For those who question his choice of masala movies, Akshay Kumar has a Special treat in store.

Getting Akshay Kumar to play a rather inscrutable con-man was perhaps the best of Neeraj Pandey’s many good moves in Special 26. It’s such a pleasure to see this awfully under-utilised and often over-utilised actor in the hands of a director who has tapped his talent and personality so cleverly. It’s a terrific example of what perfect casting can do in a cracker of a movie. (Special 26 has its flaws and loopholes, but is a clever delight for the most part; please see it if you can.)

It’s easy to see why Pandey zeroed in on Akshay: here’s one actor who can charm anyone without trying too hard, is easy-going, makes you feel instantly comfortable, and is a perfect gentleman — but gives very, very little away. You could talk to Akshay for hours without getting anything remotely scandalous/ controversial/ politically incorrect or, heck, even interesting at times. When he decides to, he can be supremely bland.

But, somehow, never boring to talk to. Probably because you know this is the carefully maintained posture of a very intelligent, street-smart man who doesn’t care to exhibit his smartness. So, as a journalist, interviewing Akshay is a little game that’s played out — he’s determined to talk to you without really talking to you; you’re trying to get him to lower his guard somewhere, somehow… trying to get at least one statement that will make your story, while he resists in good humour all through.

All of which shows why he carries off the role of Ajay Singh aka Ajju in Special 26 so effortlessly. And why that nickname — just in case you weren’t aware of this bit of star trivia, Akshay is called Akki by his friends. Also, he can pick pockets very smoothly indeed — he will even show off his nimble fingers if he’s comfortable enough with you.

Few people can get the better of Akshay on the street, in interviews or rarefied circles. He’s one super-cool winner who’s sitting grandly on a gilded throne that he’s worked very hard for. And he doesn’t really care what anyone outside his friends and family thinks of him (though he wouldn’t put it as impolitely as that, of course). Inside his circle, however, he’s incredibly loyal and dependable, as many a friend will testify.

He’s ultra professional on the sets as well. This means that he will complete a film even if it’s been delayed or stuck for years, and even if he knows it’s going to do zilch at the b-o. But it also means that if he hasn’t been paid his dues, he might report to work, arrive on the sets but refuse to emerge from his vanity van if that cheque hasn’t been encashed. Akshay Kumar is one tough guy.

So the question so many people are asking — Why doesn’t Akshay work in better movies instead of those mind-numbing, ear-splitting masala packages that he is so identified with now? — is obviated when you understand how his professional strategy works. And how the industry works. It’s wonderfully idealistic but idiotically naïve, even hypocritical, to ask this question of Akshay or any other actor.

All of us do some things for money, and some things to fulfil a dearly-held passion or love, and the former usually pays for the latter. Most of us aim for a better lifestyle — a desire calibrated differently for each of us, but one that is very much there. But for some reason, we expect directors, actors, writers and other creative professionals to grandly turn their eyes away from the moolah and work without a financial care.

The galling irony is that it is we, the audience, who most often push these creative spirits into compromising corners. I am invariably accosted by ardent film buffs who demand of me in passionate tones: “Why does Bollywood make such mindless movies?”

“Give me an example,” is my opening gambit.

The answer is almost always, “Rowdy Rathore/ Dabangg 2/ Son of Sardaar/ Housefull 2/ whichever is the current offender running at the time.”

Next question: “Did you see it?”

Predictable answer: “Yes… and I wanted to walk out half-way through it!”

And then I ask the question that should be staring them in the face: “Why did you go to see this movie at all? Why are you helping boost its box-office collection when you’ve read the reviews and you pretty much know what you’re going to get?”

The answer to that is usually (trust me, I’ve had this conversation more times than I can remember): “Oh, it was a weekend and we were in the mood for a movie.”

Amazing, isn’t it? We don’t care to maintain any standards in the kind of movies we watch, but we expect those who make them to. Then we grudge them the Rs 100-200 crore they make — money that is willingly shelled out by the audience (which includes you, you, and you).

The solution is, very simply, not to see such movies, just as few of us would buy a book we suspected we wouldn’t like. And then market dynamics would begin to tell, just as they do in the other direction, when a movie like, say, English Vinglish does good business.

I personally think many of the movies I watch are unbearably painful, but I have to do so as a professional compulsion and hazard, and I am as disgusted as anyone else because I buy my own tickets most of the time. If I didn’t have to catch them as part of my job, I definitely wouldn’t.

But I wouldn’t stand in judgment over an actor’s or director’s reasons for making them. I’m not sure I could withstand the temptation of a hundred crores.

(This article was published on February 14, 2013)
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