Akshay Kumar has earned a reputation as one of the hardest working actors in the Indian movie business. The road to success has been a difficult one.
Man of action
Akshay Kumar bounds into his trailer glowing with health and full of apologies for being late. He has had barely nine hours sleep in the past three days but if he's tired it doesn't show.
It's the final day of shooting on his latest movie, Action Replay, which was delayed for several weeks because of a dispute between producers and cinemas and it's a race against time to wrap it up. All around the 41-year-old Bollywood star, assistants and production staff are feeling the pace and finding it hard to match Kumar's energy. Even his personal trainer is beginning to droop a little. It's looking like another long night.
"The rains are going to come soon and the outdoor set will get ruined," he says. "We filmed every night for the past three nights. Sometimes it just happens like that." The strike also delayed the release of his big-budget summer film Kambakth Ishq, which is out now and features guest appearances by Sylvester Stallone, Brandon Routh and Denise Richards. A romantic comedy about a Los Angeles-based stuntman, the Hindi film is part of a new trend of collaborations between Hollywood and Bollywood, of which Kumar is becoming an enthusiastic pioneer.
"It's always good to watch two cultures coming together," he says. "I did it first with the movie Singh is Kinng, which was a hugely successful film. Snoop Dogg offered to sing the lead song so we were very excited about having him on the picture. Kambakth Ishq is set in Hollywood so we needed the people from there and we wanted somebody of Stallone's stature. It's good for them as well as for us.
"For them, Bollywood is about colours, dancing and emotions. They don't see it as action movies. They see it as just a romantic and colourful costume drama. Our USP is emotion. We believe in relationships - father and son, husband and wife. We excel at these in a big way. I think it's our culture - romance, heartbreak, the girl walking alone through the trees with a background song going on. As a nation we relate to all these things," he says.
Kumar's reputation for being one of the hardest working actors in the Indian movie business is clearly accurate. He drives himself relentlessly, and it's no accident that last year he topped the list published by the Income Tax Department of India as the highest taxpayer in Bollywood. Action Replay is the 120th film Kumar has made. (His 20-year career began almost by accident and has taken him to the very top of the Bollywood stratosphere.) The romantic comedy, due to be released in the autumn, is set partly in the Seventies and his role requires him to wear a shoulder-length wig and protruding false teeth part of the time - not entirely comfortable in the muggy heat of the monsoon season. The film has been shot on an elaborate set at the new ND Studios about two hours' drive from Mumbai in the village of Karjat, which is rapidly becoming the new centre of the Indian movie industry. The lavish set of the hugely successful Jodhaa Akbar stands on the next lot.
In the countryside, Kumar happily mucks in with everyone else. He spent the afternoon playing cricket with a village side during a break from shooting - something he can't do in Mumbai, where he is recognised and mobbed wherever he goes. As he flops down into a chair in his sparsely furnished trailer, he is still wearing his Nike track suit bottoms and a Snoopy T-shirt emblazoned with the words "Joe Cool" on it. He looks years younger than he is and he fizzes with energy.
There are no big star tantrums or posturing. Kumar may be Bollywood royalty now, but he came from modest beginnings and he has never forgotten what it feels like to worry about paying the rent. His father was a professional wrestler and later joined the Indian army before working for Unicef. "We lived in a one-bedroom apartment and I remember very well what it feels like being poor. When we came to Bombay in 1971 we were paying rent of 100 rupees, which is about $2 (Dh7.34), and even that was difficult for us. Then we shifted to another house where we were paying 500 rupees per month. After that we bought a house for three lakh rupees (Dh22,038)," he says.
His parents' difficult early years struggling to make a living instilled in him an appreciation for everything he owns and the good fortune that has come his way. It also helps explain the work ethic that at one point drove him to make up to seven films a year. And when his career hit a downturn six years ago after a series of flops, those memories steadied him. "I still have my first car and my first bike. I value what I have. I wash my car myself sometimes and if there is a small scratch I get upset. I even have my first house. I never sold it. When things are rough professionally I still visit the place at night where we used to live when we first came here and just sit down and look around and I thank God for what I am today.
"There was a time when I had 14 flops in a row and I was just going down and down. I was very upset but then I went home and I looked around and saw that I had four cars and a beautiful apartment. That's the day I decided I'm not going be upset any more. I have achieved a lot in life." Kumar was born in Amritsar to a Punjabi family and grew up sharing a room with his sister in the busy Chandni Chowk market area of Delhi before the family moved to Mumbai. From an early age he was fascinated by sports, dance and the martial arts. He later went to Bangkok to study martial arts and Thai boxing, earning his keep as a chef. When he returned to Mumbai he taught children.
"I got paid 8,000 rupees (Dh600) a month for teaching martial arts to children. Then I got a modelling assignment through the parents of one of my pupils. I got paid more money for standing in front of a camera for a couple of hours and just looking right, left, centre with a beautiful girl beside me and I thought it was much better than teaching. So, me being a greedy human being, I went for that," he says with his trademark grin.
His modelling career was shortlived, however, and ended in disaster. He explains how he was booked to fly to Bangalore to do a fashion shoot. "I had to be at the airport by 5.30pm for a 6.00pm flight. In the morning I got up at 4.30am to work out as usual. At 6.00am I got a call asking, 'Where are you?'. I thought it was an evening flight but it was a morning flight and they were waiting for me. I can still remember the word they used to describe me. They said I would never be successful in life with such an unprofessional attitude.
"I jumped on my motor bike and went to the airport but it was too late. The plane had gone. I was very sad and came back home and there was this 20-year-old boy crying," he says. Distraught at having lost the chance of paying off his father's bank loan, he began making the rounds of the studios with his modelling photos and asked for work. "I went into the Natraj studio and met this make-up man who liked my pictures. He took me to see the producer Pramod Chakravarthy. He saw my photos and said he liked them and offered me a part in a film. I was shocked. He gave me a cheque for 5,000 rupees (Dh375). I looked at my watch and saw it was 5.30pm, the exact time that I should have been boarding that flight. I don't know how God works but if I had got that flight I'd probably be still modelling."
He admits he knew nothing about acting or movie making when he made his first film, and he counts himself very lucky. "When I came into the business I didn't know what a camera was. I learnt it through experience. I think it is essential for any aspiring actor to go to acting schools and learn to understand it but I didn't have the money to go to drama school." With his muscular physique and good looks, he quickly made his name as an action hero and still does his own stunts. His first big success was the 1992 thriller Khiladi. Later, directors began to cast him as the romantic lead but more recently he has turned to comedy.
"If I was to compare myself with a Hollywood actor it would be Will Smith or Jack Black. When I go to watch any film I enjoy it when people laugh. We have more than 400 TV channels and they are all showing news about this country attacking that country and people are murdering people and there is no more fun left. I think that people are turning to comedy as the reaction, especially in India." In Kambakth Ishq, Kumar's character does stunts for Routh and Stallone's characters. Kareena Kapoor plays a model trying to earn enough money to put herself through medical school.
Kumar's physical prowess and agility make him a natural "brand master" for sport, and he is a passionate supporter of the Indian Special Olympics. "A lot of people still feel if you are a special child, in other words disabled, they would hide them in a room. There are even children who have not seen sunlight. Some people think it's like a curse or something. My job is to educate these people and tell them to bring these children out and not hide them. Last year we won 72 golds in the Special Olympics, which makes me proud. I keep talking to politicians and now the Indian government gives us money to keep it going. We also get money from the UN."
Since his marriage to the former actress Twinkle Khanna, the daughter of the veteran actors Rajesh Khanna and Dimple Kapadia, and the birth of his son, Aarav, now six, Kumar has cut down his work rate a little in order to spend time with them. But he still makes three or four films a year. As a bachelor, he was a prime target for the countless Indian celebrity magazines and websites that loved to pair him off with many beautiful Bollywood actresses including Pooja Batra, Raveena Tandon, Rekha and Shilpa Shetty. They also love to suggest rivalry between Kumar and the handsome heartthrob actor Shah Rukh Khan, who came second in the tax ratings.
"There's no rivalry or hatred between myself and Shah Rukh Khan. He is a good actor, a great person and a great father. I've known him for years. He is also from Delhi, where I come from. We joined the industry together." These days, Kumar is a deeply religious man and devoted to his family. He says: "I believe in religion. I have been brought up to believe that and that my success lies at my parents' feet. When I go off to work I touch my mother's feet and leave. I would suggest it to everyone. If every child would touch their parents' feet and go to work it would be a better place."
Becoming a husband and father has changed his life completely and for the better, he says. "Everybody changes. A child comes into your life and everything changes on its own. You just want to go back after shooting and be there and play with them. Our son, Aarav, is a well-behaved boy who loves his family a lot. He is also very religious." His wife, Khanna, was also a Bollywood star, but quit abruptly because she didn't consider herself a good enough actress. She now runs a successful interior design business called White Window. Kumar is proud of the way she changed directions.
"I don't think many people could just change professions like that. She is beautiful but she was crap and she says so herself. One day she just walked out. She was doing a movie and was working very hard but she said that if it didn't do well she was going to quit and get married to this man. That was me. She carried on with the movie because she wanted to earn money. So it was her prayers versus my prayers.
"We got married and about a month later I saw her drifting towards another profession. She has a natural flair for interior design. She is much happier now. She has showrooms of her own and she is the boss so she doesn't have to go every day. She is very selective about whose house she does. She's done the houses of movie stars and industrialists." Kumar insists he is not the kind of man who expects his wife to stay at home and look after her husband.
"It's very much necessary that a woman should work. I have supported her all the way in that. It would destroy our relationship if I tried to keep her in the kitchen like a lot of men do in India, although things are changing. It's very important for a man to allow a woman to work if she wants to." He revealed that Khanna was in the Taj Hotel on Nov 27, the day of the Mumbai terror attacks. "She was going to stay for dinner and suddenly the friends decided not to. The attack took place at 8.45pm and she would have been there. That night when she was sleeping I was just looking at her and thinking that I could have been standing outside the hotel pacing up and down and frantic with worry or maybe rushing in. I don't know what I would have been doing.
"We have had a lot of attacks but now things are less turbulent. Bombay is a safe place apart from the traffic." firstname.lastname@example.org