Akshay Kumar is one of Bollywood’s most bankable stars, having appeared in more than 140 films and amassing a staggering 47 million Instagram followers. He’s making the leap to his first streaming project with Amazon series “The End.”
Kumar’s deal with Amazon shows just how eager streaming players are for international A-listers as they keep expanding their slates to compete with traditional movie studios. The streaming giant in 2019 enrolled actor Manoj Bajpayee for “The Family Man,” while Abhishek Bachchan appeared in the series “Breathe: Into the Shadows,” but Kumar is by far Amazon’s greatest partnership out of India to date.
Kumar learned martial arts in Thailand and worked as a stuntman before getting his break as a leading man in “Saugandh” (1991). “The End,” an action thriller whose plot details are being kept tightly under wraps, is in pre-production, and filming is due to start in early 2021 with a view to a premiere in the second half of the year.
Kumar tells Variety that he views the project as an opportunity to revisit his roots. “‘The End’ takes me back to my days of stunts, something I have always had a real passion for,” teases the 53-year-old actor. “I’ve previously said that I’m a stuntman first and an actor second, so to go back to doing real-life, heart-raising action on set is so exciting.”
In recent years, apart from the usual all-singing, all-dancing Bollywood entertainers, a potential to foster social change has been a prerequisite for Kumar’s chosen projects.
Dramedy “Toilet: A Love Story” (2017) spoke out against a practice in rural India where men and women are required to defecate in the open in fields; “Pad Man” (2018) advocated the manufacturing of low-cost sanitary pads for women; “Mission Mangal” (2019) highlighted women’s roles in powering India’s first Mars mission.
“Issues such as the open-defecation crisis in India need addressing in our country; they are stories that need to be told, facts that need to be heard and circumstances that need to change,” says Kumar. “What better way for people to become more aware than through the medium of entertainment?”
In June, Bollywood star Sushant Singh Rajput was found dead at his Mumbai home. In the ensuing media furor, some channels portrayed Bollywood stars as habitual drug abusers. Kumar was one of the few stars who decided to speak up, doing so in a video in which he implores the public “not to look at the entire industry in the same, tainted light.”
“I’ve never been one to turn a blind eye when perhaps it seems career safe or easier to do so,” says Kumar. “As role models, we have an influence over behaviors and a responsibility to set the right example, so I wanted to share my thoughts on the situation.”
Having said that, Kumar says he’s keenly aware of the Indian media’s position in manipulating the public. “There are certain realities we need to admit, but at the same time, it’s crucial that the public are fed the right information and stay clear of groundless speculation and narratives that are peddled for particular interests. It’s that kind of baseless rumor that is so dangerous.”
Kumar, along with a galaxy of fellow A-listers, subsequently sued the channels involved in fanning the flames around Rajput’s death, and the matter is now in court.
Elsewhere, at the height of the pandemic in India, producers Pooja Entertainment chartered an Air India plane and flew the cast and crew of thriller “Bell Bottom,” headlined by Kumar, to Glasgow, Scotland. It’s one of the handful of projects that began and ended during the pandemic.
“Look, it would be impossible to sit here and say that filming felt as smooth and transitions on set were as easy as before the pandemic — but we knew this would be the case,” says Kumar of the experience. “The positives are that it is manageable, safe, and there’s absolutely no detriment to the end product. Things are just going to take a little longer now.”
Kumar has been a tireless campaigner in raising awareness about COVID safety measures during the pandemic. In addition, the star — who is ranked 52nd in the 2020 Forbes 100 list and sixth among actors with earnings of $48.5 million — has donated some $4.5 million toward coronavirus relief in India.
He remains one of the busiest stars in Bollywood. His horror comedy “Laxmii” debuted Nov. 9 directly on streamer Disney Plus Hotstar at a time when cinemas are slowly reopening in India with reruns.
Kumar has “lots of ‘nexts,’” he jokes, but high on the list is the release of “Sooryavanshi,” an action-packed super-cop saga. Projects already underway include period drama “Prithviraj,” while he’ll soon go on to film rom-com “Atrangi,” followed by action movie “Bachchan Pandey” in January and then family drama “Raksha Bandhan.”