How Akshay Kumar went from being Bollywood's 'khiladi' to its go-to 'common man'
Sometime in the latter half of the '90s, I recollect watching Bollywood's remake of Sabrina — Yeh Dillagi — along with my older sister and a cousin. Parental supervision meant that the channel was changed when the song 'Hoton Pe Bas Tera Naam Hai' came on, but apart from that minor blip, we quite enjoyed the film. My sister, in particular, was very smitten with Akshay Kumar's character, modelled on Humphrey Bogart (or Harrison Ford, depending on which version of Sabrina the Yeh Dillagi makers were inspired by).
Yeh Dillagi was a turning point of sorts in Akshay Kumar's filmography — or at least so it seemed to someone who watched a fair bit of what '90s Bollywood had to offer. Akshay wasn't 'Khiladi' Kumar in this film; instead, he played a suaver, urbane and more sensitive character than he had portrayed before. This is not to say that Akshay hadn't done romantic roles — only that he had shed his daredevil, quick-talking, quick-punching, swashbuckling ways for something more nuanced.
It got him a new set of fans (like my sister), and it gave him new kinds of roles to try his hand at as well.
If you look over Kumar's filmography, the '90s (when he started out) right up to the year 2000, marks a very important period. In terms of box office success, there were perhaps more misses than there were hits and he definitely hadn't earned the 'most bankable star' tag that dates to more recent years. But that decade was crucial, because it was in those years that Kumar tried out pretty much every character that he later honed into successful tropes.
Action star, check.
Buddy adventure, check.
Romantic lead, check.
Desh bhakt, check.
It was over the '90s that Akshay crafted some of his most successful onscreen partnerships, with actors like Suniel Shetty, Saif Ali Khan and Ajay Devgn. These partnerships — especially the ones with Saif and Shetty — were perfect as a showcase for Kumar's talents. With Saif as the more metrosexual of the pair, Kumar could show off his 'ruf and tuf' brand of masculinity in films like Main Khiladi Tu Anari, and opposite Suniel's glummer persona, Kumar's wit shone.
The '90s included several of Kumar's memorable performances: Khiladi, fun capers like Waqt Hamara Hai, Main Khiladi Tu Anari, Yeh Dillagi and even the Dil To Pagal Hai cameo. It was at the very end of the decade, however, that Kumar did what could be considered two of his best roles: the first being 1999's Sangharsh (a performance that arguably remains unmatched in the rest of the actor's filmography) and the second, 2000's Hera Pheri.
Hera Pheri saw Akshay team up with his old foil, Suniel Shetty. It also had him work with someone who would become a frequent collaborator — the director Priyadarshan. Kumar was an undoubted action star, but he had displayed a talent for comedy too, mostly in his 'buddy adventure' films. Priyadarshan took his lead actor's comic timing, stripped it of its usual swagger and machismo, and presented it in a way that suited the everyman nature of the original Malayalam film (Ramji Rao Speaking) on which Hera Pheri was based.
It's worth noting that elements of Hera Pheri's plot — men out to make a quick buck by faking a kidnapping — had been seen in Akshay's previous films. But the treatment of Hera Pheri was different from what Kumar's audience had been used to. From the 'hero', Akshay became the 'common man'. The film was a success and proved to be a gamechanger for its star. A business savvy Akshay replicated the winning formula across several films (many of them directed by Priyadarshan). Khatta Meetha in 2010 actually had him play a character inspired by RK Laxman's 'Common Man' cartoon — an indication, if one was needed, of how the star was positioning himself.
It was only when he felt the common man formula was wrung dry that Akshay began to mine another vein — that of the patriotic star. The origins of this trope too could be traced back to his first decade in films, when Akshay had played the dedicated soldier (Sainik) or policeman on a mission. He fine-tuned it over the years, and 2016's Rustom and Airlift have marked the high points (so far) of that particular trend for the actor.
2017, however, has seen him return to the common man trope. He's playing it in no fewer than three films — Jolly LLB 2, which released earlier this year and earned over Rs 116 crore; Padman (a biopic of menstrual hygiene champion Arunachalam Muruganantham, which is scheduled for an April 2018 release), and Toilet: Ek Prem Katha.
These films are interesting because Akshay has merged an 'everyman' avatar with elements of his 'patriotic star' persona, and is presented as an evangelist for social reform. (Side note: The posters for Jolly LLB 2 and Padman both incidentally have similar imagery — Kumar on a two-wheeler, with a tiffin by the handlebar.)
It's a role that suits Kumar, who can perhaps play on the public perception that he's eternally positioned (by the press) below the Khan triumvirate on the Bollywood star stepladder, despite his consistent box office success and considerable pull. As we've written before, his off screen image — campaigns for soldiers, speaking out against the Bengaluru molestation etc — makes him seem far more accessible and relatable than any of his other A-list contemporaries. In his personal life too, Kumar seems to have made a conscious effort to steer clear of the Casanova image of his younger days; the actor now comes across as a dedicated family man.
Toilet: Ek Prem Katha and Padman are brave — and well thought out — choices for Kumar. Akshay (who, like Shah Rukh Khan, started off as the quintessential Bollywood outsider) will be betting that this combination of previously successful tropes will work in his favour once again. And who knows? Just like with Yeh Dillagi, Toilet and Padman may also prove to be experimental enough for Akshay Kumar to extend his appeal to a whole new set of fans.