t like violence or fighting,” Kumar said.
This actor, who famously interviewed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with soft questions like ‘how he likes to eat his mangoes’ and has often acted in films that seem to push Modi’s political agenda, expressed his anguish at the anti-CAA protests in India. At the time of this interview, India was witnessing unprecedented protests against the controversial new citizenship law.
“There are many sides to what’s happening. All I have to say is please don’t destroy anybody’s property or hurt anybody. Violence is not the answer. Everything can be sorted out. There is no point to giving a comment to it … Don’t hit anybody or each other, that’s my only request,” Kumar said.
He’s equally pragmatic when it comes to his personal success. In 2019, Kumar delivered four back-to-back blockbusters including ‘Good Newwz’, ‘Housefull 4’, Mission Mangal’ and ‘Kesari’.
“I consider myself as one of the lucky ones in this industry. I always say that in my field luck is 70 per cent and hard work is 30 per cent … Although I am happy and humbled, I never take success too seriously. It’s a very dicey thing and I want to stay away from it all,” he said.
At the time of the conversation, the sperm-mix up comedy ‘Good Newwz’ was still playing in UAE cinemas and raking in the moolah. His comic timing was being lauded especially in a scene where his character had to look high on substances and laugh uncontrollably on screen.
“That wasn’t an easy scene to do where I had to look high, especially since I am a person who doesn’t even smoke a cigarette in his real life. I don’t drink often either,” he said.
Kumar is often described as one of Bollywood’s most disciplined self-made stars. Unlike other celebrities for turn up late during filming and keep the crew waiting, actor-producer Kumar is a stickler for punctuality. All he wants to do is act in films that entertain and engage.
“I plays such an interesting role in ‘Laxmmi Bomb’. It’s a role of a eunuch and it’s such fun … I am one of those people in life where I get to play so many characters in a lifetime. Imagine, I played a naval officer in ‘Rustom’, a guy who talks about toilets in ‘Toilet: Ekk Prem Katha’ … What else can I ask from God?”
According to Kumar, his films invariably teach him about issues he was unfamiliar with and gives him perspective on larger issues.
“My films are like a study for me … Why I did a film like ‘Airlift’, I learnt about the evacuation of Indian during the Gulf War. When I did ‘Padman’, I learnt all about the man who made low-cost sanitary pads. With ‘Good Newwz’, I understood so much about IVF treatments and about a man who has a baby that’s not his own in his hands and his life changes,” said Kumar.
While ‘Airlift’ was filmed extensively in Ras Al Khaimah, ‘Good Newwz’ was a comedy about how two couples learn that their bodily fluids got mixed up at the IVF centre and how they have to make peace with parenting a child that’s isn’t fully biologically theirs.
“I said yes to this film after three minutes of hearing the narration. Remember, it’s not his semen and it’s a complicated scenario where he becomes a father to a child that is in some other woman’s womb … It was so complicated and was based on a true-life incident.”
‘Good Newwz’ was one of the most successful comedies and money spinners of 2019.
Kumar is surprisingly grounded about his accomplishments.
“When I come to my studio every morning and I look out of the window, there’s a better looking guy standing outside it who’s struggling. He’s a better dancer than me, a better actor than me and he can say lines better than me, has acted in plays before … But he is still waiting to get that lucky break. So I don’t take my success seriously. I take my work seriously.”
He compares his acting career and his life to the popular building game, a Lego set.
“Imagine you make a bridge from those Lego pieces, but you then bring it down,” he said. “It’s called de-construction. I want to construct one image in a film, then break it fully and create some other image. I am all about de-construction. So sky is the limit for me.”
“I have seen good, well-made films not working at the box office. My ‘Jaaneman’ was a beautiful love story, I loved it and thought it was ahead of time. But it didn’t work. ‘Lamhe’ was another such good film that didn’t work.” — Akshay Kumar on the unpredictability of Bollywood.
“‘Housefull 4’ did a Rs200 crore [Rs2 billion, Dh102 million] business and it proves that there must be people and an audience who love such films. It doesn’t cater to everyone,” said Akshay Kumar on ‘Housefull 4’ being universally panned, but hitting box office gold.
“Dubai has changed so much. I still remember filming a song for ‘Hera Pheri’ in 1999 and these buildings were not there. The whole place was a desert, but I have seen this city grow and grow.” — Akshay Kumar
“We had a chance to interact more and I got to know Mr Kumar. His humanity is touching despite being such a big star. The way he treats his team and his people around him is brilliant,” said Saeed Al Janahi, Director Of Operations, Dubai Film & TV Commission.
DID YOU KNOW?
“1,516 shooting permits were granted in 2019 by Dubai Film & TV commission,” said Saeed Al Janahi of DFTC.
“We are the fastest city in the world to grant filming permits. You can get it one day if all your papers are in place,” added Al Janahi.