With this week's widely-acclaimed, taut Neeraj Pandey-directed thriller Baby, Akshay Kumar has delivered his 121st (or wait...is it 122nd?) Bollywood release.
The action star, who had a shaky start with an average-grosser called Saugandh, made his first big mark at the box-office in 1992 with Abbas-Mastan's musical murder mystery Khiladi. The term Khiladi stuck, and Kumar followed it up with a series of (mostly forgettable) potboilers that relied mainly on his karate kicks rather than his acting chops.
Hit music, sexy leading ladies and able support from the likes of Saif Ali Khan and Sunil Shetty made Akshay Kumar and his brand of action a consistent draw for the masses. At a time when the Khan trio was redefining box-office records, with one eye firmly placed on the NRI market, Akshay earned a space for himself in the hinterland's single screens.
The occasional Mohra, Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi and Main Khiladi Tu Anari made an all-India splash, but on the whole, Kumar's Casanova image and string of real-life romances with some of BTown's hottest divas attracted more newsprint than all his films put together.
The first glimpse of Akshay Kumar's now legendary comic timing was seen in an underrated David Dhawan flick called Mr And Mrs Khiladi (1997). Unfortunately its misleading title gave many people the perception that it was yet another mindless action fest. Further damage was done by a confused marketing campaign that focused more on a wrestling bout rather than its genuinely funny comic punches, and the film vanished from the theatres. Ironically, another David Dhawan film that released in that week (Deewana Mastana), featuring the same leading lady (Juhi Chawla) had a neat run at the box office, despite not being as funny as the former.
Around the same time, an impressive cameo in Yash Chopra's Dil To Pagal Hai, where he not only walked away with the best line in the climax, but even owned the film's most popular song, got everyone talking about the Khiladi's suave side.
A Growing Fan Base
Akshay's transition from the masses to the classes almost coincided with Bollywood's multiplex revolution - And in 2000 this change was complete with Priyadarshan's cult comedy Hera Pheri.
Considered a benchmark for Bollywood comedies, Hera Pheri ironically had a weak run in Kumar's traditional strongholds and instead worked exceptionally well at urban centres, where the multiplex culture was bringing in a new kind of audience. While Paresh Rawal was no doubt the scene stealer, Akshay's confident portrayal of a shrewd scamster with a heart of gold held the film together. Hera Pheri's success was followed by a delightfully nasty turn in Ajnabee where he played the bad guy with much élan. If Ajnabee was all black, Dhadkan was diametrically the opposite. And despite not having the author-backed role, Kumar stood tall among the trio as the modern-day-Ram in this emotional love triangle. In Garam Masala (a personal favourite), Akshay Kumar single-handedly navigated a wobbly screenplay solely on the strength of his magical comic timing.
By now Akshay Kumar had firmly made an entry into the A-list. While his contemporaries were slowing down and focusing on one or two films at a time, he carried on with at least four releases a year. Not all were hits, but the final tally always had more successes than flops. Akshay neatly balanced action, romance and comedy and created his own genre of crowd-pleasing entertainers. In films like Khakee, Waqt: A Race Against Time and Mujhse Shaadi Karogi, he comfortably walked away with the best moments despite the presence of superstars.
From Success to Superstardom
The mega turning point came in 2007. Five back-to-back hits - Namastey London, Heyy Babyy, Bhool Bhulaiyaa, Welcome and Om Shanti Om (yes OSO too; Akki made the second half his own with one unforgettable scene) - firmly cemented his status as one of Bollywood's superstars. These films not only raked in the moolah at home but rocked in overseas markets too.
His 2008 comedy Singh is Kinng set opening records when it released, and was declared a hit in its first weekend. Singh Is Kinng was followed by a rude shock called Chandni Chowk To China, but by now Akshay had become too big to be affected by one or two flops.
A sharp businessman, Akshay Kumar aggressively moved towards the co-production model and his name in the credits was enough to attract huge sums from distributors. Mostly banking on action-comedies, he was clearly focused on rewards rather than awards. But this 'safe' formula of a series of expensive-looking gags began showing signs of fatigue in 2010, when movies like Thank You, Tees Maar Khan and De Dana Dan did not strike as big as expected.
The Housefull series and Desi Boyz tempered those disappointments, but Kumar found true blockbuster success by going back to the basics in Prabhu Deva's Rowdy Rathore. An unapologetic action-fest that was straight out of the late 80s, the film benefited from the Dabangg wave and played on Kumar's strengths.
As actor-producer, Kumar sprung a big surprise with the immensely successful OMG: Oh My God, where he confidently played second fiddle to an in-form Paresh Rawal. While the review-proof commercial potboilers kept arriving every few months, Akshay Kumar made all his critics stand up and take notice of his acting abilities with Neeraj Pandey's Special 26. Leading a team of conmen in the film, Akshay's portrayal shone even in the presence of an award-winning ensemble. Last year, Vipul Shah's thriller Holiday: A Soldier Is Never Off Duty was the right mix of content and commerce, and won him back a lot of the fan following that had got increasingly disillusioned with his choice of films. Even an assured special appearance in The Shaukeens, where he took digs at his own stardom, became the talking point on social media and got this otherwise mediocre film an extra star in most reviews.
And now with Neeraj Pandey's Baby, Akshay Kumar is garnering praise from across the board, with some sections already whispering about a possible National Award.
At 47, Kumar is kicking faster than ever before and the disciplined star (his early morning meetings are legendary in the industry) is at his fittest best. Having jumped off buildings and stood on planes at a time when cables and VFX were not around, the production facilities at his disposal today are only a value-add for the Khiladi Kumar. Akshay has often said that he prefers to focus on profit over weekend numbers, and his absence from the 200/300 crore club does not give him sleepless nights. The consolidated earnings of all his releases, year after year, make Akshay Kumar one of the most bankable superstars of our country.
In no mood to slow down, Akshay Kumar's upcoming slate of films include Karan Johar's gritty drama Brothers (in which he plays a boxer), action extravaganzas like Main Gabbar and Airlift, and a Prabhu Deva comedy called Singh Is Bling.
While entertainment remains the deciding factor in his choice of films, Baby signals the start of a new innings for Kumar in which the pay check does not swallow passion.
It's been over two decades since he wowed us with a flying kick on the lanes of Ballard Estate in Abbas-Mastan's Khel Khel Mein remake, but for this Khiladi the game has only just begun.