There’s a saying in English, “Many a little makes a mickle.” Akshay Kumar is one Bollywood actor who understands the significance of this dictum. He was a rank outsider who happened to enter the film industry by the quirk of fate and gradually consolidated his position to be acknowledged as one of the superstars of the country.
Rise to stardom
He started his career with ‘Saugandh’ in 1991 and tasted success with ‘Khiladi’ in 1992. The year 1994 established Akshay Kumar in the industry. ‘Mohra’ became a blockbuster and the second biggest hit of the year after ‘Hum Aapke Hain Kaun’. He pitched in a restrained performance in ‘Yeh Dillagi’ while his pairing with Shilpa Shetty in ‘Main Khiladi Tu Anari’ was applauded by the audience. However, in the same year, he churned out duds like ‘Jai Kishen’, ‘Zaalim’, ‘Amaanat’, ‘Ikke Pe Ikka’ and ‘Hum Hain Bemisaal’.
In the next two years, only ‘Sabse Bada Khiladi’ and ‘Khiladiyo Ka Khiladi’ performed reasonably at the box office while ‘Paandav’, ‘Tu Chor Main Sipahi’, Sapoot’, and ‘Maidan-E-Jung’ were commercial and critical disasters.
Akshay Kumar’s career completely nosedived after 1996 as his 13 movies bit the dust at the boxoffice on the trot. ‘Daava’, ‘Tarazu’, ‘Aflatoon’, ‘Insaaf’, ‘Keemat’, ‘Barood’ and ‘Zulmi’ faced catastrophic outcome at the ticket window and were ruthlessly slammed by the critics. Even the phrase ‘Khiladi’ which had proved lucky for him in the past failed to reprise the magic as ‘International Khiladi’ crashed unceremoniously.
His contemporaries like SRK and Ajay Devgn who had started their careers at the same time raced far ahead while Akshay’s acting career looked as good as over. Critics mocked at him calling him a Wooden Box.
Resurrection and reinvention
A spate of bummers gave Akshay a lot to think about. He had been doing action movies all along and was getting typecast. As a result, his career started to stale and finally came to a standstill. Akshay showed signs of improvement in ‘Sangharsh’. For the first time, viewers saw him portraying a serious role with conviction. Though the movie didn’t do well, Akki was noticed. ‘Jaanwar’ proved a turning point in his career as the movie went on to become a sleeper hit and did record-breaking business in Bihar.
In 2000, he proved that ‘Jaanwar’ was no fluke. ‘Hera Pheri’, directed by Priyadarshan, opened to rave reviews and proved a superhit in Mumbai territory. Akshay enacted the role, which had comic flavour, with gusto. Though Paresh Rawal walked away with kudos, Akshay too was appreciated. In the later years, the movie attained the cult status and is widely considered one of the best comedy movies ever made in India. ‘Dhadkan’ was a far cry from what Akshay had attempted before. The movie with a romantic triangle had splendid music and garnered fine response at the box-office.
Next year (2001), Akshay exhibited that he has learned his lessons as he played a negative character in ‘Ajnabee’ with élan and won the Filmfare Award for the Villain role. From then onwards, he chose his roles judiciously. In 2002, ‘Awara Paagal Deewana’ and ‘Aankhein’ further consolidated his performance as an actor as well as star. Lukewarm reaction to ‘Haan Maine Bhi Pyar Kiya’ and ‘Talaash’ didn’t have much bearing on Akshay’s career.
Emergence as a superstar
Though Akshay had shown his versatility in the last three years by portraying a gamut of characters, none of his movies became huge blockbuster which would accord him the status of a superstar. And moreover, he was still in search of an elusive solo hit. In the summer of 2003, ‘Andaaz’ gave Akshay the status he was craving for. Though the critics were not kind to the movie, the glamour, chutzpah and smashing music ensured thunderous boxoffice collections. The vibrant look of the movie and pairing of Lara Dutta, Priyanka Chopra and Akshay Kumar also worked in its favour.
In 2004, ‘Mujhse Shaadi Karogi’ opened to pack houses and became the second biggest hit of the year. The electrifying chemistry between Salman Khan and Akshay was lapped up by the viewers, across all age groups, with glee. The saucy and scandalous ‘Aitraaz’ also did good business despite clashing with a biggie ‘Veer Zaara’ at the boxoffice. Multi-starrer ‘Khakee’ garnered plaudit from critics but underperformed at the ticket window. ‘Ab Tumhare Hawale Watan Saathiyo’ and ‘Aan: Men at Work’ bombed miserably.
As it had become the case with Akki, in the next two years, he reeled off hits like ‘Garam Masala’, ‘Waqt’, ‘Phir Hera Pheri’ and ‘Bhagam Bhag’ and equal numbers of duds like ‘Bewafaa’, ‘Insan’, ‘Family- Ties of Blood’, ‘Humko Deewana Kar Gaye’ and ‘Dosti’. Salman and he came together in ‘Jaan-E-Mann’ after super success of ‘Mujhse Shaadi Karogi’ but despite mellifluous music and spiffing screenplay, it didn’t work due to clash with Shah Rukh Khan’s ‘Don’.
Storming the Khans’ Bastion
Akshay gave highest number of semi-hits, if not blockbusters, between 2000 and 2006. He was labelled as a superstar running in his own league. But due to glaring inconsistency and doing a plethora of crappy movies, he wasn’t put in the same cluster as ‘Khans’. Another argument which held against him was that he had not given all-time blockbusters or massive hits like ‘Khans’ had. Furthermore, nor once had he delivered the biggest hit of the year – a feat which ‘Khans’ had attained many times.
The year 2007 was a rite of passage in not only Akshay’s career but also in the history of Indian cinema. ‘Namastey London’, ‘Hey Baby’, ‘Bhool Bhulaiya’ and ‘Welcome’ – all his four releases weaved magic and pulled in the spectators in droves. Out of where, Akshay came galloping and superseded all his competitors. Media had a field day proclaiming how Akshay has dislodged ‘Khans’ from the pedestal. His accomplishment is even more momentous considering the fact that SRK had unfurled two big hits ‘Om Shanti Om’ and ‘Chak De India’; Aamir conjured up a masterpiece ‘Taare Zameen Par’; and Salman stormed the boxoffice with his ‘Partner’ Govinda. But Akshay had invoked such euphoria that everything looked pale in comparison. It was reported that he had become the highest paid actor in the Bollywood.
Next year (2008), ‘Singh is Kinng’ turned out to be a boxoffice success while his association with Yashraj in ‘Tashan’ didn’t bear fruits.
Fall from grace
After enjoying a period of untrammelled success, Akshay’s world came crashing down in 2009. ‘Chandni Chowk to China’, touted to be inspired from his real life, failed to measure up to the tremendous pre-release hype. This was merely an omen for the more disastrous results that were to be followed. ‘Kambakht Ishq’ was crude and obnoxious, and critics lashed out at the makers and director of the movie. The big-budget movie took a fantastic initial but completely fizzled out in the second week. ‘Blue’ was another highly-anticipated movie, released on Diwali, which came a cropper.
Things went from bad to worse in next two years as ‘Khatta Meetha’, ‘Action Replayy’, ‘Thank You’ and ‘Patiala House’ were rejected by the audience. Perhaps, the biggest blow came in the form of ‘Tees Maar Khan’. It was directed by Farah Khan, who had given superhits like ‘Main Hoon Naa’ and ‘Om Shanti Om’, and had Katrina Kaif as a female lead with whom Akshay had delivered hits like ‘Namastey London’, ‘Welcome’ and ‘Singh is Kinng’. It had everything going in its favour but box-office narrated a prosaic story.
The only notable hit in those three years was ‘Housefull’ directed by Sajid Khan. Akshay was once again hauled over the coals for his atrocious choice of movies and failing to deliver the hits despite working with successful directors in big-budget flicks. It was apparent that he had become repetitive once again and his career was heading in the same direction as it went in late 90s.
Akshay had proved in the past that his fan-following and pulling power precede the success of his movies. He roared back with vengeance and made his detractors, who were busy writing his obituaries, eat the humble pie again in 2012. ‘Housefull 2’ and ‘Rowdy Rathore’ put Akki where he belonged to. ‘Rowdy Rathore’ clocked up more than 140 crore and was the third biggest hit of the year after ‘Ek Tha Tiger’ and ‘Dabangg 2’. His extended cameo in ‘Oh My God’ earned glowing reviews while ‘Khiladi 786’ too fared fairly well.
2013 and 2014 were not particularly pleasant for Akshay as far as box-office returns are concerned. ‘Once Upon A Time in Mumbai Dobara’, ‘Boss’, ‘Entertainment’, and ‘Gabbar’ failed to cut the mustard. Though ‘Special 26’ and ‘Baby’ hovered up good reviews, they didn’t help the films to rake in good numbers.
His next venture is ‘Brothers’ which is slated to hit the theatres on August 14. The promos have already triggered frenzy among his fans and with this movie, he would be hoping to scupper the dry spell. The emergence of Varun Dhawan in the last couple of years and his arch-rival Ajay Devgn snapping at his heels, the success of ‘Brothers’ is essential for Akshay to firmly recapture the no.5 spot in the pecking order.
Modus Operandi and fruitful collaborations
Besides SRK, Akshay Kumar is the only mainstream leading actor of the current generation who didn’t have any background or godfather in the industry yet he attained the superstardom on his own steam by dint of his unflinching dedication, shrewd decision, unabated diligence and a pinch of luck. Despite the initial success, Akshay took time to find his moorings and comprehend the intricacies of the profession. The rough phase (1997-99) was a great learning curve for him which stood him in good stead for the latter part of the career.
The wisest thing Akshay did was to reinvent his image. Earlier, he was only offered actions movies and was savagely stereotyped. The discerning audience were soon browned off and that was the prime reason behind Akki’s slump. With ‘Hera Pheri’ and ‘Dhadkan’, he demonstrated that he has the wherewithal to enact romantic and comic roles with éclat. That opened floodgates for him and in the subsequent years, he acted in movies of myriad genres. His contemporaries like Govinda and Sunil Shetty couldn’t break the barriers and remained prisoners of their one-dimensional image. Govinda, in particular, faded away swiftly post 2000 after ruling the roost, along with the ‘Khans’, in the 1990s.
Another thing which Akshay realised is that in an industry where camp system is prevalent, he needs to have a coterie of talented directors/producers who repose their faith in his talent and offer him good roles on a consistent basis. He knew that he didn’t have the backing of big banners like Yashraj, Dharma Productions, Rajshree or Mukta Arts. He wisely picked the new directors whom he found talented and earned the respect of seasoned directors like Priyadarshan (‘Hera Pheri’, ‘Garam Masala’, ‘Bhool Bhulaiya’, ‘Bhagam Bhag’) and Abbas-Mustan (‘Khiladi’, ‘Ajnabee’, ‘Aitraaz’) and cultivated scores of hits. He also cobbled together with new directors like Vipul Shah (‘Aankhein’, ‘Waqt’, ‘Namastey London’) and Sajid Khan (‘Hey Baby’, ‘Housefull’, ‘Housefull 2’) to roll out back-to-back hits.
Perhaps the most perceptive and imaginative truism Akshay asserts is that he has always been producers’ actor. In an industry known for its slapdash ways, he’s a strict disciplinarian and punctual to a fault. He’s often the first to report on the sets in the morning and is known to finish the movies on time so that his producers don’t have to face any mental or financial hassles. Despite having several ups and downs in his career, he has never been short of work because his commitment and sincerity has made him favourite actor of producers.
Akshay is the only superstar who has had more than four releases, on an average, every year since he made his debut in 1991. Likewise, he has delivered most number of successful movies, if not blockbusters, but his success ratio is comparatively low than ‘Khans’. He doesn’t have a welter of classics to his credit like Aamir, neither does he have a raft of blockbusters like Salman. His cupboard of awards is no match to SRK, yet he can look back at his career with plenty of fondness and pride. His career graph has fissures of frailty and also insignia of incandescence, much like the roller-coaster ride of a slick, sizzling Bollywood potboiler.