Akshaye Khanna's reticence has kept him on Hindi cinema's fringes, but he's back with MOM
Akshaye Khanna tends to use the word artiste a lot, and not just for himself. Do note however – given the oft chance you may bump into him somewhere and miraculously manage to strike up conversation – that it’s unlikely he’ll indulge you in a stirring dialogue on his acting process. Then again, he could. Carpe diem!
Khanna’s unstudied oddity is a refreshing change of pace from 25-year old superstars who play cutesy games with bloggers and bring their A-game everywhere. Despite his recent move into a more media-friendly space, he isn’t someone who’s embraced the Age of Instagram with gusto. You’re going to think twice before approaching this 42-year old with a “I’ve heard you’re a prankster on sets?” hoping to incite giggles and intimate disclosure via a 20 sec video. But rest assured, he won’t bite either. Or he could.
Where social niceties fail, inborn talent stays afloat. Nobody can dispute his effortless charisma and nuance in front of the camera. That said, Dil Chahta Hai and Gandhi, My Father remain twin rarities in a career of OTT films such as Aa Ab Laut Chalein, Taal, Mere Baap Pehle Aap, Hulchul and No Problem. The words ‘underutilized’ and ‘underrated’ always pop in discussions on him. To his credit, Khanna’s suitably grounded. “I don’t know if I could have done that role,” he admits in a heartbeat on being asked if he could have channeled Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s spot-on Daryaganj detective in their latest release, Mom.
Despite serial break-taking, Khanna has his contemporary cinema game on point. He’s characteristically low-key, crediting the entire package of Mom for the positive responses he’s been getting via calls and WhatsApp. “The reactions are genuine and that doesn’t happen unless a film has moved you”, he reasons.
He’s also bullish on first-time director Ravi Udyawar, clearly relieved and instantly gabbier when the spotlight shifts off him. “Ravi is a highly intelligent person. He’s an artist, illustrator - a gold medalist from the JJ School of Arts - which is apparent when you see his work. He’s someone who creates beauty, and has made such a layered film with plenty of subtext.”
Of his own approach, he admits to being very instinctive, offering spontaneous reactions to what is given to him on paper. “I don’t think much,” he shrugs aside visions of prolonged head-butting with directors on or off sets. “Of course, there are differences of opinions, but once you’ve agreed to be a part of a filmmaker’s vision, his word is the last word on set. You have to accept his way.” Then he adds, somewhat conspiratorially, “It’s always been my experience that when you’re working with someone very good, even if you don’t agree with a particular scene while shooting it, it fits together in the larger picture that he’s seeing.”
For an actor who has worked with old school Bollywood stalwarts like Subhash Ghai, JP Dutta and Priyadarshan, Khanna intends to cruise into millennium storytelling and slicker filmmakers, without much ado. “You have to adapt a little. My approach changes, I don’t change.”
The thrill of reality
I prod him on his attachment – or lack of – to vanity in approaching roles, referring to the stylish edge he brought to crime branch inspector Mathew Francis, even without the signature lop-sided smirk that had propelled Humraaz and Race to super hit status. He seems a smidgen annoyed at the suggestion that he chases cool cop roles, even if in a realistic setting. It doesn’t help his case that first-look posters of his next release, the remake of 1969 psychological thriller Ittefaq, show him in a stern mustachioed avatar and - quoting a blogger fan - ‘ready to ready to interrogate the s**t out of someone’. “If you read the script of Mom, he’s not written as a stylish character. It’s not something that’s up to me. It’s nice to play stylized characters, but it’s not a must.”
Further damaging said case, he declares that his favourite genre of cinema is the spy thriller. “We have these amazing agencies like RAW. There must be thousands of stories out there waiting to be told.” I throw in a few recent titles. “Baby was nice, but there has to be much more,” he presses on passionately. Not that cinema is on his personal watch list anymore. He mulls over the topic sincerely but can’t come up with a film that’s stayed with him– apart from Clint Eastwood’s Sully – over the past five years. “The writing on television is far superior these days; there’s a longer engagement there,” he brightens up at the prospect, referring to cult series like Homeland and 24. Has he seen Orange is the New Black? “No, is it good?” he queries with the curiosity of a newly minted telly nerd.
His guilty pleasure is unexpected, the American reality television series, Shark Tank, rife with aggressive entrepreneurs and snarky judges. If you pictured him immersed in more soulful pursuits a la Dil Chahta Hai’s shy Sid, prepare for a leaner, meaner machine. Or not.