Akshay Kumar and the need for reinvention

A rundown on how Akshay Kumar went from being a bankable star with numerous hit films to an actor struggling to get good openings.

Starting from the year 1991, Akshay Kumar aka “Khiladi Kumar” acted in over 100 films.

At the beginning of his career, Akshay was primarily known as an “Action Star” because of his physicality and fitness levels. The “Khiladi” tag was the result of the action sequences and this image has stayed with the actor to date.

However, thanks to acclaimed South Indian director Priyadarshan, the actor’s image took a huge turn with the film Hera Pheri (2000). In Hera Pheri, Akshay Kumar played a street-smart guy called Raju.

The film gave him ample scope to display his comic skills. The movie also had a couple of emotional scenes which he pulled off with ease.

Hera Pheri opened new doors for Akshay Kumar. The film did not get a good opening but emerged as a box-office success gradually.

It is considered to be one of the best comic films made in Hindi cinema. It was a remake of the Malayalam movie Ramji Rao Speaking (1989).

The combo of Akshay Kumar and Priyadarshan entertained the audiences further in the likes of Garam Masala (2006) and Bhagam Bhag (2005) — also a remake of the Malayalam classic Manichitrathazhu (1993).

In these films, Akshay Kumar raised many chuckles with his comic timing.

A special mention must be made of the scenes in Garam Masala, where his character juggles multiple girlfriends.

However, it wouldn’t be fair to categorise Akshay as just a comic actor.

More than a comedy actor

Akshay Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan in ‘Waqt: The Race Against Time’. (X)

There are the likes of Aankhen (2002) and Waqt: The Race Against Time (2005), among others, where Akshay Kumar proved himself as a versatile actor.

In Aankhen, he played one of the blind men whom Amitabh Bachchan uses as a pawn to take revenge against the bank where he was working and humiliated.

The Bollywood actor got the nuances of the role spot on and was very impressive, particularly in the face-off with Bachchan.

In Waqt: The Race Against Time, the actor played a spoilt son who undergoes a metamorphosis the hard way. He was both goofy and also intense in equal portions.

Akshay Kumar as a social commentator

Akshay Kumar in ‘Padman’. (X)

There was also a period when Akshay Kumar found success with films dealing with social issues but with commercial ingredients. Case in point being Toilet: EK Prem Katha (2017), and Padman (2018).

What made Akshay’s performance in Toilet: Ek Prem Katha commendable is how he transforms himself from a son, who is scared of his orthodox father, to bringing a change in the mindset of an entire village. There is a visible effort in getting into the skin of the role.

Another movie worth mentioning in this category is R Balki’s Padman. It was about an entrepreneur Arunachalam Muruganatham who made low-cost sanitary pads for women in rural areas.

The actor did a wonderful job of conveying the determination of a man who is mocked constantly and considered a madman by the people around him.

There are scenes in Padman that not many leading stars would have attempted. A case in point is the portion where Akshay’s character tests a sanitary pad on himself with disastrous results.

You also have a speech in the pre-climax at the United Nations, which is very moving.

An impressive Airlift

Akshay Kumar in ‘Airlift’. (X)

Apart from the above-mentioned ones, Akshay Kumar was also hugely impressive in the thriller drama Airlift (2016).

He was seen as a businessman who helped in the evacuation of Indians in Kuwait during the invasion of that country by Iraq’s supremo Saddam Hussain. This invasion is the beginning of the Gulf War.

Akshay’s character Ranjit Katyal starts as an arrogant businessman for whom profit is the only thing that matters. But soon, we see him vulnerable and helpful.

There are occasions where Ranjit is down and out but he still keeps going. Airlift is easily one of Akshay’s best performances.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Akshay Kumar was having a mostly dream run with hits upon hits.

In fact, the actor’s box office figures were much superior to Shah Rukh Khan who was going through a lean patch at that time. But all that changed drastically post-pandemic.

Malfunction of formula

Akshay Kumar in ‘Samrat Prithviraj’. (X)

The formula that worked so well for Akshay all those years has now come crashing down.

It is a well-known fact that the actor hops from one film set to another in a stipulated time. He likes having many releases in a year and method acting has never been his forte.

Akshay’s co-stars have often joked about it openly during movie promotions. Sure this strategy paid big dividends in the past, but now, it backfired with the actor becoming the butt of many jokes.

Certain jadedness came both in terms of script selection and also the actor’s attitude.

A good example of this is the movie Samrat Prithviraj (2022). It was clear while watching the film that the actor looked upon the project as just another film instead of getting into the skin of a very important historical character.

What he ought to have done was something like Hrithik Roshan in Jodha Akbar (2008).

The rumour has it that producer Aditya Chopra asked Akshay to grow a real moustache but Akshay refused to do it.

Even if you look at the movie Mission Raniganj (2023), there is no effort in getting into the headspace of Jaswanth Singh Gill — an engineer who risks his life getting the trapped miners out.

Even the Punjabi accent is more put on than anything else.

Latest failure

Akshay Kumar in ‘Bade Miyan Chote Miyan’. (X)

But the most shocking of all is the recent Ali Abbas Zafar’s Bade Miyan Chote Miyan (2024). In fact, the genre of Bade Miyan Chote Miyan fits perfectly on the radar of Akshay Kumar — a combination of action and comedy.

However, the Bollywood actor appears as a pale version of his Khiladi avatar.

In fact, Tiger Shroff was in much better form with some genuinely funny one-liners. At least he appeared to be enjoying himself, unlike Akshay, who was literally sleepwalking through the role.

This is a sad scenario because Akshay is a capable actor who has shown that he can deliver good performances.

It is high time that Akshay Kumar does some serious introspection both about the kind of films he is choosing and also his working pattern.

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