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Bollywood biggie Akshay Kumar tells Aseem Chhabra about his new co-star, explains his 70:30 equation of luck and hard work and why his next project may feature the first Gulf War.
Akshay Kumar is at the top of his game.
He has become such a big Bollywood star that he can demand whatever he wants -- a light work schedule, coupled with many breaks and vacations days. And yet he makes three to four films a year -- a mix of comedy, action and drama.
On the eve of the August 8 release of his new film It’s Entertainment, where his main co-star is a Golden Retriever, Kumar is on vacation in New York, where he goes out for long walks and occasionally interacts with fans.
Kumar spoke to Aseem Chhabra at New York’s Pierre Hotel about his life, career, his plans to do a variety of roles and what it takes to act opposite a dog.
So, Akshay, I believe you have been here in New York for a month?
Yes, I have been here for a month, and I have been on vacation for 45 days.
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You have a good life.
It’s not about a good life. People always say I work so hard. I work on three to four films in a year. I know I work hard, but I also have so many breaks. I know that my son’s holidays are in June and July. It happens every year so I take the 45 days break as I plan the year. And no work on Saturday and Sunday.
But isn’t that observed regularly in Bollywood?
No, they don’t do it. I have it in my contract and I demand it.
Well, you are at a stage in your career where you can demand that.
I am not the only one. There are others also who ask for it. Then I have also set a policy that after every three, four months, I have to take seven days off. I just go off to some place with my family.
One needs about 60 days to make a film. So 60 days into four is 240 days. Baki to chutiyan hee chutiyan (the rest are holidays). I don’t know what people say, but why can’t one do three films in a year?
I checked on IMDB that you have made over 100 films. Obviously Akshay Kumar is in demand. But is it easy work wise? Do you work as hard as you used to when you started your career?
As compared to what I used to do? No, not now.
I don’t need to work that hard. In early part of my career, I was working from the morning until late at night. That is why we had to do two or three shifts in a day.
That everyone did in Bollywood. The industry has changed its work practices right?
I don’t work more than eight hours. If it goes beyond eight hours I will go sit in my car and leave. I have to go home after eight hours.
I am also talking about the roles that you used to do, the action films like the Khiladi series, as compared to something like your new film It’s Entertainment - was that easier to make?
It’s Entertainment, let me honestly tell you, is more of my comfort zone. It’s a comedy and it was fun working on it.
I worked with a baby when I made Heyy Babyy. It’s not easy to work with a baby. The same thing it is to work with a dog. It all depends on their moods.
You can be ready with all the dialogues memorized. He will come, he will laze around, he will not listen to his master and he will walk away.
How many babies did you have in Heyy Babyy?
We had five. And here we had we had 12 dogs -- all Golden Retrievers. There is a main one whose name is Junior. He would sit and watch. He would only sit in an AC (air-conditioned) room. But he used to follow orders very nicely.
How many takes would the dog give?
Maximum two or three. And he would work about three hours. Then, call my duplicate. No, he would speak like that, but he would go to sleep. Then we would get the duplicate and take long shots. We would wait for Junior to wake up from his nap.
You should also have duplicate Akshay Kumars.
Nahin yaar, hamaree kahan kutte jaisee zindagi hai (No Mate, Where do I have the luck to live a dog’s life)?
Was it fun? Farhad-Shajid are new directors, although they have written some major scripts for Rohit Shetty.
What impressed me was that they brought such a unique concept that appealed to me from day one. They read to me a story about a Parsi guy who did not leave anything to his son in his will. He gave everything to his dog. I loved the idea that he loved his dog more and left everything for him.
In New York we had Leona Hemsley who left $12 million to her dog.
Exactly, this is a real story.
I also read in London someone left everything for his cat. And it was written in the will that every day the cat’s food would come from Harrods. It is an amazing idea and I loved it in the script. And in the will it says, that if the dog dies, then only the money will come to me.
So obviously I want to kill the dog. The whole thing is funny. It’s basically for children. It’s a family commercial film.
You talked about your comfort zone. Do comedies come naturally to you?
Yes, they do. Even I didn’t realise it, until I made those films with Priyadarshan (Hera Pheri, Garam Masala, Khatta Meetha).
Before that you did many action films. And recently Once Upon A Time in Mumbai Dobaara were action films.
Yes, I have done many action films. Holiday also -- that had much more action. I have been long interested in martial arts and I have done my stunts also. But suddenly I developed a loving, enjoyable comfort zone with comedies. It flows naturally.
But I have to keep challenging myself. My quota of comedies is one film only. This year I don’t have another comedy film.
By challenging, you mean, after a while comedy becomes boring or it is easy?
It’s too easy. Like I was watching Adam Sandler’s new film Blended. He seems to be only doing those kinds of comedies. You can see it is his comfort zone. But he enjoys that.
His films have starting bombing at the box office.
Anyway I want to jump. Too much comfort to myself I don’t enjoy it then.
Now I am doing Neeraj Pandey’s film -- it’s called Baby, although there is no baby in it. I am playing a RAW officer and it is so challenging for me to play that role.
How old are you by the way?
I just turned 48.
You are still very young.
Yes, thank you. I am young. And I always say this is my peak period.
In any case I think your audience also enjoys the comedies. Do you think the audience also demands the old Akshay Kumar?
I think so. Whenever I read my Twitter or Facebook accounts -- they want different. They say yeh to dekha hain, yeh to aap ne kiya hain (We have seen this. You have done this before). But at the same time, comedy bhi karo (do comedy as well). I follow my fan base, what they say.
Walking here on the streets or talking to some taxi driver in New York, I learn a lot.
I was in a taxi the other day. It took the driver a few seconds to recognise me. He couldn’t believe that I was sitting in his taxi.
Was your wife also with you?
No, I was alone. I just roam around in New York. I never hire a car. I love to just stop a taxi and jump in and I meet so many characters. I just sit and talk to them.
This cab driver was called Gurdeep Singh. He started to talk in Punjabi, that he couldn’t believe it was me. And then the most amazing thing is that they don’t take money. I have to force them to take money.
I understand and that $15, $20 means a lot to them.
I know and what would have been only a $15, $20 fare, being Akshay Kumar I have to give them $100 (he breaks into hearty laughter). Well, that doesn’t matter. He gave me his number and said I could call him anytime and he would stay with me the whole day.
So what did he tell you about your films?
About my films, he said he enjoyed my comedies. But ‘Bhai action kiya karo'. That film of yours, Special 26. Do more films like that. Where there are twists and turns.’
So I understand what he is saying is, ‘Just don’t stay in one place. Do different roles.’
In New York you can meet fans like this. But in Bombay there is a lot less interaction, right?
No, in Bombay also, we get to meet fans. But if you step out, you must get mobbed.
Well usually we never step out. But there are bigger mobs in the North. Because people in Bombay are used to seeing actors. In Bombay you go to J W Marriott or the Taj (hotels) and you might hear someone say ‘Oye look, look, Deepika Padukone is going.’
Do you miss the days when you could walk on the street? To be able to eat Bhelpuri in Bombay or Chaat in Delhi?
I do it in a very different way. My life starts around 4 am. I don’t have a gym. But I go straight to the sea. I live opposite the sea.
Where, in Juhu?
Yes, in Juhu area. I go jogging by the sea. I am literally doing what I used to do when I was not in the film business. Because at that time no one is there. Even dogs are not strolling on the streets.
I sometimes swim even though the water is slightly dirty. Then from there I have access to the Marriott or Holiday Inn.
But I have the freedom to walk around in New York. I often walk 20 blocks, and I walk the streets and avenues change.
I am sure you are recognised here as well since there are so many Indians in New York.
Yes, but quickly they cannot tell. They can’t believe since I am walking with a cap and I have sunglasses.
I have sometimes heard people say, ‘Woh Akshay jaisa nahin lagta? (Doesn’t he look like Akshay?)’
Your first film came out in 1991?
I started my career in 1990. First film was Saugandh.
It will be 25 years next year. If you look at your career there have been some big hits in these 25 years.
What do you think was the reason for your success? How did you make it so big? You didn’t have a film family background, not like Salman Khan or the Kapoor family.
I think I have been very lucky.
I can see that. You have a very strong fate line on your right hand. I wasn’t going to bring it up, but since you mentioned luck.
Accha. I didn’t know that. But I will remember that.
But it is not all luck, right?
In this industry, my experience of 24 years says that 70 percent of success is all based on luck.
If a movie has a hit business, it is 70 percent on luck. I have seen that with my films and other people’s films. And I think it is 30 percent of your hard work.
I have seen at trials (previews) where people have gone gaga. ‘Isko to koi rok nahin sakta (Nothing can stop this film’s success).’ Aur woh film ruktee aisee hain ke chaltee hi nahin. Kisi ko nahin maloom, Yeh film chali kyon nahin? (And the film doesn’t run, and no one know why the film didn’t run).
Can you talk about a film of yours that didn’t do well, when there was disappointment?
Well, I liked my film Jaan-e-Mann. I shot it here. I thought it was such a futuristic film for that time. And it was so well shot. But it didn’t work at all.
Tees Maar Khan also didn’t do well.
That was a commercial film. But Jaan-e-Mann was a good film with a great cast. I didn’t understand why it failed. Then there are some films that aren’t good and yet they have a successful run. I don’t have any answer.
Can you mention some specific films that you are proud of?
I have made many good films -- Special 26, Waqt, Hera Pheri, Singh is Kinng. I love Namaste London a lot. That film is close to me.
And if you have to do something different, what would that be?
I would like to do negative roles. Like my film Ajnabee, that was a full out-and-out negative role.
But you can afford to take risks.
Yes, I can. I should also. I want to take risks. Like there is a lovely film I will be doing with a new director. It’s about the Kuwait war.
The first Persian Gulf War? And there are Indian characters in it?
Yes and I can see by looking at your expression that you are intrigued. Someone has narrated the whole script to me and I loved it.
So what should we expect from It’s Entertainment?
It’s a family entertainment film. The dog is the main hero.
If it doesn’t work, you can blame the dog.