The audience had been told to stay in their seats. Phones were to be on silent. Everyone was on their best behavior. But none of that mattered when legendary Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar entered the packed auditorium at the Red Sea Film Festival to participate in a sold out “In Conversation” event and the public leapt to their feet to applaud, cry his name and take photos and videos as Kumar took to the stage. “Let’s have fun,” Kumar told his fans. As if anyone needed any further encouragement.
Swapping between English and Hindi, Kumar spoke of his career, crediting his success to “30% hard work and 70% Kismet.” He described passing the crowd at the gates of the studio. “Boys and girls are struggling to get into the film industry. They’re much more talented than me and much better looking than me. But they’re still struggling, but God has been kind to me and I got a break.”
Kumar first made his name as an action hero, but then branched out into other genres. “I like to be an all-rounder. I want to do all kinds of films. I want to do a social film; the next film I want to do is an action film, a comedy, a drama, a tragedy. I want to play different kinds of roles and I’m very grateful to the audience who have accepted me in very different roles, whether it’s in ‘Airlift’ (2016), or ‘Singh Is Bliing’ (2015) or ‘Pad Man’ (2018)… so many films. I have finished 240-250 films in my life.”
During the conversation, excerpts from Kumar’s vast career skewed towards the more political, social issue films. The first clip came from “Pad Man,” which Kumar introduced as a film “about the taboo in our country about sanitary pads. I’m the first person to make a film on sanitary pads. I’m very proud of it.”
Another clip came from “Toilet: A Love Story” (2017), which highlighted another social issue Kumar feels strongly about: the lack of basic toilet facilities, due partly to religious taboos, in many parts of India. “That’s another thing that in India we have that has drastically now changed thanks to my Prime Minister Narendra Modi,” Kumar said. When released in 2017, the film became Kumar’s biggest commercial hit.
Kumar revealed that he is currently making a film on sex education. “It’s a very important subject and a lot of places, it is not there. We have all kinds of subjects we learn in school. But sex education is one that I would like all the schools in the world to have.” The film will be released next April or May. “It’s one of the best films I’ve ever made,” Kumar claimed.
He mentioned that his social films didn’t make as much money as his commercial action movies or comedies, but it gives him great satisfaction. He told the story of his friend telling him after seeing “Pad Man” that his relationship with his daughter had completely changed, and now she’ll ask her father to get sanitary pads for her when she’s on her period.
Initially, Kumar had become an actor to earn a living. “When I came into this industry, to be honest, I came here to earn money. That’s it.” It took eight years before he began to truly love his profession. This coincided with his father’s illness: “My father had prostate cancer and he was suffering a lot. Things started changing in my family a lot. I stopped doing action films and commercial films and started doing this kind of film.”
Kumar pushed back at the suggestion that the Bollywood of comedies and musical have changed. “I have changed a little bit, but I still do the dances and comedy.” To prove his point, he showed a clip from “Housefull 4” that highlighted his talent at broad comedy. “I enjoy doing this kind of film.” He credits directors and particularly Priyadarshan for helping him develop his comedy. “He told me I always knew you’d be able to play comedy.”
In preparing for films, Kumar revealed that he has the director or writer read the script aloud to him 30-40 times. “I’m not a good reader,” he explained. In rounding off the session, Kumar took questions from the audience, most of whom wanted to express their appreciation and obvious affection for the movie star. One Pakistani fan implored Kumar to make a film aimed at improving relations between India and Pakistan and criticizing a recent film for having anti-Pakistan sentiment. “It’s just a movie,” Kumar implored. “Don’t get so serious about it.”
As if to fulfil the promise of fun Kumar performed a dance with a member of the audience, before an exit which was as tumultuous and chaotic as his arrival had been.