Akshay Kumar: ‘Sooryavanshi,’ ‘Atrangi,’ Keeping Busy During Pandemic

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Akshay Kumar is India’s busiest actor, working through the pandemic and delivering hits across platforms. Over the years he has proved to be Bollywood’s banker with rarely a misstep at the box office.

During the pandemic era, his horror-comedy “Laxmii” debuted directly on streamer Disney Plus Hotstar and racked up big numbers for the service. The producers of cop-drama “Sooryavanshi” held out and released the film theatrically after cinemas reopened and were rewarded with a $40 million box office haul.

The prolific star, who has appeared in well over 100 films, has Aanand Rai’s musical romance “Atrangi Re” streaming directly on Disney Plus Hotstar from Dec. 24 and a staggering six releases, across a gamut of genres, lined up for theatrical release in 2022, plus hush hush Amazon Prime Video series “The End.”

Variety caught up with the star during a rare pause in his hectic schedule.

Variety: “Sooryavanshi” is the biggest theatrical hit of the year. Do you and the team feel vindicated for holding out for a theatrical release?

Akshay Kumar: The team and I are beyond elated for the reception ‘Sooryavanshi’ has received globally. Its success was a testament to the fact that fans held the film closely in their hearts and minds from the time it was announced. It is endearing to have witnessed the excitement of cinema-goers not just in India but internationally. The film felt like a unifying moment for audiences across the globe who came together to support the film and, in turn, re-live the cinematic experience we have all cherished and somewhat lost.

I am a great believer in timing and what incredible things can happen when you’re in the right place at the right time. While postponing the film did result in certain pressures, I guess it was worth it as ultimately its release has proved to be a shining light in an otherwise dark moment in our history.

You’ve had the biggest theatrical hit of the year with “Sooryavanshi” and your “Atrangi Re” is going straight to Disney Plus Hotstar. As an actor, how do you deal with your work appearing on different platforms? 

We make movies to be showcased whichever platform they may eventually be screened on, but the process of filmmaking for me is too sacred to be tampered with, so there really isn’t much adaptation based on the platform it will feature. Movies are my craft and I wouldn’t compromise with my craft under any circumstances.

Initially I was a bit apprehensive as films for as long as I can remember have always been a big screen event. But once the pandemic set in, the thought of not showcasing your work at all was scary. So in a way I was grateful. And I also realized, if anything, you may have the opportunity to appeal to a wider, maybe different audience. Hence releasing on both platforms, whichever way around it works out, only helps to broaden the profile of your work and audience engagement.

You shot “Bellbottom” in the U.K. during the pandemic and have completed “Mission Cinderella.”  And how different/similar is shooting in the U.K. compared to India?

Filming “Bellbottom” was an incredibly unique experience in Scotland, U.K. and I am indebted to the team at Pooja Entertainment and my producer Vashu Bhagnani for taking the first step to commence overseas filming following the outbreak of COVID-19 and being the first film production to do so successfully. We were all so thrilled to be back doing what we love most, and it was special to be the first overseas production to take place in the U.K. during a tricky period.

Similarly to “Bellbottom,” “Cinderella” is also produced by Pooja Entertainment and directed by Ranjit Tiwari and was shot in the U.K., predominantly on the outskirts of London and across the Midlands. I guess the differences were that “Bellbottom” was filmed during the height of the pandemic where the surrounding areas were still in a state of lockdown, but with “Cinderella” we had a lot more flexibility as the U.K. relaxed its COVID-19 restrictions.

When it comes to filming in the U.K. vs India – well, in the U.K. I’m still likely to be working with almost 90% of the same team as I would in India so the work comfort and familiarity is maintained throughout.

What’s the progress on Amazon Prime Video series “The End” and when can we expect to see it? What’s it about?

Well, I’m extremely excited about “The End.” It’s a high-octane action thriller and takes me back to a genre I started my career with three decades ago. Filming is due to commence in quarter one of 2022. As for the narrative, I am under such tight confidentiality with the show that even if I wanted to give you a sneak peek I wouldn’t be able to.

You’re one of the few stars who remained busy through the pandemic, shooting continuously through it. What have you learned during this period and has it changed your process as an actor at all?

The pandemic put a lot of things into perspective for everyone. I was fortunate enough to be able to continue doing what I love during the pandemic. I really value this privilege having heard stories of people spending months in solitude due to restrictions.

Professionally and personally the lockdown forced me to take a step back and take stock of the meaning and value of life and where I need to focus my time, energy, and attention. The quality of a project held more value than ever before. The pandemic helped remind me that I have reached a place in life, where I can do things because I want to, not because I have to.

The pandemic didn’t discriminate and affected everyone, regardless of the color of their skin, social status, or gender. It touched all our lives in one way or the other, and I think that was a rather stark fact that we will never forget.

As an actor, the pandemic also reminded me of the importance of uplifting emotions during a time of gravity and the power that our films — regardless of how they are released — can have to empower and entertain audiences.

What stage are “Prithviraj,” “Bachchan Pandey,” “Raksha Bandhan,” “Ram Setu” and “Oh My God 2” at? When can we expect to see them, and where (streaming or theatrical)?

“Prithiviraj” marks my first film of 2022, due to release on Jan. 21. While I have a major passion for historical dramas and biopics, “Prithviraj” takes my journey into this genre to a new level as I enter the 1191 era to essay the role of the legendary warrior King Prithviraj Chauhan for this unique historical epic action-drama.

Besides playing the role of a king, I go on to perform the role of a rustic gangster in “Bachchan Pandey,” inspired to fight for justice after a harrowing incident. It will be released on March 4, 2022.

In the family drama “Raksha Bandhan” which releases on Aug. 11, I play the role of a doting brother to four sisters. It’s such a heart warming film fueled with real emotions, in [director] Aanand Rai’s distinct style of relatable storytelling.

I then turn my hand to performing the role of an archaeologist in the action-adventure drama “Ram Setu” which is an intriguing story, reflecting a significant part of our historical heritage. “Ram Setu” is set for release on Oct. 24, 2022.

“OMG 2” is still very much in the making yet so the release date will be decided at a later stage. I happen to step into the shoes of Lord Shiva, which is a true honor.

So, if all goes as per the plan, they all are scheduled for a theatrical release… keeping my fingers crossed.

You are exploring a range of genres from historical to action, and social empowerment films to comedies – how do you choose them? Is it by genre? What is your process? Does your sheer bankability as an actor influence these choices in that you want to give your audience a wide variety?

Firstly, genres themselves cannot be pigeonholed – for instance, I have tried my hand at both slapstick and intelligent comedies. However, my choice of films rests with the script – the genre is often secondary. I don’t really decide to do different movies of different genres one after the other and create a forced sense of variety in my choice of films. I always go by my instincts. If I like the narrative and character, I will go ahead with the film.

As an actor, I have to keep reinventing myself and appealing to my audience. This is especially important as the industry and audiences are constantly evolving so it’s important to adapt and transform yourself and ensure whatever role I am essaying is done so with authenticity and meaning. The process of reinvention is actually an enjoyable one as I get to experience new personalities and possibilities, and often a new piece of me that I never knew existed. I’ve never been averse to taking risks.

How do you see the new balance between theatrical and streaming playing out? While big films like “Sooryavanshi” will drive footfall to theatres, will smaller films go directly to streaming? Does the fact that the number of theatrical screens are diminishing — less than 9,000 for a population of 1.3 billion in India — play a role in this?

Both the mediums, OTT and theaters, are here to stay. They will co-exist. I don’t think the cinema business is going anywhere because nothing, and I mean nothing, can beat the experience of watching a film with your friends and family surrounded by the sound and excitement of the big screen.

You’re widely recognized as the most bankable star of Bollywood. According to industry estimates, with the releases you have coming out next year, you could potentially be earning the industry INR20 billion ($264 million) if we take account of theatrical, streaming and satellite rights. Any thoughts?

Wow, you worked out the maths quicker than I did! I’m very proud of this kind of projection and I think it’s testament to the fact that genres, stories and characters are always king. Whilst I’m excited for what should be an incredible 2022, I think if these past two years have taught us anything it’s that nothing is bankable. Let’s see how the cookie crumbles and maybe we can have this same discussion about box office figures this time next year?

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