Bollywood is notorious for being hostile towards newcomers and obscure talents, but A-lister Akshay Kumar is always game for new collaborations on the professional front.
In an interview with Gulf News in Dubai, Akshay, who has acted in over 120 films in a career spanning three decades claimed that he took immense pride in going against the grain. “In my career, I have worked with 24 new directors and 22 new actresses … I love working with newcomers. Trust me they will impress,” said Akshay, who made his way to the top without any film dynasty connections or clout.
His upcoming film ‘Raksha Bandhan’, directed by Aanand L Rai, is a tale of an elder brother Lala Kedernath who swears to marry off his four sisters before he would tie the knot and settle down with his girlfriend (Bhumi Pednekar).
But finding suitable alliances for his siblings turns out to be an expensive affair since it’s often the norm in India to marry off a girl with a hefty dowry attached to her trousseau. His sisters are played by relatively unknown actors such as Sadia Khatib, Smirthi Srikanth, Deepika Khanna, and Sahejmeen Kaur. They come with limited acting experience, but Akshay isn’t fazed and looks at them as the biggest assets of his new film, out in UAE cinemas on August 11. The movie’s release coincides with the Indian festival Raksha Bandhan, which symbolises the commitment among siblings to remain loyal to one another.
“When I look at them, I see greed to do blazing well on camera. They all want to prove something. Once someone tastes success, you may start losing it altogether … I don’t think of this as some creative gamble. I love working with all those who are keen to go to any extent to prove their skills as an actor,” said Akshay.
The admiration isn’t one-sided. The upcoming talents describe the seasoned actor as one of the kindest blokes in Bollywood.
“He’s known as the massive martial arts expert and there’s some misconception that he’s a prankster, but he’s a thorough gentleman. He’s genuinely one of the nicest guys that you will ever meet,” said Sadia Khatib. According to his on-screen sisters, Akshay never threw any starry tantrums at them and behaved truly like an elder brother who was protective about how they fared in the film.
“You all heard tales about him being this notorious prankster on the sets … But he also takes care of you. He’s the kind of star who brings food from his house for everybody and feeds everyone on the sets. He keeps asking if we have all eaten well and that makes us feel included,” said Srikanth.
For Akshay, the idea of playing a simple-minded bloke from Delhi’s Chandni Chowk appealed to him greatly. Before his Bollywood breakthrough and before changing his name from Rajiv Bhatia to Akshay Kumar, this actor came from the humblest of backgrounds.
Film folklore is rife with stories of how Akshay worked as a chef and a waiter in Bangkok before Bollywood beckoned him.
“I play Rajiv Bhatia in this film … I didn’t need any brief to play this character. I grew up in Chandni Chowk and since I was born here, I know the environment like the back of my hand and it felt like I was coming back home with this film … I played myself in this movie,” said Akshay.
Of late, Akshay has been spearheading the ‘cinema for change’ narratives. Most of his films carry a strong social message couched in good story-telling. For instance, his hit 2017 film ‘Toilet: Ek Prem Katha’ drove home the point of how women in villages struggle on a daily basis due to lack of private bathrooms in their homes.
“I have always addressed serious problems in my films, but I have also shown the solution … Even with ‘Toilet: Ek Prem Katha’, I showed that a woman is well within her right to leave her husband if there’s no toilet in their home … Even with ‘Pad Man’, my character came out with the solution to make a low-cost sanitary pad … What’s the point in showing a problem when you don’t give any solution,” said Akshay. Apparently, his latest project ‘Raksha Bandhan’ also has an interesting theory on how to scrub the scourge of dowry in Indian society.
Interestingly, this film is backed by Akshay’s sister Alka Bhatia. So what’s his relationship with her like?
“We don’t fight and I am incredibly close to her. My sister is mild and I don’t think she even knows how to fight. When she was born, we kept saying that a ‘devi’ [goddess] has arrived into our homes and our mentality remains the same towards my dear sister,” said Akshay.
But not all homes look at the girl child with such love and think of a male heir as a lesser liability.
“That’s the whole idea of making this film … My films are about bringing change to old mindsets … Governments of various states show my ‘Toilet: Ek Prem Katha’ to the villagers to bring about change and that makes me feel proud of the kind of films that I do,” said Akshay.
While his intentions may be noble, Bollywood cinema is going through a lean phase where its films aren’t setting the box-office on fire. But Akshay claims that Covid-19 has taken a toll on every entertainment industry around the globe.
“It’s happening in Hollywood as well. Many find it comfortable to sit at home and watch movies now instead of heading to the cinemas. But it’s all changing. Give it another six months and things will be back to normal,” said Akshay.
In the last 30 years, Akshay has learned to take the highs and lows of his career in his stride. He began his film career as the quintessential action hero with films like ‘Khiladi’ and later re-invented himself by displaying impressive comic timing in films such as ‘Good Newwz’. In the last few years, he has been spearheading films that are about reforming the ills in society.
“If a movie is good and has a strong screenplay, then it will work … It doesn’t matter if a story is set in a small town or a country like the UK, the storytelling has to be gripping … It took me just ten minutes to agree to do ‘Raksha Bandhan’ and I know in my gut that this is a fantastic film,” said Akshay.
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‘Raksha Bandhan’ is out in UAE cinemas on August 11