Kumar is king
Bollywood star Akshay Kumar discusses Singh Is King and his Canadian connection
For Akshay Kumar’s fans, the wait was worth it. While dancers in traditional Punjabi gear grooving to the dhol (drum) kept spirits up in the pouring rain, fans got their cellphone cameras ready under a huddle of umbrellas. Many had lined up for hours outside Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall to catch a glimpse of the Bollywood star at the gala screening of his latest movie, Singh Is Kinng, at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Although Akshay Kumar has played roles that require some gravitas, it’s his nonsensical, masala-for-the-masses movies that have made him popular.
Gursharandeep Gill was sadly without an umbrella. Holding a neon-green sign with photos of Kumar duct-taped to wooden sticks, she lamented her disintegrating artwork. "His birthday is Sept. 9 and I wanted to wish him [happy birthday]," said the 15-year-old high school student, craning her neck to check all the luxury cars passing by. "He’s overall a really good actor, and I really like his community involvement. I recently read he’s going to [build] schools in a village in India, [the location] for his movie Namastey London."
The screams and drumming reached a crescendo when Kumar arrived and reached out over the barrier. Men and women of all ages — some carrying little children — swarmed around him.
"Yesterday, I shook hands with Brad Pitt, and today I [got] a chance to shake hands with Akshay Kumar – that made my day," exclaimed fan Neethan Arumugam afterwards. "He’s different from other Bollywood stars. I went to his [July concert] The Unforgettable Show. He shared his personal story, how he [brought] his father to Toronto for cancer research, and he talked about people in Toronto. That really touched me."
While the 41-year-old Kumar is currently known as "Bollywood’s King," his ascent from newcomer to one of the industry’s most bankable stars has taken almost 20 years. Singh Is Kinng is Bollywood’s most successful box-office hit in recent times. Although released six weeks ago, the film continues to play to packed theatres in India, and is also drawing large numbers in Indian communities in the U.K. and North America. Industry watchers are comparing Kumar with Bollywood superstars like Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan, who are also referred to as "Shahenshah" or "Badshah" – more variations on royal titles.
When he spoke at the TIFF gala for Singh Is Kinng, Kumar eschewed hyperbole. "Good things come to those who wait," he said, after Toronto film festival co-director Cameron Bailey introduced Singh Is Kinng as part of the festival’s Mumbai Matinee series. "I have been coming to Cameron for three years, and for three years he has rejected me. Now I am finally able to say, ‘Thank you, Mr. Cameron.’"
Kumar cautioned that Singh Is Kinng is "a light-hearted movie," and asked the audience "please don’t think too much — just enjoy and laugh." A typical Bollywood action-comedy, Singh Is Kinng follows the adventures of a village bumpkin named Happy Singh (Kumar) who travels to Australia, via Egypt, and accidentally becomes the head of a mafia outfit.
"I didn’t know that Singh Is Kinng would be the film [to bring me here]," Kumar told me afterwards. "[But] who wouldn’t want to go to festivals, awards nights? It’s a great opportunity. And I am very sensitive towards Toronto. It’s great to be here."
At the gala, Kumar was dressed in a fitted, charcoal grey Etro suit paired with a pristine white shirt that accentuated his tall and lean frame. Clean shaven save for a fashionable patch of grey stubble on his chin, there was a slight hint of jet lag in his eyes — not surprising given he had flown in that morning from Bangkok to attend the presentation.
Although Kumar has played roles that require some gravitas, it’s his nonsensical, masala-for-the-masses movies that have made him popular. Other Bollywood stars rely on pedigree or an image, but not Kumar. To me, the best encapsulation of his allure came from a sociologist in Outlook India magazine, who said, "There’s no tension or desperation in [Kumar’s] persona; there’s a cosmopolitan touch even when he’s playing a rustic. He is intelligent and street-sharp, but not an intellectual, fun but not a joker, hero but not heroic, strong but not about machismo. He’s like a pack of assorted biscuits, a sum of many parts."
An actor purely by chance, Kumar trained in the martial arts before a modelling gig opened the door to Bollywood. There was no meteoric rise to the top, though; with more than 80 films to his credit, his success is clearly the result of an amazing work ethic. Kumar had been cast in Deepa Mehta’s Water (alongside Indian art-house veterans Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das) before the film shoot in India got derailed by protests. (The movie was eventually shot in Sri Lanka with an entirely different cast.)
The Canadian connection goes deeper than that, however. When Kumar’s father was dying from prostate cancer, Kumar brought him to Toronto’s Trillium hospital.
"The kind of response that doctors gave him, I was very happy," says Kumar. "I couldn’t find a cure for him, but I was very happy with the doctors. That’s why I did a lot of things for Trillium; I collected around $1.5 million for them. I was talking to my wife, and I said, ‘If we ever go away from Bombay, I would like to settle down in Canada, in Toronto.’"
Kumar’s current project, Chandni Chowk to China, is one of his most personal. It’s inspired by his own journey from the winding, dilapidated streets of one of New Delhi’s oldest neighbourhoods to his swank digs in Mumbai. Kumar is also working on Kambakkht Ishq, a romantic comedy slated to feature cameos by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Denise Richards, as well as Nagesh Kukunoor‘s Eight by Ten, a drama set in Calgary. While commercial movies are his bread and butter, Kumar says he won’t ignore independent cinema.
"If I get a proper role, I would love to do it," he said. "I was going to do Water, but some things happened and I couldn’t do it. Eight by Ten is on those terms. It’s going to be India’s first psychological thriller."
Aparita Bhandari is a writer and broadcaster based in Toronto.