by Asjad Nazir
There isn’t a more hardworking A-list film star in Bollywood than Akshay Kumar. He regularly delivers fans of Indian cinema an eclectic array of films and has been reaping the rewards with a series of blockbusters. Recent releases have included thought-provoking films that have combined solid entertainment with original storylines.
He will continue that trend with this week’s big Bollywood release Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, which revolves around a simple man who must build a toilet in his house to hold onto the strong-willed woman he loves. With 54 per cent of Indians not having a toilet, the comic satire shines a light on an important issue affecting a country of over 1.4 billion people. He took a break from shooting hockey drama Gold to meet up with Eastern Eye at a plush central London hotel to talk about Toilet: Ek Prem Katha and the important issues it covers.
You have been taking unique subjects in recent years, what has prompted that change?
(Smiles) I think I have earned enough money. Now I just want to do these kinds of films, which give me happiness. I just find these kinds of subjects like Toilet: Ek Prem Katha very good. When this film came to me, to be honest a lot of actors had refused it. They all knew about it and nobody wanted to be a part of it because of its title and what it deals with, but the truth is that the subject is based on reality. It is there in India where 54 per cent of the population don’t have toilets. I thought I should be a part of it and forced Neeraj Pandey, who had the subject, to give me the film. I told him I want to do this film.
You were really pushing yourself physically with action films before. Are you now pushing yourself emotionally with these challenging subjects you have been taking on?
(Laughs) At that time I could push myself because I was younger.
You are still fitter than all of us.
(Smiles) I am still doing the stunts. Its not like I have stopped doing these physically demanding films. In fact I am doing one war film, another revolving around a hockey team and have various other such challenging subjects coming up. So it’s not like I have changed track or anything. Age hasn’t been a guiding factor of what I do or stopped me from anything. I don’t feel I am pushing myself emotionally. I am just taking on each project individually and giving my best.
Your latest releases have also been teaching us lessons about history, social causes, religion and other things. Is that a conscious decision?
I consider myself very lucky to get these kinds of subjects, Asjad. I don’t go into the films with the aim of sitting down and teaching some kind of lesson. It has just so happened that these lessons have blended inside the subjects nicely. When I did, OMG: Oh My God, it spoke about religion. Like when they put oil and milk on God’s head and all of that just goes to waste. So it just spoke about some of the religious practices they do, but if people learned something from it, then great. This film Toilet speaks about the open defecation problem. Airlift speaks about history. So yes I do love these kinds of subjects because audiences will take something away with them after the film ends.
You have been on a remarkable recent run of blockbusters. Does that put pressure on you?
My pressure is only till Friday, Saturday and Sunday, which is the opening weekend of the film. Monday I am off and thinking about the next challenge. I am back on the next project working hard. Whether a movie doesn’t do well or is massively successful, I still go into a project working even harder.
You are the hardest working A-list Bollywood star. Whether does that drive and strong work ethic come from?
I think it stems from my father. I have seen him working very hard. My father was in the army and I have seen how dedicated he was. I am assuming that training and work ethic has somehow helped me in my life and career.
Do you have a favourite moment in Toilet: Ek Prem Katha?
There are so many and it’s difficult to choose just one. (Thinks) There are great lines throughout the movie drawn from reality. For example, I really like the dialogue when my character says, ‘biwi pass chahiye, toh ghar mein sandas chahiye’ (if you want your wife to remain close then have a toilet in the house close by). Nobody has used the word radhe radhe in a dialogue and we have used it really well. There is this one line where the father says, ‘jis ghar mein tulsi ke angan ho, us ghar mein sandas kaise hota hai’ (how can you have a toilet in a house where there is an idol of God). There are many real life incidents and lines like that, which have been collected together for the film.
The soundtrack has had a great response. What is your favourite song in the movie?
All the songs are great but there is a Holi song called Latth Maar that is my favourite and is one they haven’t shown in Indian cinema before where the woman beats up the husband on that day.
You have worked with some amazing leading ladies of Indian cinema. How does newcomer Bhumi Pednekar compare to them?
She is a very strong woman. That is illustrated by her taking a risk like this. With just her second film she is acting in Toilet, which talks about open defecation. She took on the challenge from day one. The first scene she had to shoot was to go into the fields, lift the sari, squat and pretend she is defecating openly. She was telling me “Akshay I felt so embarrassed” on my first day. You have to be very strong to do a scene like this. She took on the challenge of the movie wholeheartedly.
No leading lady has done that before.
Yes exactly. And she did it with full conviction. She is superb in this film and delivered a great performance. Audiences will love her and it was a pleasure working with such a dedicated actor.
You have always worked with a lot of newcomers, including co-stars and filmmakers. Does your approach change with them?
When you are working with newcomers it is your responsibility to make them comfortable because they come with a mindset that they will be working with an actor who has been in this industry for 26 years. You have to work with their mind and make them comfortable. You have to make sure any sense of awe surrounding you doesn’t come on their head. You just have to calm it down. But I have been lucky with the talented newcomers I have worked with. One of your greatest qualities is that you have remained grounded. You are still the same as when I interviewed you in 2004. Thank you very much for saying that Asjad. About being grounded, I think it is the upbringing that matters and not forgetting where you came from. That is the most important thing I feel.
You have lots of films coming up, how long will you carry on going at top speed?
I don’t know. There are so many good films that come your way. I feel I am a greedy actor. I am not greedy for money, but for roles that just excite me so much. I consider myself a very lucky man. I feel that God has been very kind. Like after this I am doing a film called Gold, which I am shooting for here in the UK. Then I am doing a film with Karan Johar on the battle of Saragarhi. Then after that there are more very interesting films that are lined up. Surprisingly my next year is also full.
You are helping redefine Indian cinema with these new subjects. You must be happy with the direction the industry is headed.
In the past many have refused to take a risk when it comes to their careers. They want to be constant in the subjects they do. So it’s not about redefining, it’s about taking those risks and trying to be different than others.
Which genre do you love acting in most?
It doesn’t matter for me. I am happy in any space. I never give myself an image. I want to be that actor who is remembered for not having any image and one who could transform into any role. It doesn’t matter to me whether it is an action film, drama, comedy or social satire. I am far away from any image and want to get further still. I don’t want to tag myself.
Why should we go to watch Toilet: Ek Prem Katha?
First of all it is an entertaining film. It also has a message. It has something real. The songs are very good and the dialogue is superb.
Toilet: Ek Prem Katha is in cinemas now