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To half the world’s population, Akshay Kumar is more famous than Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise and Bruce Willis put together. Now the Bollywood actor’s fame is about to spread to the west.
Kumar’s latest film, which opens this weekend, marks the first time that Hollywood’s leading stars have appeared alongside their Indian counterparts in a Bollywood blockbuster. Filmed at Universal Studios in LA and starring Sylvester Stallone and Denise Richards, Kambakkht Ishq is an example of the growing desire among western actors, companies and financiers for a piece of India’s multi-billion-pound entertainment industry. After all, as Hollywood is fighting off a deep recession, Bollywood is booming.
Kumar already has his next collaboration in the bag. Later this year he will appear alongside Kylie Minogue in Blue. The singer recorded songs for the film, including the title track – all composed by the Tamil musician AR Rahman, who shot to fame after his Oscar success with Slumdog Millionaire.
For Kumar, who is one of Bollywood’s most recognizable heroes, with more than 100 films to date, collaborations between the film industries of the west and the east are set to accelerate. “I presume they must be seeing what is happening in India. They see what Bollywood was two or three years ago and then they see what it is today,” he said. “It has grown a lot and it has the capacity and capability to grow much more. If this collaboration works, then things will start moving towards Hollywood and Bollywood coming together again and again.”
According to a report published by PricewaterhouseCoopers last month, India’s entertainment and media market was worth $ 15bn in 2008. This is predicted to grow at an annual rate of 10.7% to more than $ 25bn by 2013. Bollywood – which has a 3.6 billion fan base around the world, according to the New York Times – is a major part of that industry. It is hardly surprising that Hollywood and others are taking notice.
Last year Disney took a 32% stake in the Indian media company UMP, and George Soros spent $ 100m on a 3% stake in Reliance Entertainment. The Indian entertainment group Eros International already has two joint ventures, one with Lionsgate and another with Sony Entertainment, that will see the two companies develop, produce and distribute Hindi films.
Kishore Lulla, chairman of Eros, said the “cross-pollination” of Bollywood and Hollywood was inevitable. “India’s entertainment industry is growing rapidly – and it will soon be a powerhouse. In a couple of years a Bollywood film might take $ 50m at the box office in India alone,” he said.
Lulla, whose company co-produced Kumar’s latest film, said collaborations worked best when the script allowed Hollywood actors to appear without taking major roles – as Bollywood budgets were significantly lower. In Kambakkht Ishq, Kumar plays a stuntman for Hollywood stars, one of whom is Stallone. Richards, meanwhile, falls in love with the Indian actor.
“Audiences across the globe want to see something different in this world of recession. People want escapism, and Bollywood movies give them that. Indians express themselves loudly,” said Lulla. “Kambakkht Ishq is just the start. A lot of companies have already approached us – they are very interested in Bollywood. I think Slumdog Millionaire was a huge part of that.”
For Kumar, it is an opportunity to meet one of his greatest heroes. Sitting in a plush London hotel, on his way from the US to India, the Bollywood star remembered his days as a waiter in Thailand. “I used to have a small cupboard on which I had a poster of Stallone and one of Sridevi [a Bollywood actress]. I am so fortunate in life that I have had the opportunity not just to shake their hands but to work with them both.”
He had expected Stallone to be “reserved”, but found the opposite. “I thought, what would a Bollywood action hero talk to a Hollywood action hero about when they met? Within a span of two minutes we were talking about the stunts we had done. He was telling me about his knees and I told him that I was doing yoga to help my back, which was broken. He told me that he was not great with heights, but he still did Cliffhanger, and about how careful they are in Hollywood.”
During his acting career Kumar has hauled himself on to a moving plane, clung to it in mid-air and then jumped aboard a hot-air balloon, swum with 40 sharks and leapt from building to building without any safety devices.
Until a few years ago Bollywood had no safety checks and no insurance, Kumar told Stallone. “The man’s face just dropped and he called me a madman,” said the actor, laughing. “Because I told him we used to jump from the fifth or sixth floor on to cardboard boxes and just pray that nothing would happen.”
Kumar admitted he was “terrified” by the stunt in which he leapt from a plane in mid-air. “Let me start the whole thing by calling myself foolish and stupid to do something like that,” he said with a smile. “Trying to catch a running plane, get up on it, attach myself to it, the plane goes up into the air, and then I jump from there into a hot-air balloon and slide inside to save the heroine.”
More recently, when filming Blue, Kumar was diving close to a shipwreck at a depth of 120ft when his head hit something sharp and started to bleed. “There were 35 or 40 sharks there,” he said. “I kept watching them try to bait the sharks away.
“From that depth you are supposed to bring someone up in four or five minutes, but they got me up in 12 seconds because it was so dangerous.”
Kumar said it was a pleasure to work with Kylie Minogue on the film. “I like the way she adapted herself to Bollywood,” he said. “She is such a huge star – loved by everyone. But she came there and she did exactly what she was told by the director. If she was asked to turn up at 7am in full make-up, then at 6.45am she was there, ready, on set.”
The actor has also worked with Snoop Dogg, who had been “dying to wear a pugdi [turban]” and dance to the Indian songs when he recorded the title track and a music video for the film Singh is Kinng.
“It is further testament to the fact that Indian cinema is establishing ever stronger links with the mainstream. It was brilliant that someone of Snoop Dogg’s calibre wanted to be involved in this project. And he was just as proud to sing, dance and look like an Indian as I am, bless him,” said Kumar. Calling it a day to remember, the actor described Snoop Dogg as a legend: “He’s so chilled and laid-back, a complete family guy. He even brought his uncle to cook chicken for absolutely everyone on set.”
In the future the actor, who used to be a martial arts teacher, would like the chance to work with another of his heroes, Jackie Chan.
Back in India, it is to Kumar that millions of young boys look up. He believes that celebrities should not complain about the attention from fans and the media. “You did everything for attention – when you get it, how can you run away from it? I enjoy a lovely life. I get first-class tickets to move around, sometimes maybe private planes, I get to go to the best places with my family – and I work hard for it.”
He also spends a lot of time and money indulging in his latest hobby, park our, or free running. He is so into the sport, which involves jumping from one point to another, that instead of selling an old house he converted the entire place into a parkour gym, with rods, ropes and climbing areas. “My wife got upset,” he admitted. “She said: ‘Stupid, sell the house.’ But I really love that gym.”
For now, the actor is hoping that merging Bollywood and Hollywood in his latest project will be a success. “This is a typical masala Bollywood film, full of songs, colours, emotions,” he said. “When you say something is masala you mean it has all the ingredients: action, comedy and romance.”
Indian films are “one tone higher”, according to Kumar, with brighter colors and stronger emotions. If someone is crying, they are a little more hysterical, if someone is angry, they shout a little louder, and if someone is happy, they smile a little wider. That’s the difference between Bollywood and Hollywood.