How Akshay Kumar battled the odds to emerge as a superstar

Akshay Kumar is on a roll once again. ‘Toilet – Ek Prem Katha’ is his fifth hit in a row. Apart from the Khans (Aamir, Salman, Shah Rukh), he is the only mainstream Bollywood actor who can truly be called a ‘superstar’.

These four Bollywood stars have been ruling the roost for the last 25 years despite possessing different personalities, having chosen varied movies and how they have gone about their business in the industry. A section of the industry believes that despite reeling off an array of hits in the last three decades, Akshay has not received the kind of encomiums that have been bestowed upon the Khans.

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So how does he stack up against the Khans? While there’s no denying that Akshay is a huge star and has sustained stardom for a long period, he has not given the highest grosser of the year even once (a feat the Khans have achieved multiple times). Also, his success ratio, the number of blockbusters and consistency are a notch below that of the Khans. Of the approximately 110 movies, 27 of his have been outright hits (including 2 blockbusters). On the contrary, Shah Rukh has delivered 27 outright hits (including 10 blockbusters) of the 60 movies he has starred in.

Salman Khan stands at 28 hits (including 13 blockbusters) having featured in about 75 movies as a leading actor. Aamir, who is painstakingly prudent in picking his movies, has done just 40 movies in his career spanning 29 years. His hit count is 18 (including 9 blockbusters). Also, Salman has delivered the biggest hit of the year for a record nine times. Aamir and SRK have achieved that feat seven and five times, respectively. But this feat has eluded Akshay till now. Despite that it is not to say that Akshay’s stardom isn’t stupendous. In fact, one of the major factors behind his longevity is that he chose to carve out a niche for himself rather than trying to compete with or emulate the Khans.

‘Khiladi Kumar’, over the years, has cultivated his own technique that which has stood him in good stead. After a sizzling start to the career — he churned out five hits in 1994 — came a devastating blow. Twenty of his movies tanked at the Box Office between 1995 and 1999. Trade experts instantly began writing his obituary, while critics dubbed him ‘a wooden chair’.

‘Jaanwar’ (1999) stemmed his horrendous run and did good business in the smaller centers. The period between 2000 and 2003 was the one of consolidation for him. He didn’t deliver any major hit during this period but films like ‘Aankhein’, ‘Ajnabee’, ‘Dhadkan’ and ‘Hera Pheri’ were moderate successes and kept him afloat.

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The biggest gain during this phase was that he took a mini break from action movies and began to experiment with other genres that cemented his reputation as an actor who could pull off diverse roles.

Another smart thing he did was to forge a team with filmmakers like Suneel Darshan, Vipul Shah and Priyadarshan, who would work with him on a regular basis. He knew he didn’t have the patronage of top-tier directors like Sooraj Barjatya, Sanjay Bhansali or Yash Chopra, so had to create his own coterie of young and talented filmmakers.

Akshay had a reasonably good run between 2004 and 2006, and became a saleable star with hits like ‘Mujhse Shaadi Karogi’, ‘Garam Masala’, and ‘Phir Hera Pheri’. Then came 2007 when all his four movies — ‘Namastey London’, ‘Hey Baby’, ‘Bhool Bhulaiya’, and ‘Welcome’ — minted gold at the ticket window.

It was the high point of his career and, for the first time he was being spoken of in the same breath as the Khans. ‘Singh is Kinng’ in 2008 also turned out to be a super-hit and reinforced his stature as a bankable star.

Then came another bleak period (2009-2011) when the shimmer of his success was dimmed by the tenebrosity of failure. During these three years, 10 of his movies, including the much hyped ‘Tees Maar Khan’, ‘Chandni Chowk To China’, and ‘Blue’, flopped. And the knives were out again. However, ‘Housefull 2’ and ‘Rowdy Rathore’ in 2012 accorded him much-needed respite, but in next three years (2013-2015), only ‘Holiday’ was a hit, while the rest of his films either bit the dust or just did average business.

Since 2016, there has been a marked shift in his approach. He has been focussing more on ‘content-driven’ movies that might not open to thunderous applause but would gather steam on merit alone. In the last couple of years, movies such as ‘Airlift’, ‘Rustom’, ‘Jolly LLB’ and ‘Toilet – Ek Prem Katha’ have worked wonders for him.

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Critics and the audience both shed their aversion and began to warm up to him. He also won the National Award for Best Actor this year for ‘Rustom’. Box Office rewards too followed. His name is now associated with ‘quality’ cinema which is in sharp contrast to his earlier panoply of potboilers. Failure of films like ‘Brothers’, ‘Boss’, ‘Singh is Bling’, et cetera made him realize that it is more beneficial to invest in ‘content-driven’ movies than in poorly conceived commercial cinema. Of course, he can still afford to belt out an entertainer like ‘Housefull’ in between to strike a balance.

Akshay has been very a diligent, disciplined, sincere and adaptable actor. Even during the troughs, he was never short of movie offers. That’s because he is punctual, avoids throwing tantrums, does not hassle producers, finishes movies on time (so that budgets don’t go overboard) and works hard. Producers of his movies seldom lose money even if a movie flops. No wonder, he takes great pride in calling himself a ‘producers’ actor’.

His knack of constantly reinventing himself has also stood him in good stead. Between 1995 and 1999, when his action movies started floundering, he began to toy with other genres and ‘mastered’ comedy. From ‘Hera Pheri’ to ‘Garam Masala’ to ‘Housefull’, he has delivered a slew of rib-ticklers. He romanced with élan in ‘Dhadkan’ and ‘Andaaz’, and even essayed a negative character in ‘Ajnabee’.

Other stars of the 90s, like Govinda, Sunny Deol and Sunil Shetty, did not manage to transform themselves and faded away at the turn of the 21st century.

Akshay might not possess the manic dedication of an Aamir, or SRK’s charisma or Salman’s swagger, but there’s no gainsaying that he’s a mini industry in himself.

While Salman and SRK belt out one or two films a year and Aamir has one movie every 2-3 years, Akshay Kumar averages about four films annually and this keeps the exhibitors happy.

A large number of people in the industry — technicians and junior artistes — get employment throughout the year because of his steady stream of releases. Since he does a high number of films every year, it is difficult to avoid a few barren spells. However, he has also experienced exhilarating peaks: 1994, 2007, 2012 and 2016 have been his best years when three or more of his raked movies set the cash registers ringing.

The adage ‘when it rains, it pours’ doesn’t fit anyone better than the ‘Khiladi Kumar’.