Akshay Kumar turned 51 on Sunday I find it hard to believe that his journey as an individual and an actor has taken him so far. I've known him for 20 years, and the hunger to improve with every film remains. When I first met Akshay he had just completed his first baby step towards being taken seriously as an actor. The film was Suneel Darshan's Jaanwar, where he played a father grieving for his adoptive son. Unknown to the world, in real life Akshay's father was dying.
So, I guess this was his first brutal and harsh encounter with method acting. Soon after, my dear friend Deepa Mehta (who is regrettably no more my dear friend) signed him to play the lead in Water, and Akshay couldn't stop enthusing over the character. Since he was required to speak in Sanskritized Hindi (the kind of language we hear in dubbed 'Hindi' versions of big Hollywood films) he began practising his dialogues on me every morning.
Ultimately, Water was made with another cast.
It was fun while it lasted. Akshay was fun in those days. Fun, and unguarded. At one point he was not sure whether he wanted to marry Twinkle Khanna or another actress whom he was dating simultaneously. A moment came, when he had to decide which one to marry. I remember he had decided he would make that decision on a flight back to Mumbai from Canada.
I remember he called in transit from an airport saying he had still not made up his mind. Some nail-biting, lip-chewing hours later, Akshay made his choice. And he chose well. His street-smart wisdom has held him in good stead, whether it is in his personal life or career decision, the marriage with Twinkle, has worked out so well not because they make the Perfect Couple but because they know each other's blemishes and blind spots and have worked their way around them.
God's chosen one? Probably. But there is more to Akshay's success than meets the eye. He is far more clever and sensible than most of his peers. And he isn't afraid of making mistakes. Films like Baby, Rustom and Airlift in 2015 and 2016 could have easily gone wrong in their creative calculations.
But Akshay stuck it out. He was especially brilliant in Raja Krishna Menon's Airlift where he conveyed the dilemma of an entrepreneur forced to think beyond self-interest during a time of crisis. Akshay should have got the National Award for Airlift. Instead, the jury headed by Akshay's friend, filmmaker Priyadarshan, awarded him for, ha ha, Rustom.
Imagine Shabana Azmi getting the National Award for Amar Akbar Anthony in the year of Arth. And you get the picture.
In his recent films, Akshay is not afraid to look his age. He makes telling use of his greying beard and receding hairline to project himself as man who has grown wise beyond the cosmetic veneer. His street wisdom serves him well. Even when crusading for social reform he remains a rogue who is converted into a reluctant hero. That's why calling him the new Manoj Kumar is doing disservice to Akshay Kumar. Akshay plays his cards too well to be just a paper-nationalist. He is a super-canny entrepreneur with a penchant for tapping the nation's hankering for heroes.
(Subhash K Jha is a film critic and movie expert)
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)