Friday, August 24, 2007

The Reinvention of Akshaye Khanna

It is any young actor's dream role. Indeed, if producer Anil Kapoor had been younger, he might have cast himself as Mahatma Gandhi's son, Harilal. But the opportunity to play the role of a lifetime fell, instead, into Akshaye Khanna's lap. The graph of his character in Feroz Abbas Khan's film Gandhi My Father travels from age 18 to 60; from being Gandhi's favoured child to converting to Islam; becoming an alcoholic and dying penniless on the streets. It is, says Khanna, "the most satisfying creative journey for an actor and definitely the most important film of my career."

Seated in Anil Kapoor's Juhu office, Khanna looks pensively at the posters of the movie pasted around the room while measuring his responses. "As an actor, you are constantly looking for platforms to showcase your work, and the film you get to be a part of is that platform. The enthusiasm for this film in particular has reached epic proportions. I have never played a character older than my years and it was quite tough at times. The support of the period setting, look, costumes and prosthetics helped because if you look the part then half the battle is won," he says between sips of tea. "It's the kind of role I hope and pray I get again."
Feroz's writing is poetry. With that kind of material an actor would have to work really hard to screw it up."It's no secret that Khanna was not the only choice for the part of Harilal. Director Khan has said that he auditioned several actors but Kapoor was keen on Khanna. "Yes, I believe I was not the only choice. But I was Anil's first choice and Feroz needed a great deal of convincing, as he was wary of working with stars on this film. He was unsure about whether any mainstream actor could get into the skin of the character. I don't know what finally persuaded him to cast me." The answer to that comes from Khan himself. "Many good actors would step in front of the camera and it just wouldn't work. But Akshaye had magnetism. Once we began production we had to undertake a process of 'de-Akshaye-isation', in order to find the character. In just two days he became Harilal. His discipline and performance was a revelation," says the Khan.

Khanna rose to the task, clearing his calendar for 14 months and dedicating himself to Gandhi My Father. In terms of research and slipping into the khadi garb of Harilal, the actor first turned to the book Harilal: A Life by Chandulal Bhagubhai Dalal, which is the source material for the story. "Harilal was an unknown person, unlike his father who is iconic. So his physicality didn't prevail, unlike Mahatma Gandhi's body language. Darshan Jariwala had to work ten times harder than me to transform himself into Gandhi."

Khanna found Harilal's strength of character his most attractive quality. He says, "Imagine standing up to a man like Mahatma Gandhi, arguing your case and sticking by your convictions. Harilal did that. Here were two intelligent, strong-willed men who refused to compromise. Harilal may have gone wrong in many ways, but the idea was to portray him from a point of view of strength of character, to approach the story from a place of truth without being judgmental." Method acting and searching within his own experiences and relationship with father, Vinod Khanna, for triggers for this performance wasn't Khanna's style. "I know that in Hollywood, especially, they talk about going back in time and drawing from a period in their lives. I respect that, but I can't sit back, ponder, get to the point where my dog died, feel the emotion and then say 'okay, I am ready'. That makes me laugh. So no, for this film I have not drawn from my experiences," says Khanna. "It's very difficult for me to intellectualise acting because it's such a natural thing. Everybody acts in everyday life, everyone pretends. The difference is that in front of the camera it comes in concentrated bursts."

Acting, to him, is organic, easy and about being in the moment. Fiercely private he also keeps his personal and professional life entirely disconnected.Khanna is quick to point out that anyone taking sardonic pleasure and expecting controversy or an anti-Gandhi stance will be sorely disappointed. This film, he emphasises, is a commercial, mainstream pro-Gandhi film, which has received public support from members of the Gandhi family. "At our press conference in New Delhi, Tushar Gandhi (Mahatma Gandhi's great grandson) said he wished he had been more closely involved with his film. We live in a free country and a democracy because of Mahatma Gandhi and we are embracing that. The story is simply about a son caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. A son looking for bapu, but constantly confronting a Mahatma."

Kapoor and Khanna have been associates since Subhash Ghai's Taal, way back in 1999. Thereafter, they were co-stars in the 2007 release Salaam-E-Ishq and now, after Gandhi My Father, they reunite as producer-actor for a comedy titled Shortcut. Khanna is all praise for his co-star, producer and friend. "If Feroz is the seed for this film, Anil is the soil that the seed needs to grow. Anil was more than a producer on this film. This project required a certain sensitivity, maturity, mindset and 30 years of experience that only Anil could bring. It's a massive film and was conceived on a huge scale which required unwavering courage of one's convictions."Ask him if this film has changed his opinion of Mahatma Gandhi and the 32-year old says, "I have much greater respect for great leaders who made incredible sacrifices, not just by going to jail, but in terms of their families and broken relationships. They were willing to pay that price. How can you not feel a sense of gratitude? The freedom struggle is the background of our film, but in the foreground is what was going on behind the scenes. It's like turning 180 degrees." Khanna's father, actor and politician Vinod, his brother Rahul and his mother were among a select few to see the film months before its release. Their reaction, not surprisingly, was emotional and superlative. In fact, Vinod was said to be so affected that he hugged Anil Kapoor for a rather extended period of time. Tell Khanna that he is someone with the capacity to be equally passionate about every one of his releases - whether it is Shaadi Se Pehle, Aap Ki Khatir, Salaam-E-Ishq or Naqaab and he expresses surprise. Unfortunately, all these movies - his recent films - have failed to stir the box office, the latest disappointment being Abbas-Mustan's Naqaab. "I believe the audience is never wrong. The viewer goes into the theatre wanting to like the film but if he comes out feeling dissatisfied then we have failed to live up to expectations. Sometimes, it's poor promotion strategy which is unsuccessful in garnering an opening. On the flipside, a pathetic film can get a massive opening because of hype and then get slammed later." This is his tenth year as a leading man in Bollywood.

Khanna was welcomed into the industry and by audiences with anticipation and optimism when he made his debut in Himalay Putra. After all he was Vinod Khanna's son. JP Dutta's war film Border followed and critics applauded his performance. Then came a dull run with Doli Saja Ke Rakhna, Dahek, Kudrat and Aa Ab Laut Chalen until Taal raised his stock once more. Dil Chahta Hai, Humraaz, Hungama and Hulchul followed and Khanna became the darling of fans of Priyadarshan comedies and Abbas-Mustan thrillers. Assessing his decade as an actor, his hit and miss ratio is almost even, and superstardom continues to elude him. "I'm not happy with my hit-miss ratio at all," he says. "I can ask myself where I am going wrong as an actor and maybe the mistake I am making is in my choice of films. With time those choices will improve and come from a place of greater understanding, experience and maturity, as long as I don't lose enthusiasm. Ultimately I have limited control when creating a film."

Besides being extremely ambitious, Khanna leads a balanced life in terms of fitness and fun. He's a regular on South Mumbai squash courts and enjoys yoga, running and swimming. "The excess energy needs to go somewhere," he says. "Over the last few years I have started reading novels again. A good book is one of the blessings of life and literature can really enrich you," he adds. But there's another dream he harbours, even as he awaits that one film that can launch him into the galaxy of stars. "I want to take time out to get my private pilot's license. It's a three-month course." Ask Khanna to grade himself, to review these ten years and give himself a score and he says, after a pause, "The decade has been a mixed bag. It's a tough business to succeed in and tougher to achieve longevity. I'd like to have both success and longevity. I'd give myself 4/10. I'm not being modest. I think it's fair, plus it gives me the scope to improve." And on that elusive star status he says, "Actors alone cannot become stars. A movie makes you a star, like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge did for Shah Rukh Khan. It takes that one film."

Man's World India


Anonymous said...

Akshaye Khanna is absolutely right that "Actors alone cannot become stars. A movie makes you a star, like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge did for Shah Rukh Khan. It takes that one film."

Anonymous said...

Nice interview.

Anonymous said...

Akshaye Khanna is changing these days. I like it whenever Akshaye Khanna is doing interview regularly.