You have got to hand it to the man, though he completely denies it. Rajiv Hari Om Bhatia has played his career cards extremely smartly – though 26 years. But why should one not prolong one's career?
Over half of Akshay's films have been with certain filmmakers, and the pattern is pretty clear – Akshay remains associated with a filmmaker as long as they are relevant to the kind of films with which he wants to be associated. It is not about just the hits and the flops, but about the brand that Akshay wants for himself at a particular time.
After all, films are about synergy, where a top star benefits a director as much as the other way round. In a recent press release, Akshay has stated that Bhushan Kumar wanting to work with him repeatedly (after Baby and Airlift) is music to his ears. For the record, their association had a flop beginning (the clichéd Humko Deewana Kar Gaye in 2006) but they had found their groove with Bhool Bhulaiya in 2007, in which he played a psychiatrist, almost a decade ago.
"Even after 26 years in the industry, these are the words I want to hear," the star has said. "If my producers are happy, then I am happy too. After all, my forefathers do not belong to cinema. Somewhere, deep within me, there is insecurity on whether I will find work or not. When a producer reassures me that he wants to work with me again, it means I am doing something right. Frankly, that's all I have wanted."
And among the post-1970s stars, Akshay is the only one who has had long associations with so many filmmakers successively. Let us analyze his early career, when he was essentially an action hero.
His first release as a hero was Saugandh under Raj N. Sippy, the prolific filmmaker who ended up giving more flops than hits, and was claimed to be a modest success in 1991. A new actor always wants to associate with a big-name director, and Sippy had made Inkaar and Satte Pe Satta and so many other big films with top stars. Sippy was enamoured of him, and rapidly, the actor worked with him in Mr Bond, Ashaant, Paandav, Ikke Pe Ikka, Amaanat and Zakhmi Dil – all catastrophes.
Another early loyalist of Akshay was producer Keshu Ramsay, who, after (and despite the) poor reception to Mr Bond, their first film remained with him through Paandav and Ashaant (also flops) in the early '90s. They finally took anchor with the 1995 hit Sabse Bada Khiladi, followed by the successful Khiladiyon Ke Khiladi. Ramsay ended up making the maximum films in Akshay's Khiladi series (though none was related to each other in any fashion) with the average International Khiladi surrounded by two flops, Mr & Mrs Khiladi and Khiladi 420.
In the millennium, Keshu took to three multi-hero films with the actor, the acclaimed Khakee (2004) but also the turnips Insan and Family. But their (Mr) 'Bond' was over – Keshu's standards were going down and the actor was moving up!
Two more early associates of Akshay were the two Darshan brothers. Their films were a mixed bag. Jaanwar, Ek Rishta and Andaaz with Suneel Darshan and Dhadkan with Dharmesh Darshan were the only successful enterprises among flops like Talaash, Dosti-Friends Forever, Haan Maine Bhi Pyaar Kiya and Mere Jeevan Sathi. 10 years back, Akshay broke away. The Darshans lost ground completely, but maybe their star had sensed it. When one is upwardly mobile, one gets intuitive.
South Indian filmmakers tend to form long liaisons with stars, and Priyan rapidly worked with Akshay in Garam Masala, Bhagam Bhag, Bhool Bhulaiya, De Dana Dan and Khatta Meetha. A charged Firoz also made many more films with Akshay – the hilarious crime caper Awara Pagal Deewana, the intense Aan-Men At Work and the insipid Deewane Huye Pagal. Facing failure with the last two films, Firoz shrewdly got into the sequel bandwagon with Phir Hera Pheri and later came up with Welcome – 6 films in 7 years.
Maybe somewhere Akshay saw in this producer the reluctance to grow beyond the template of multi-star caper comedy and masala, and the actor quietly turned down Welcome Back and Hera Pheri 3.
In 1992, with the suspense mystery Khiladi, Akshay had broken through into the A-league bracket, collaborating on his first film with Venus Records and Tapes in their capacity as film producers. This was one association that lasted long and was quite variegated and fruitful. Main Khiladi Tu Anari was another fluffy crime drama, and that was followed by Keemat, a flop. Changing genres, Venus entered the millennium with Dhadkan and the taut Ajnabee.
Venus, clearly, had adapted to the changing times and fortunes of Akshay Kumar. The genres and his roles were changing with each film, and Akshay must have loved the variety. Up next was Garam Masala (2005), a classy sex comedy, and the mediocre (as it turned out) De Dana Dan. But with Venus going into humbler budget films and concentrating more on other aspects of film business, they have parted ways. After all, Akshay is an expensive superstar today.
In 1993, Akshay struck a long-lasting friendship with a dynamic young producer, Sajid Nadiadwala with Waqt Hamara Hai. Sajid took a long while to take off, and Akshay was a major force in his return with their reunion film, Mujhse Shaadi Karogi (2004) with Salman Khan. Motion Capture was used for the first time in this film.
This hit rom-com was followed by another film with Salman Khan with a slightly different flavour, Jaan-E-Mann (2006), which flopped. Then came one more flop, with Hollywood stars in cameos – Kambakkht Ishq (2009). But the combination and their friendship was made of sterner stuff. Sajid and a new director, Sajid Khan, made the comedy Heyy Babyy (2007), an emotional story. And then came the first of the franchise, Housefull (2010), which led to Housefull 2 (2012), with Housefull 3 set to come mid-2016.
Akshay's other lasting alliance is with Vipul Amrutlal Shah, whose evolution was right up Akshay's own street. Aankhen, a thriller, and Waqt – The Race Against Time, a family drama, were their first enterprises together, both based on Gujarati plays. Vipul then launched two films simultaneously, the smart Purab Aur Pacchim redux Namastey London and the Anees Bazmee – directed action comedy Singh Is Kinng.
In 2010, Vipul and Akshay delivered their only flop, the time-travel love story Action Replayy, but it had one of the actor's finest performances. Their latest film Holiday (in all their films except the first, they were partners in production) was Akshay's first significant film with a patriotic angle – which is his new image.
Last but not the least, is Akshay's newfound liaison with Neeraj Pandey. Beginning with the riveting heist film Special 26, it moved on to Baby. Neeraj is producing Rustom now for the actor, and a sequel to Baby is also on the anvil.
But as Akshay may not admit, there is more to this happy state of affairs than just these convenient coincidences. For Akshay therefore, his career has been about a strategic making or breaking of alliances.