He has three decades and 124 movies under his belt, but one look at the last year of Akshay Kumar’s resume could very well confirm that — amid the steady annual stream of newcomers struggling to find their footing in Hindi cinema — it’s the 50-year-old veteran actor who’s emerging as Bollywood’s biggest revelation.
“This is definitely one of the most exciting periods of my career,” Kumar told IndieWire in a recent interview. It’s a fitting assessment, given that trailer views for his latest feature, Shree Narayan Singh’s “Toilet — Ek Prem Katha” (“Toilet — A Love Story”), crossed the 16-million mark in just four days. The film is inspired by the true story of a villager who, when his new wife (played by Bhumi Pednekar) left him after discovering he had no toilet in his home, made it his mission to build one, defying age-old traditions which have forced women, particularly in rural India, to threaten both their health and safety through the practice of open defecation.
The title, though certainly cause for a double take, nonetheless perfectly encapsulates the reason Kumar is now enjoying a second wind as an actor, and more respect than ever from both filmmakers and audiences: his newfound knack for choosing films that deliver difficult-to-swallow messages with much-needed lightness, without diluting the gravity of the issue at hand.
Despite his lengthy run as a leading man in Bollywood, this unprecedented credibility been a long time coming for the former chef, who stumbled into the movies by way of a brief modeling stint at the age of 20. It wasn’t long before his martial arts background helped to launch him into a series of high-energy, baddie-bashing roles, most notable of which were as police officers or con men in the immensely popular, seven-film “Khiladi” (loosely translated as a sharp, athletic player) franchise through the ’90s.
But while the death-defying stunts (think leaping off 45-story buildings, or hanging from a helicopter speeding through traffic) were impressive, the stories felt repetitive, and the action hero image became weighty. Kumar spent much of the early aughts exploring his darker side, comic timing, and dramatic chops in a slew of decently-received thrillers, capers, and romances. The work was diverse enough — but not entirely fulfilling for Kumar, who sought to provide something beyond merely surface-level entertainment value.
“I’d dabbled in more serious cinema a few times previously, and it was never really accepted by the audience,” Kumar said. “But I had just made so many films by that point. I felt it was time to not only reinvent myself, but to also make a difference in my country.”
Fueled by what he described as “an inability to forgive myself if I let my fear of failure overtake my desire to do better,” Kumar went big with 2012’s “OMG: Oh My God,” taking on none other than the role of God. The film, which questioned idol worship in Hinduism and satirically challenged the deity-devotee relationship, was a bold offering to a country so rooted in religion. But this time, Kumar’s gamble paid off, as the film was a commercial success and earned him several award nominations.
He went on to spotlight real-life events in 2016’s hugely appreciated “Airlift,” playing the Indian patriot at heart of the massive human evacuation effort during the 1990 Invasion of Kuwait. Later in the year, his portrayal in “Rustom” of naval officer KM Nanavati, whose murder trial in 1959 effectively transformed judicial process in India, earned him the National Award, largely perceived by the industry and the country as the ultimate accolade. He successfully took on the legal system again as an underdog lawyer in “Jolly LLB 2” earlier this year.
Finally, Kumar has found his calling — and ironically, it seems that the more chances he takes now, the more audiences love him, proving their own shifting preferences for more meaningful content.
“Times are changing and so are people’s tastes in films, ethics, and equality,” he said. “I feel they’re much hungrier now for movies that give them a reason to sit up and pay attention, something to learn from.”
“Toilet” may be the most socially taboo, sensitive topic he’s chosen to tackle yet, with its unflinching critique on long-held values, the state of India’s sanitation, and its effects on women. Kumar appears especially passionate about the issue. “It makes my blood boil that even in the 21st century, mothers, wives, and sisters in our country are quietly and shamefully living in conditions that should be inexcusable,” he said. “I hope the film serves as a reminder that changes can be made.”
But unlike contemporaries like Aamir Khan, whose socially responsible films have given him a reputation among some circles as elitist, Kumar has been especially astute at recognizing scripts ripe with both moral undertones and mainstream appeal — an ability that he might actually credit to the last 20 years of being known as a mass entertainer.
“I believe that giving writers courage and freedom of expression is the biggest key to take our industry to new levels,” he said. “But at the same time, without commercial viability, the subject matter won’t spread as widely as it needs to.” He’s quick to point out that with “Toilet,” screenwriting duo Garima and Siddharth avoid documentary-style pontification in favor of a combination of Bollywood’s favorite and most classic genres. “This film speaks to a serious problem using humor as its backdrop and drama as its driving force,” Kumar said. “But the real secret ingredient, which could allow a subject as revolutionary as this to be heard in every corner of India, is the love story that lies at its heart.”
It’s an approach that he hopes will allow “Toilet” to be eye-opening, far-reaching, and continued validation for his efforts to make an impact against the odds.
“From the money invested in this project to the image I could damage if my efforts go unaccepted, I know what I’m getting myself into,” he said. But 30 years since his Bollywood debut, Kumar’s daredevil streak shows no sign of fading. “It’s an inspiring time to experiment with what we can produce as an industry with India’s best interests at heart,” he said. “I’ll take the risks.”
“Toilet – Ek Prem Katha” hits select U.S theaters on Friday, August 11.