A small-time chef with a penchant for the martial arts becomes Bollywood's most bankable star. It sounds like a film script but for Akshay Kumar, this rags-to-riches tale is as real as his current star power.
And his recent backing from Hollywood heavyweights and their dollar-rich purses is proof that a Kumar starrer almost guarantees profitable returns at the box-office.
His last six films alone have raked in Rs3.26 billion (Dh246 million) globally and given a new lease of life to a flagging film industry that has reportedly taken quite a beating as the credit crisis continues to cripple global markets.
With his latest, Chandni Chowk to China or CC2C (currently showing in UAE cinemas), Kumar's Midas touch at the box-office has lured Warner Bros studios to invest in Bollywood kitsch.
"I think WB's foray into Bollywood just reinforces the power of the Indian film industry today," the actor tells Emirates Business. "Do you know, I signed on for the film without even reading the script; all I knew that WB was backing the project and that was incentive enough."
The feeling is apparently mutual as Kumar also confirms a sequel to CC2C is already in the works, even before the box-office numbers of the first film are tallied. "Special screening of the film in Hollywood garnered such a fantastic response from industry figures like Terminator 4 director, MCG, and director Rob Cohen of The Mummy 3, the studio immediately decided to push for a sequel; and I didn't have to think twice before accepting."
With a production budget of Rs510m, CC2C's London premiere earlier this week even saw industry stalwart Amitabh Bachchan turn out to lend his support. The fan frenzy that followed when Kumar stepped onto the red carpet had grown men weep with excitement as throngs pushed forward to shake hands with their screen idol – a madness that was once only reserved for superstar Shah Rukh Khan.Ask Kumar and he admits to the growing pressure he constantly lives under, saying: "Of course the pressure is there, but I am programmed to survive the onslaught. Aside from the WB support, the big deal really is that CC2C is a semi-biographic film about my life, which itself is a healthy mix of curry and noodles."
With a career spanning 18 years and 80 films, the actor reportedly demands a salary of Rs710m per film, making him Bollywood's highest paid star and the highest tax payer too – he shelled out an alleged Rs190m for 2008, beating Khan yet again by Rs40m.
Confront Kumar with these astronomical figures and he jokes that the media apparently decides a new salary for him every week. "Such speculation doesn't bother me, but it's just a shame [the media] only seem to blow up the insignificant things and forget about the hard work I do. My salary is personal between me, my producers and my family. They are the only people who know what I earn and I assure you, none of them tell the media. So I say, let them think and write what they do, because they too need to sell papers and earn their salaries."
While 2008's economic downturn left a trail of global havoc in its wake, it proved a landmark year for the star who launched his film production house, Hari Om Entertainment, and co-produced one the year's biggest hits, Singh is Kinng, along with the animated Jumbo.
"My father and I always wanted to make films, but only when the time was right. For me, that right time is now. Though my father cannot be here to enjoy the ride with me, I have taken his good name to follow what was once our shared dream."
While Kumar plans to be quite selective in backing film projects under his banner, choosing only those scripts "that feature me" he says, the Khiladi-star doesn't deny he's also looking to shine in Hollywood. "It all depends on the project and the kind of role I get offered," he adds.
The international hype surrounding Kumar already existed well before WB greenlit for CC2C. After rapping with superstar Snoop Dogg last year for Singh is Kinng, Kumar also spent the better part of the past few months shooting in Los Angeles with Hollywood bigwigs Sylvester Stallone, Denise Richards and Carmen Elektra for Kambhakt Ishq.
Refusing to dish the dirt on LA's A-listers, Kumar does however reveal that his time in Hollywood raised awareness that Indian films were fast earning a positive response from non-Asian audiences and joint collaboration between two of the world's biggest film industries could only prove fruitful for both parties.
However, the actor admits that during his career lows and highs in Bollywood, he has been privy to a dramatic change for the better – be it in terms of scripting, corporatisation, or even marketing. In fact, Kumar has never shied away from grabbing the spotlight to promote his films, even appearing on reality TV shows to shake a hip or two. "There are so many ways we can promote our films now. When a big film is being released, why shouldn't we tell as many people and watch our films as many times as we can through a number of channels?"Markets have changed and so have the tools to market our films. So much more is going into movies now, from expense to distribution. While selling the movie, the producer has to be aggressive; it's a product at the end of the day and it needs selling." One would expect filmmakers to cut back on costs to sustain their big-budget productions in such economic times, but Kumar disagrees, saying the recession isn't as bad in India. "I believe only 10 to 15 per cent of the industry has been affected. Yes, we did see a dip in box-office revenue after Singh is Kinng hit the marquee in August but Shah Rukh's Rab Ne Bana De Jodi and Aamir Khan's Ghajini brought the industry out of its temporary slump. Believe me, this year will prove record-breaking, starting with CC2C."
Celebrity endorsement deals and hosting TV shows are the bread and butter for stars, but Akshay Kumar explains the brands he chooses need to add to his character. "I can't take on 30-odd products just for the cash."
- Thums Up: "The soft drink is all about action and it keeps up with my dare-devil image. I love performing stunts and the advertise- ments reflect that."
- Levi's Jeans: "Again, Levi's has a very rugged USP. It appealed to my image and I signed up for it."
-Fear Factor – Khatron Ke Khiladi: This action-packed reality TV show saw Kumar take 13 women through death-defying stunts. "All that adrenaline and 13 beauties: What's not to love."