In his latest film, Akshay Kumar dons a buttercup yellow jacket and shakes his rump. This vision from the just-out Housefull Part 2 is symptomatic of all the god-awful things Kumar has been stuck doing for too long. Prancing and dancing. Swanning and mooning. Add a few more things if you like, but it won’t make me think any different. He is not doing anything he should be. Akshay is right now in a holding pattern, waiting to break free. Can this Kumar challenge, as he once did, the hegemony of the Khans and the Kapoors?
Will that make any difference to the price of petrol? It won’t. What it has done, this stasis on the part of the star and his handlers, is to deprive us of a performer who can actually do his job. There are those who laugh their heads off when “acting” and “Akshay” are placed in the same space. But there are all kinds of acting, and there will always be need for a lean, mean action hero, who doesn’t need elevators to add on the inches. Akshay’s arc shows growth. His voice is still unfortunate, but it’s now better controlled. A baritone he will never be, but a lighter, raspier voice has its uses. From only being able to throw his hands and feet about, he has managed to sit, be quiet, and be noticed.
His early Khiladi outings had a great deal of callowness. It helped, but only a little, that his co-star was a little callower. Curly mop-topped Saif Ali Khan was trying out his spurs, literally: remember those heels he wore? Akshay’s locks competed with Saif’s in length, and he delivered dialogue just the way heroes did back then: feet planted in front of the camera, head swiveling, veins standing out when emotional: “yeh dekho, tumne meri bhabhi ko vidhwa bana diya”, he tells leading lady Shilpa Shetty, who was then dusky, squeaky and possessed of her own nose.
But despite the cheese and the lashings of ham, the Khiladi films were hits. Akshay, with his height, brawn and willingness to learn on the job, pulled ahead, and kept surging via a Yashraj helping hand, fizzy drink adverts, and films that played to his strengths. He became the Khiladi Kumar and created his own little niche in a film industry which likes to place its bankable stars in a box, and who better to leap off tall buildings, deliver a roundhouse kick, and smile fatuously at a lady love?
There was a time when he looked invincible. A bunch of films which sharpened his guy-next-door image, Namaste London on, was a smart move. Place him in a village bumpkin role, and he could do it without letting any other shade show. He showed he could send himself up, do humour, both wry and dry, even if it was in flashes. His back story was attractive. His ‘humble’ Old Delhi roots (which he tried mining, without success, in Chandni Chowk To China), his stint in Bangkok where he famously earned a living tossing noodles when he was not learning the latest martial arts moves, his steady progress to the top, with a pit stop to marry the daughter of a famous Bollywood couple, so what if said couple had split. This was a journey made-to-order for a PR company and a star who needed the spin.
The slide started with the mega success of Singh Is Kinng, in which he put on a pagri to become a sardar. It catapulted him to the kind of place from where you can only see glass houses, and the stone-throwers are either invisible or people out to get you. The nice turn in Khakee (the cop with seriously grey shades and a curl of the lip is one of his best acts) was forgotten. A quiet performance which didn’t set the box office ablaze vs a broad, shout-out-loud bhangra in the shadow of the pyramids with Kat Kat doing the can can which got viewers stampeding? What was to choose?
Since then, it’s been a slide. Nothing he’s done recently — loveable scamp, good-natured shrew-tamer, chump who bumps-and-grinds and pratfalls and jumps through hoops, anything as long as the money comes in — has been his way out. He is now stuck in movies which he is only notionally fronting, where he has to share space with seven guys and three girls. And a virulently-coloured jacket.
His next outing seems to be a desperate bid to come back to the club in which the big boys fly solo. Rowdy Rathore’s first look promises us, once more, a ’70s masala template where the hero bashes 30 goons with a single fist. Can this be Akshay’s Dabangg? And once that is done and dusted, can he get back to playing something that will require a better mooch? Real men need a serious ‘tache.Akshay Kumar Articles Chandni Chowk To China Dabangg Housefull 2 Khakee Khiladi Namaste London Rowdy Rathore Saif Ali Khan Shilpa Shetty Singh Is Kinng