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Akshay Kumar: “Cinema Canvas is Equally Experimental as Digital Mediums”

Akshay Kumar is among mainstream Hindi cinema’s most bankable and celebrated stars, who has been a martial arts and fitness enthusiast.

In a career spanning over 29 years, the 53-year-old actor has appeared in over 100 films and has won several awards, including a National Film Award for Best Actor and two Filmfare Awards. 

Kumar’s latest release Bellbottom, directed by Ranjit Tewari, is the first to wholly complete shoot during the pandemic period, adhering to all strict COVID-19 guidelines and restrictions. 

The espionage thriller is based on a true story as an undercover agent code-named Bellbottom (Played by Akshay) embarks on a covert mission to free 210 hostages held by hijackers.

Through an email interaction, the Bollywood megastar talks to us about his film and career thus far.

Akshay, you’ve been doing a lot of films that are inspired by true societal stories or based on Indian historical events. To what extent was that a reason why you chose to star in BellBottom?

I love real-life stories and I’m someone who is really intrigued by real-life contexts hence I pick such content.

When you get to know an extraordinary incident actually took place and that it is true, the intrigue and thrill of it increase ten times.

I’m also a huge sucker for intelligent espionage thrillers, especially those based on real-life contexts, and Bellbottom represents just that.

It’s an original screenplay, set in 1984, inspired by true events which made it extremely exciting for me.

Bellbottom takes us back to the 1980s, an era infamous for several heinous aeroplane hijackings in India, with a focus on one such hijack and India’s first covert operation. Now how could I say no to that?

You’re no stranger to playing an undercover agent, especially in films like Baby. What research went into preparing for the film and how well-read were you on the real-life hijacking events which took place in the 80s?

Admittedly, before making this film, I didn’t know if this particular chapter in history relating to Bellbottom.

I don’t think a lot of people would as it is based on a RAW agent and stories and details such as this are usually classified information.

I left it to my director, Ranjit to educate me on the matter. He showed me lots of archived footage and newspaper clips from that period.

However, I was very aware of the string of hijacks taking place during that period in India and it was a very unnerving time.

You would switch on the news to see the intense reporting, the fear and the uncertainty. And in some cases the sadness.

But the details of the incident and how it went on to become India’s first covert operation I only got to know when I heard the script and I was hooked.

BellBottom was the first-ever film to complete the entire shoot during the pandemic and a lot of precautions were taken during the shoot.

How difficult was it to shoot amidst such a crisis and it must’ve been quite discomforting to get used to the new mode of filmmaking?

I will begin by saying that the entire credit for the production goes to the producers, Vashu Ji, to take the crew of more than 200 people to shoot in the UK and to ensure all of the necessary protocols were observed.

Pooja Entertainment laid down a water-tight safety plan for our shooting schedule. These stringent measures helped us accomplish a smooth and safe shoot.

The team made special plans and took precautions keeping the current situation in mind.

They took the risk to do something unbelievable and here we are today releasing the film in cinemas and that too internationally.

It’s a huge feat and we only have Vashu Ji to thank.

Success has not come easy for you and you’ve cemented yourself as a megastar in Hindi cinema. Given the fact that you have attained this position and play such valiant characters, as we’ll see you in the film – do you ever face a moral or social responsibility with the way you approach or handle certain issues in life and films?

I pick and choose subjects that I find entertaining and what excites me. If they help in giving out a message to the audience, it’s a bonus.

Cinema does play an important role in disseminating key messages and spotlighting key themes and issues so, in that regard, cinema can educate, entertain, and inspire positive action.

I respect the power that popular culture as a medium and of its stars have in helping to move the dial further and wherever possible we should leverage this positively.

Lara began her career alongside you and have worked within several films over the years. What do you feel is the biggest change you’ve witnessed in her as an actor and how do you perhaps think this has impacted the startling transformation as Indira Gandhi?

Lara is a phenomenal actor and I have only watched her grow and get better. She was the first person to come to my mind to essay the role of Indra Gandhi.

I was genuinely tongue-tied when I saw her for the first time in the look and let alone me, nobody could recognise her.

Ranjit had shown me some archived footage of Mrs Gandhi; she had a certain body language and gravitas which I felt Lara could bring to the character and look at what an amazing job she has done.

Congratulations to the makeup artist behind the look, Vikram Gaikwad and his team for pulling it off so convincingly.

Do you feel that there is a need to reinvent yourself too – especially since a lot of your peers are foraying onto the digital space now and we too are seeing an influx of creative stories?

If I look back over the last three decades of my career, I’d like to think I have reinvented myself to avoid pigeon-holing myself in a particular genre or type of role.

Whether it’s the straight action genre to an amalgamation of action and comedy, standalone comedy to family dramas, romance to even horror, I’ve tried my hand at a wide array of genres, roles and narratives.

Cinemas as a canvas are equally experimental as digital mediums, albeit certain content is more permissible in the digital arena than cinema.

And you will be pleased to know that I will also be featuring in a digital series by Amazon Prime called The End.

You recently announced films like Raksha Bandhan and Ram Setu. You had a film like Laxmmi. When working on projects like these, in what way do you ensure that such titles do not propagate anti-religious sentiments or encourage cultural appropriation?

(Not answered).

Lockdown has been incredibly difficult for the world. It’s been a time of grief and pain. How have you dealt with it as an artist and as a health enthusiast, how introspective has it been for you?

Immensely as it reminded me of our privileges which I am grateful for and how precious our health and loved ones are.

The lockdown has forced you to take a step back and take stock of the meaning and value of life and what we really need to focus our time, attention and energy on.

Covid spared no one, in whatever shape and form it touched our lives. it’s the most non-discriminatory disease which has no care for the colour of your skin to your social status or gender.

The pandemic reminded me of the power of global solidarity and unity and how interconnected we all are. We will only be safe if we all are safe.

BellBottom is the second Bollywood film to be released in cinemas here in the UK amidst the ongoing pandemic. What would you like to tell our readers…? Any words of encouragement for audiences to return to the cinemas, as there is still scepticism and fear?

Though Covid has changed the circumstances for some time now, I’m confident that people are ready to begin experiencing normality, whilst maintaining a caution – which honestly isn’t too inhibiting when you consider the restrictions we have lived with over recent months.

Living with Covid is the norm now. After all, how long can people stay cooped up at home, not go to work, to the mall, stadiums, restaurants and of course cinemas?

However we must not be casual, the virus hasn’t gone anywhere so please wear your masks and maintain physical distance.

Also help whoever you can in whichever way you can…in these challenging times, all we have is each other.

In addition to Akshay Kumar, the film also stars Vaani Kapoor, Adil Hussain, Huma Qureshi, Lara Dutta Bhupathi and Aniruddh Dave in pivotal roles. 

BellBottom is produced by Pooja Entertainment and Emmay Entertainment and is out now in UK cinemas. 

Anuj Radia
Journalist and film enthusiast.

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