By Surbhi Gogia
If there are two worlds and words that define the spirit of India, they are: Bollywood and cricket. Bollywood actors and cricketers are treated no less than Gods. The nation follows and adores each and every move of the members belonging to these two communities. In spite of this vast reach towards the masses, Bollywood’s popular cinema has never tried hard to talk about the socially relevant issues in movies except a few actors in olden times and Amir Khan in the current time. By and large social issues were left for the art movies that dealt with limited audience.
But now one more actor, in the current times, is contributing to social causes. After winning millions of hearts across the world with his acting and martial art skills, he has now evolved into a crusader who along with entertainment is bringing amazing meaningful cinema to the masses. He is none other than Bollywood’s most beloved Akshay Kumar.
Recently at the 48th International Film Festival of India (IFFI), he said, “I think it is very important to do films that talk to people and give them a message in a commercial way. .. When a documentary is made, not many people watch it. So, I thought it is more important today than ever to do something for my country and this (making films with a social message) is the best way to do it.”
A long road traveled; from a waiter in Bangkok, to the most successful actor in Bollywood, Akshay has come a long way. Akshay Kumar (Rajiv Hari Om Bhatia on September 9, 1967) was born in Amritsar, Punjab. After having obtained a black belt in Taekwondo while in India, he studied martial arts in Bangkok, Thailand, where he learned Muay Thai and worked as a chef and waiter.
He returned to Mumbai, where he started teaching martial arts. Due to his dashing looks he started getting modelling assignments and eventually ended up in movies in 1990s with movies like Saugandh and Deedar.
He made his breakthrough with the suspense thriller Khiladi (1992). Then began the era of his feature films commonly called the “Khiladi series”, which included Khiladi, Main Khiladi Tu Anari, Sabse Bada Khiladi, Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi, Mr. and Mrs. Khiladi, International Khiladi, Khiladi 420, and Khiladi 786.
But true to his nature of being a real Khiladi inside out, Akshay never stuck to one track cinema. Just like it is difficult to predict a master player’s next move, it is difficult to predict which genre Akshay will pick for his next performance. Name any genre of entertainment: drama, suspense, thriller, comedy, romance, Akshay has established his worth as an actor. The incredibly handsome and powerful actor is popularly known as man with the Midas touch since any movie he touches turns into gold with record breaking openings at the box office. There is a reason he is called Mr Reliable of Bollywood.
He is the comedian who was the champion of Houseful franchise and did films like Hera Pheri, Garam Masala Desi Boyz, Tees Maar Khan and Action Replayy, Singh is Kinng. He is also the famous action hero and stunt man.
With Holiday…(2014), Baby (2015) and Airlift (2016), ‘The State vs Jolly LLB2’ the actor was seen as the new patriotic flag-bearer. Apart from films, Akshay also acted in ad commercials where he endorsed products which have a theme of patriotism. He was also the main force behind the launch of an app and a website Bharat Ke Veer. The portal is an IT based platform, with an objective to enable willing donors to contribute towards the family of a braveheart who sacrificed his/her life in line of duty. The amount so donated will be credited to the account of ‘Next of Kin’ of those Central Armed Police Force/Central Para Military Force soldiers.
With his movie Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, Akshay entered into a new journey, where he touched a topic that was not only socially relevant but that focused on women empowerment and the epidemic of open defecation. Recently he was seen in the critically acclaimed film Pad Man which released worldwide on 9th Feb. The movie is produced by Akshay’s wife Twinkle Khanna. Pad Man is inspired by the life of Arunachalam Muruganantham, a rural welder who created a sanitary pad revolution in India by inventing a machine to make low-cost sanitary pads 20 years ago. Taking on the titular role of Arunachalam is Akshay Kumar. The movie touched a very important yet taboo topic of menstruation and how women are treated during their periods in Indian household. But for what started as a movie has now turned into a movement as it headed in the direction of removing period stigma. Many Bollywood personalities including Sonam Kapoor, Amir Khan posed themselves holding a sanitary pad.
Further making sure that the message isn’t forgotten after the film credits have rolled, Akshay also kick-started ambitious projects across the country to bring actual awareness and change to the lives of women. One example being the Ashmita Yojana initiative, an enterprise started by the government of Maharashtra to distribute subsided sanitary napkins to women in rural areas. In an exclusive interview with Desi Today, Akshay Kumar talks about how he started taking interest in meaningful cinema and what inspires him to do films like Pad Man. The actor who for many is working like an activist wants to continue do issues that touch society. But he says it is not a total departure from mainstream entertainment. His next projects are all different from each. His Housefull 4 releasing next year is the sequel of comedy Housefull series. Also Akshay will be seen in Kesari. It is his third film where he will be seen donning the avatar of a Sikh, after ‘Singh Is Kinng’ and ‘Singh Is Bliing’. ‘Kesari’, will be co-produced by Akshay and Karan Johar. Kesari is based on the encounter between 21 Sikh soldiers of the British Indian Army and a 10,000-strong troop of Afghani tribesmen in the Saragarhi outpost of the North-West Frontier Province on 12th September 1897. Though vastly outnumbered, the regiment is said to have fought to its death in what is hailed as one of history’s greatest last stands.
DT: The movie Pad Man is another addition and is a continuation of your commitment to socially relevant issues for a long time. Did you always want to do cinema like this or you discovered it eventually? What inspires you to do films like this.
Akshay – There comes a time in one’s life when substance begins to matter more and more. I have established myself enough as an actor to now be able to venture into things that can benefit, as well as entertain people.
These issues are close to my heart, because after all my years, even I’m only JUST becoming educated enough about many crisis’ countries suffer with every day of our lives, & I myself am ashamed how little I knew.
DT: From social relevance to women sensitive issues, like Toilet and now menstruation, did you face any opposition in real life to pick up such topics?
Akshay – I cannot force people to see things the way they ‘should’ be seen, but through the power of entertainment, I think gentle persuasion & general realization (& of course a good storyline,) I believe people will discover for themselves by purely watching this film, that this is something to be approached not tossed aside & stamped on with the shameful label of ‘Too Taboo’…
I’m sure there will be men and women both who will feel uncomfortable watching PadMan – they might feel so awkward they won’t know where to look, what to say or what to do. But we need to start a conversation on menstruation and not be afraid to discuss the issues that have impacted women and girls worldwide for centuries. This is a reality that needs to be addressed and respected, and men – where a lot of the change needs to come – need to step up and empower their daughters, wives, mothers and sisters, so they don’t feel abandoned or inferior when they are menstruating.
If many Men were to cherish their wives lives the way I do in the film, they too will do anything to make every day of the month better for them!! And in Pad Man I show just how much I’m prepared to do to make my wife’s life a better one…why should she be banished to the home with nothing but dirty rags for 5 days out of every month, that’s 2 months every year taken away from her because of menstruating in discomfort & backward thinking by everyone around her.
DT: How was your experience with a topic like menstruation in your own household or your surroundings during your childhood and growing up days?
Akshay – I wish I had known this since childhood, it would have made me an even more understanding Son, Brother & Husband if I had known or been able to share with the women in my home the Menstrual Difficulties they face. But because it’s kept so quiet through pressures of society and backward thinking it should never be a topic of discussion, but the fact that I didn’t even know the struggles my own sister was going through and I shared a room with her has upset me more than you could imagine.
DT: What inspired you to do Pad Man?
Akshay – I was incredibly intrigued and shocked by Arunachalam Muruganantham’s story, which I think stands as the first reaction for the majority of people who hear about this film – purely because of the strong subject line, the issues and taboos relating to menstrual hygiene and the empirical data I was exposed to which just appalled me – I mean, can you believe that 1 in 10 girls in UK live in period poverty, only 12% of women in India wear sanitary pads and that over 20% girls drop out of school due to their periods? It saddens me to learn that our wives, daughters, mothers and sisters have lived in shame all these centuries because of such an important biological occurrence. They’ve been made to feel inferior and they’ve been ostracised from families and societies. It’s even cost them their lives and livelihood.
I wasn’t aware of Arunachalam Muruganantham’s story before I heard of this film, and I was perhaps somewhat naïve to the struggles women in our country face in terms of menstruation. I have lived with women all my life, yet I have learnt more making this film than I’ve ever known even after being surrounded by women in my own family.
DT: Pad Man from a movie has now become a movement, how far you think has it been able to bring some winds of change?
Akshay – One victory for Pad Man was that men started discussing periods, positively and negatively whatever it is, it’s got us men talking about it.
DT: How far the character of Lakshmi comes close to the real life Pad Man? How was your first meeting?
Akshay – Arunachalam is an amazing figure and meeting him was an enlightening
experience. He took it on himself to tackle the problems of menstrual hygiene that women across India are faced with – a true patriot. I learnt a lot from him, although it wasn’t always so easy. At first he was quite reluctant to speak to me, and later clarified that it was because he doesn’t like talking to men because they aren’t usually the most understanding! I loved his phrase ‘Woman strong will make country strong!’ which makes it into the film. Clearly we men have to buck up our ideas!
DT: What is the message that you would like to give to the girls and women who are made to feel ashamed about their periods?
I am a strong believer in women’s rights and ensuring all girls and women
live an empowered life to reach their full potential. I have said in the past that a society that can’t respect its women can hardly be called a human society. Yet right around the world we see women excluded from everyday life, just because they are on their period. It’s time to end the taboo – it is time to treat menstrual hygiene with a mature attitude and ensure every girl and woman on this planet has menstrual dignity. It is a basic necessity for women to have free access to sanitary pads.
It’s their right.
DT: What is your next project?
Akshay – My immediate next project is Gold out on 15th August. The film is based on the true incidents of India’s first Olympic gold as a free nation in 1948 in the sport of hockey.