Hiren Kotwani (BOMBAY TIMES; August 9, 2017)

He entered the industry over 25 years ago as a rank outsider. With no filmi connections to tom-tom about and no godfather to guide him, he kicked and punched his way, literally, into stardom with his expertise in martial arts. While many, including a few contemporaries, were quick to run him down, Akshay Kumar didn't let the naysayers deter him. Today, he is as synonymous with action as he is with comedy (the Hera Pheri, Housefull franchise) and strong subject-oriented films. He even has a National Award tucked proudly under his arm. As he gears up for his latest, Toilet - Ek Prem Katha, a light-hearted film that also conveys the importance of sanitation in India, we met him at his sea-facing office in Juhu for an interview. Over cups of garam chai, the actor talked about doing films with a cause, not receiving his due from the industry and how he has attained zen-like calmness. Excerpts...

What was your first reaction when you read the script of Toilet - Ek Prem Katha?
I loved the script and felt that if it can change my mindset, it can change others' as well. In the beginning, I didn't know the statistics of the number of people who defecate in the open. I was also unaware that about 30 per cent of the rapes happen when women attend nature's call in the open. You have pervert men waiting in the fields for these women with camera phones. So, open defecation is spiralling into other social evils.

Apart from the entertainment value of the film, it also aims at driving home a message. As an actor, do you think cinema should serve a larger purpose? Also, do you believe that when it comes to such issues, social media can help change our mindset?
Toilet - Ek Prem Katha is a comedy. Stories of five-six real people have been merged to make this into a tale of one person. Of course, as the title suggests, there is a love story as well, but above everything else, the film has a message to take back home. Most people want to get married at some point or the other in their life - whether it's love or arranged. Now, in a love marriage, you know if the guy has a toilet in his home. But even in the formal setting of an arranged match, the first question the girl should ask the prospective groom is whether he has a toilet at home. People just want a sundar, sharmili girl, but they don't care if she goes to fields to defecate. So, it's the women who have to put their foot down and tell the guys, 'If you don't have a loo, then I'm not entering the wedlock.' Talking about the role social media plays, yes, it can help improve the situation, but not by naming and shaming people because that can destroy someone's life. About a year ago, if there was any news on toilets, newspapers would relegate it to some inside page. Today, they are carried on the front page.

Your heroine Bhumi Pednekar is impressed with your hard work and dedication. She says that you are always raring to go and that your enthusiasm is infectious...
I'd say Bhumi is a very brave actress to take on a role like this, knowing fully well about the open-defecation scenes. Though she was properly dressed and all precautions were taken, to do a scene where you are pretending to defecate in the open takes a lot of courage. More so with the crew around...

Over the last few years, it has been seen that your films releasing on the Republic Day and Independence Day weekends have a nationalistic, patriotic slant. Is that planned?
Yes, it's a conscious decision to do these kind of films, but they release on R-Day and I-Day weekends mostly because of the non-availability of other suitable dates.

You have had long partnerships with most of the directors and producers you have worked with...
I'm friends with every producer and director I work with. Our association is not limited to the films we're doing that point in time. There are directors with whom I have had three flops, yet I have trusted them with the fourth film. A lot of people didn't give up on me, so I don't give up on the director if a film doesn't work.

Having been in the industry for over 25 years, starting as an action hero and graduating to more serious and intense subjects, do you think that you're finally getting your due as an actor?
I still haven't got my due as an actor from the industry, I just got the National Award.

You got a Padma Shri too, eight years ago...
That is recognition from the government, not the industry.

After two-and-a-half decades in the industry, have you attained some level of detachment from your film's fate at the box-office? Very often, after your film releases, you are quick to take off somewhere...
Well, anyone would be nervous, but I'm lucky that I get to experience it three-four times a year. I feel less nervous than those who have only one film a year, because then, the pressure is more. At the most, I'll be sad till the weekend. Also, it's not that I want to vanish when my film releases, as some sections of the media report. For example, I've taken a 15-day break from the schedule of Gold in London, to promote Toilet - Ek Prem Katha. Once this film releases, I'll return and resume shooting as people are waiting for me there.

You are believed to be one of the most bankable stars we have today. Is that also the reason why you are dabbling in different genres? Would you say that this is the best phase of your career?
I have seen lots of ups and downs in my career. Once I had 12 flops in a row and another time, 14 flops. While the lows have been tough, the ups have also been quite high. So, I've tasted both. There was a time when I was busy with action films, and I didn't know that I could do comedy. Rajkumar Santoshi and Priyadarshan (filmmakers) were the ones who said, 'Tu kar sakta hai.' They taught me a lot about comedy.

In your initial years, you were pitted against your contemporaries and some of them even said a few unpleasant things about you. Is there anything you would want to turn around and tell them?
What would I say? Nothing! I always feel that if someone is saying some thing, he may have his reasons for doing so. I've never reacted, nothing bothers me.

Well, it's like you've attained Zen...
It's all a part of life. Kuchh asar nahi karta. Kitni cheezein boli logon ne, 'he's a piece of furniture, sirf action aata hai, and jumping from buildings is not action...' No matter what, you have to focus on your work. People say these things to make you react. You must understand that a lot of energy is wasted in reacting. So, the smart thing is to not react. You should save that energy for good and positive things.

Going by the initiatives you support and your posts online, you are perceived as someone with a leaning towards the current government. On the other hand, your wife Twinkle's opinions often reflect different views. How do you handle such disagreements?
Both Twinkle and I are not against anyone. She has her point of view and I have mine. That's the way things should be between a husband and wife. If I tell her to do things my way, it's wrong on my part. Such things can cause trouble and even break a relationship.