The 90s are also exactly the first 10 years of my life. Naturally, I associate the decade with a lot of innocence. When you are that young there is a kind of purity in your choices and intentions. You like or dislike certain things only because ‘you’ feel so. You can’t really explain why, but somehow you are firm and confident of your liking. The opinion of all and sundry don’t matter to you much. My love for Akshay Kumar of the 90s was one such childhood fascination that still holds.
Growing up in the Middle East, the TV was the major source of movies. Unlike now, when movies release in the cinema halls there even before they release in India, back then only major Hindi films used to release in Muscat(where I used to stay) and that too after a month or so. And like true NRIs my family watched only Rajshri or KJo kind of films in the theatres mostly featuring the Khans. So, I wasn’t a hardcore film buff from childhood but I was certainly fond of watching films with a special liking for Akshay. I still remember asking my mother whether Akshay Kumar was fond of cheese like me, courtesy the wildly popular ‘Tu Cheez Badi Hain Mast Mast’ from Mohra. But I don’t have any memory of watching Mohra as a child on TV. But one of the films that used to have repeated runs on TV was Main Khiladi Tu Anari (MKTA). Those were the days when wrestling was still called WWF and I had developed quite a liking for it. May be it is genetic how boys develop a liking for such high on adrenalin stuff right from a very young age. Anything that had considerable bit of raw action in it, i was game. And MKTA perfectly fit the bill. It had a grungy and macho hero like Akshay and some really thrilling action scenes involving some delectable hand to hand combat. It was my introduction to the world of Akshay Kumar and it instantly turned me into an Akshay fan.
What separated Akshay Kumar from the other heroes of that era was the swagger and the machismo. He was fit and trained in martial arts. He was an action hero in the truest sense, a rarity in Indian cinema indeed. Though he wasn’t a bad actor and could deliver his lines with some panache, it were the action scenes which were the major attraction of his films for me. Recently, while surfing through the hundreds of channels on TV we have nowadays (unlike the 90s), I managed to catch the film again and was transported back to those days when Akshay was the true and only king of Bollywood for me. What most appealed about the film to me now was the same that appealed in my childhood – the raw, gutsy and thrilling action scenes. Probably, having been exposed to WWF, the action scenes involving other actors of Bollywood didn’t much impress me even as a child. They just lacked the punch (pun intended 😉 ) that an Akshay Kumar fight scene had. But it was more the kicks than the punches of Akshay that had left me wide-eyed.
Sample the above scene from MKTA. Akshay Kumar plays the cop Karan Joglekar who is determined to find the killers of his older brother, who too was a cop, and avenge his death. As Karan is trying to track down the killers, he is asked to confront a movie producer who has kidnapped an actor to force her to act in his films. Now, knocking on the door doesn’t quite suit his style, so our man Karan kicks down the door to enter the producer’s office. And then begins an action sequence which will have a barrage of his popular kicks. ‘Kick-ass’ sequence, quite literally. Akshay, a black belt in Taekwondo, has also been to Bangkok and learnt Muay Thai. The martial arts training is quite visible in the scene as the tornado kicks are unleashed – the ones in which Akshay rotates a full 360 degrees to gain force for his attack. One of them is accurately planted on the producers cheek and, amusingly, even the tubelight in the office gets a taste of Karan Joglekar’s boots, courtesy a tornado kick.
Then the producer and his henchmen are at the receiving end of a number of fierce flying side kicks. In one instance he jumps over the bonnet of the car to land a flying kick on the producer. The most breathtaking being the one wherein he literally flies over the top of the car to give a brutal kick to one of the henchmen. Akshay totally mesmerizes you with his agility and combating abilities. If these kicks are not enough he even manages to show off a bit of his footballing skills by pulling off a bicycle kick to aim a ghamela at the producer who is trying to escape.
The striking aspect of the action scenes of the Akshay of the 90s is that they seemed so real. There didn’t seem to be any presence of a body double for Akshay. He did all the stunts himself. There presumably was no evidence of any rope (not that a 6-7 year old me was even aware of the term ‘rope’) or any other technique which can’t be imitated in real life. You were convinced that he could actually take on so many men at a time even on the streets, in real life. There was great pleasure in trying Akshay’s moves on the big, soft and springy bed we had. Me and my brother made sure the we got our value for money for the springy bed by mimicking Akshay’s and also our favourite WWF stars moves on it. They didn’t really have the ‘Don’t try this at home’ disclaimer back then. 😉
But my most favourite Akshay move was the deadly knee strike. It was always the final nail in the coffin for the bad guy. And Akshay always did it with lots of anger and aggression. He mostly leapt from a higher platform and landed his knee on the torso of the bad guy, decimating him. The move probably boils down from Muay Thai, the martial arts technique that Akshay learnt in Thailand. Muay Thai is a combat sport that uses the knees as one of the modes of attacking. A knee strike from Akshay always gave me a cinematic high and still does.
MKTA made me a Akshay Kumar fanboy and I started keeping a watch on other Akshay films that played on TV. I happened to catch Khiladi and though barring the canteen scene in the beginning there wasn’t much action it, I was hooked. Khiladi is probably the first suspense thriller I had managed to understand and enjoy. It made me even a greater fan of him. Then word was spread that Akshay Kumar will face off with the mighty Undertaker from WWF in one of the film from the Khiladi series. Now, Undertaker was one of the biggest stars of WWF back then (or he still might be, as I have stopped following it). And what lent him his popularity was the chokeslam. There was also a news in that Akshay’s back was broken during a fight sequence. I was no less a fan of Undertaker than I was of Akshay, and the prospect of seeing the face-off in a film had me all excited. There was no chance of my parents taking me to watch a Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi in the theatres, so I waited patiently for my chance to witness the two fighting on TV. But when it was finally aired on TV, I realized it was somebody else posing as the Undertaker in the film. But, I enjoyed the first fight tremendously. The Under’faker’ grabbing Akshay by his neck and saying ‘Mujh se pangaa?’’ is legendary.
Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi was filled with a number of action sequences the best of the lot being the the one in which Akshay and a big muscular white fella called Dang try to knock down each other by going full split on two adjacent tables. Now, I am skeptical of the originality of the choreography of this fight sequence by Akbar Bakshi as one is of most aspects of most action films made in India, but accolades must anyway be reserved for him for even attempting to design such an inventive scene with respect to Indian cinema. This would probably go down as one of the most intense and inventive action set pieces in Indian cinema. And there was nobody other than Akshay who had the ability to pull off the scene in such an effective manner.
The full split:
Akshay went on to act in a total of six Khiladi films in the 90s. The Akshay that we saw here and other films like Mohra and Elaan was a ‘bindhaas’ Akshay who never was too desperate to get into the A league and join the Khans. He seemed to revel in the roles he was getting and carried them off in great style and swagger and yet never seemed like a ‘wanna be’. The unbuttoned shirt with the chest hair coming out of it had become his trademark style. That the other stars chose not to display their body hair so as to not come across as unkempt didn’t bother him one bit. His fans loved him for this very rough and unkempt look of his. Also, the fact that he was a self made man and not a product of nepotism unlike almost all other heroes in the 90s got him a bit more respect from the public. He even famously celebrated this in the song ‘Hum Hain Seedhe Saadhe Akshay’.
But, it all started to slowly change with the onset of the noughties. The last few Khiladi films in the late 90s being major debacles, the Brand Akshay started waning. Though he managed to do a Dil Toh Pagal Hain here and a Sangharsh there, the late 90s certainly saw Akshay struggling in his professional career. Apart from Jaanwar that came out in late 1999, what majorly revived his career was the laugh riot Hera Pheri in 2000. In this remake of the Malayalam film Ramji Rao Speaking, Akshay was noticed for performance of the pickpocket Raju, though the film completely belonged to the brilliant Paresh Rawal. Post Hera Pheri, Akshay almost shed the skin of the 90s He slowly started finding his groove in comedy roles. Even whenever he played a action hero there was almost always a comic element to the role. He now began to star in a romantic film like Dhadkan or a serious one like Khakee. Quite noticeably, the chest hair came off. He started overshadowing the Khans in films like Mujhse Shaadi Karogi and also rubbed shoulders with the mighty Amitabh Bachchan in Waqt – A race against time. All these films slowly pushed Akshay into the A league. This was followed by the huge commercial success of films like Namastey London and Singh is King in 2007 and Akshay was recognised by all as a bankable star. The grungy action hero of the 90s was long gone. Akshay had by now adopted a suave look to suit his superstar image. He was considered capable enough to carry big budget films on his own shoulders. A worthy competitor to the pantheon of Khans.
However, post Namastey London, Akshay has seldom acted in films that have held the audience’s interest. Though there have been a few commercial successes, his films have mostly been quite awful. An absent plot, loud and distasteful humour and over the top action scenes have become a regular feature of his films. Though he does deserve kudos for the way he managed to bounce back strongly in the noughties, he hasn’t exactly managed to consolidate his hard earned superstar status post 2007. More often than not he is the best part of the films that generally leave a lot to be desired. The kid of the 90s in me is sorely missing the Akshay of that era. The intense fight scenes, the catchy dance numbers have all gone missing in his current films. There doesn’t seem to be much of a chance of having that bindhaas Akshay back.
However, his new release Baby does seem like a step in the right direction. Akshay has garnered praise for his portrayal of a strong and dedicated military man and the film too has had a good opening at the box office. Here’s hoping that he chooses to do more such films and not mindless entertainers that are monstrosities in the name of cinema.