Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgn: A 25-year old Bollywood rivalry, almost too subtle to notice
It is purely coincidental that two of the biggest names in Bollywood today made their debut in the same year – 1991 — and despite the twenty-five odd years they have been part of the industry, their stature has only grown to towering proportions. In an industry where actors are synonymous with ‘FMCG products’ and enjoy a very short shelf life, these two have stood the test of time. The stars in question are Ajay Devgn and Akshay Kumar, and this piece is not a paean to their success stories. Rather, it takes a look at their subtle rivalry over the years, which always got overshadowed by the more popular Khans. The stories of their rivalry have often gone unnoticed.
The two are on a collision course once again, and this time, they're both vying to acquire the rights to a story which made headlines in 1989. It was an incident that saw some 60-odd miners trapped in a coalmine in Raniganj in Bengal (then West Bengal). What followed next involved Herculean efforts on the part of the then Chief Engineer, Jaswant Singh Gill, who was instrumental in saving lives of most of the miners. Both Akshay and Ajay are currently locked in a tussle to bring this story alive on the big screen.
It sounds odd that despite been part of the industry for close to 25 years, they have worked together only three times thus far – in Suhaag, Insaan and Khakee. The operative word used here is ‘odd’, because the 90's were an era when a film featuring two leading stars was as common as a film featuring Amitabh Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor in the 70's.
The Raniganj coalmine tussle is only the latest. Not very long ago, the two stars were locked in a duel, yet again, over a piece of history. The bone of contention this time was the battle of Saragarhi – the forgotten battle that was fought between British Indian soldiers and Afghan tribesmen. The Battle of Saragarhi is an ode to the bravery of 21 Sikh soldiers who took on the might of 10,000 Afghan soldiers in 1897. Ajay announced a film on this subject as early as July 2016, by splashing full-sized posters in leading Mumbai newspapers. It was also the plot of the sequel to Son of Sardar. Come New Year, Akshay dampened the mood in Ajay Devgn’s camp when Karan Johar took to Twitter to announce the launch of a film with Akshay on the similar incident. It was a joint production to be helmed by Salman Khan and Karan Johar, but rumour has it that after Ajay sent an emotional message to Salman, he found it prudent to dissociate himself from the film.
Rajnikant’s much-awaited Robot 2.0, which features Akshay Kumar as an antagonist, had earmarked Diwali as its released date this year, and with Aamir Khan jumping in with his Secret Superstar, there was no room for a third party to bite into the Diwali weekend pie. Despite being aware of the reality, Ajay too threw down the gauntlet with Golmaal 4, making Diwali a crowded affair and almost certifying a dent in every film’s box office collection. (It was only few weeks back that the makers of Robot 2.0 postponed the release date to Jan 2018, owing to some pending GFX work).
When box office collections became a column on entertainment portals, things hastened up. During Diwali of 2009, Ajay’s All The Best was pitted against Akshay’s Blue for box office supremacy, though none managed to reach the barge pole. In 2010, the clash happened twice. Action Replayy and Golmaal 3 clashed during Diwali while Ajay’s Toonpur Ka Superhero locked horns with Akshay’s Tees Maar Khan in December.
It’s difficult to pin point the definite event that marked the beginning of this rivalry, but senior industry insiders recall that it all started during the making of Rajkumar Santoshi’s Khakee. It is believed that during the shooting of Khakee, Ajay Devgn had accused Akshay of trimming his role in the film, which also starred Amitabh Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. It is also said that it was Akshay Kumar who coaxed and persuaded filmmaker Vipul Shah to release his Action Replayy alongside Ajay Devgn’s Golmaal 3 during the festive season of Diwali. It was just a matter of time or rather a month when Ajay got even with Akshay. Ajay advanced the release of his home production Toonpur Ka Superhero and ensured that it clashed with Tees Maar Khan in December 2010.
At times, their rivalry has been so subtle that the media has missed noticing it. But it’s been there all this while. The beginning of 2011 also saw the release of Madhur Bhandarkar’s Dil Toh Baccha Hai Ji. Now, many might ask how does this film figure in their scheme of rivalry? The answer to this lies in the character of Emraan Hashmi. It is said that when Madhur was giving the narration of the film to Ajay and mentioned Emraan Hashmi's character as a skirt chaser, Ajay immediately suggested that the role should be modeled on Akshay Kumar’s life before marriage. It is alleged that Ajay had even mentioned to Madhur that since he had worked with Akshay in past, he can provide the entire lowdown on how he behaved in that phase. Now, it must be noted here that Emraan’s character in the film is called Abhay Suri and his friends affectionately call him Abbi in the film. Any resemblance to the name Akki is completely ruled out.
The battle to acquire the rights of the story of Ranigunj coalminers is one of the current instances. It only seems fair to conclude that this rivalry saga will continue in an under-handed manner as long as Ajay and Akshay, the original action heroes of Bollywood, remain in business.