Sunday, October 16, 2016

The year of Akshay Kumar

If one were laying bets on which of the 15 August weekend releases would be the bigger hit, smart money would have been on the Rs 100 crore epic with the famous director and composer, not the one about the 1959 court case. And yet, by the time the weekend was over, it was clear that Rustom, starring Akshay Kumar, was easily outperforming Mohenjo Daro, starring Hrithik Roshan.

It’s kind of surprising Rustom was a hit at all. The film looked like it had been shot on a studio back lot. The soundtrack was unmemorable, the performances wildly variable, the direction competent at best (and, often, not even that). Estimates put its budget at half of Mohenjo Daro’s. But there’s one thing Rustom had that Mohenjo Daro didn’t: a star on the upswing. It opened big, and ended up crossing the 100 crore-mark in nine days.

Rustom wasn’t the only Kumar film to breach this barrier at the box office in 2016. In fact, the three films in which he’s starred this year—Airlift, Housefull 3 and Rustom—have each made over 100 crore. This is a pretty remarkable achievement, especially when you consider that none of the three belong to the genre that Kumar’s most commonly associated with: the action film. Sure, Housefull 3 is as mainstream as Bollywood comedy gets, but Airlift (based on the 1990 evacuation of Indians from Kuwait) and Rustom (a thinly veiled account of the 1959 Nanavati scandal) were, by Kumar’s standards, risky ventures, made by lesser-known directors, with the actor carrying the weight of the production.

The highest grosser so far this year is the Salman Khan-starrer Sultan. Numbers two, three and four are Airlift, Rustom and Housefull 3, followed by the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Fan. There are a couple of months to go, but we’re calling it now: 2016 is the year of Akshay Kumar.

A hundred crore at the box office isn’t the UFO sighting it used to be, but it still takes some doing. Sleeper hits (like Sairat) apart, the only way to achieve these numbers is to have a star who’ll guarantee a huge opening. After the three Khans, Kumar has become the actor whose films are most likely to open big. What’s even more impressive is that the Khans work with the top directors, have co-stars who are box office draws in their own right. Kumar, very often, is the lone draw in the films he’s in, taking fluff like Singh is Bliing and pulpy nonsense like Gabbar is Back to the bank.

Kumar’s bread and butter has always been the action comedy. He’s the genre’s most watchable star: easier on the eyes than Salman and with a lighter comic touch than Ajay Devgn. But Kumar has also been adding subtler shades to his acting of late. In Brothers last year, he was moving as the grizzled fighter who enters a MMA tournament to be able to pay his daughter’s medical bills. And this year, he did his most sustained bit of acting—no action, no comedy—in Airlift, his naturally relaxed speech patterns a good fit with his character’s considered decisiveness. He also flirted with greyness in Rustom, before the film gave up and turned him into a patriot.

Yet, of all his onscreen appearances this year, it’s his cameo in Dishoom that showed how comfortable Kumar is in his own skin. He turns up 30 minutes into Rohit Shetty’s film, sporting a kilt and a man bun and hitting on John Abraham and Varun Dhawan. It’s quite something to see a big star—an action star, no less—camp it up in a Hindi film (usually, this role would go to a comedian). In an interview to DNA, Kumar said he’d had no qualms about how the scene might affect his image. “I’m fully aware I’ve been a gay icon in India for many years now,” he said. “If I can be loved by the gay fraternity, why shouldn’t I portray one in good faith for all their love and support over the years?”

It’s difficult to imagine a statement like this coming from another actor of Kumar’s generation (it’s easier to imagine Ranbir Kapoor or Ranveer Singh saying it). It’s even more fascinating when you consider that this example of uncluttered thinking comes from an actor whose roles of late have tended towards overt nationalism. Add to this his increased willingness to act, rather than fight, his way out of a scene, and it seems fair to suggest that Kumar’s career will be one to watch with great interest over the next couple of years.

This piece appeared in Mint.

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