(IANS Series) Game Of B-Town Throne: Part 2

AKSHAY KUMAR & AJAY DEVGN: FROM UNDERDOGS TO MIGHTY SURVIVORS

By Vinayak Chakravorty

(Continuing with our series on contemporary Bollywood heroes, we focus on Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgn who, after starting out as underdogs over two decades ago, emerged as mighty survivors in the industry.)

Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgn had nothing yet everything in common when they started out. Akshay had arrived as a rank outsider, coolly flaunting his Purani Dilli roots and proudly announcing to the world how he had served tables and taught martial arts in Bangkok before Bollywood beckoned. Ajay belonged to the industry. He was ace action choreographer Veeru Devgn's son, an industry ka beta.

Despite seemingly having nothing in common by way of roots, Akshay and Ajay straightaway shared a common plight: They were dubbed by industry watchers and pundits as the underdogs for the top spot in an era when three other budding stars – Shah Rukh, Salman and Aamir Khan – were clearly emerging as bigger box-office darlings. For Akshay and Ajay, a lifelong battle would begin right from day one, to emerge out of the constant comparisons with the Khan trio.

The two had another factor in common. In their early days both Akshay and Ajay were billed as action heroes. While Akshay consciously developed an image as a martial arts expert (also an expert dancer) right from his first film "Saugandh" (1991), Ajay Devgn's iconic entry scene in his debut film "Phool Aur Kaante" (1991) – balanced atop two moving motorbikes – established him as a man of action.

The image of machismo was an instant hit for both. In no time, they carved a niche as mass heroes.

Survival in Bollywood, however, was a notion that changed over the years that these two actors grew in stature – from stars to superstars. By 2000, Akshay was tapping into the innate comic talent he had already showed in several films for a decade now, with Priyadarshan's evergreen gem, "Hera Pheri". Ajay had already won a National Award for the 1998 film, "Zakhm". He would win another in 2002, for "The Legend Of Bhagat Singh".

AKSHAY: THE SUPERSTAR OF REINVENTION

Between the two actors, Akshay's metamorphosis has been more obvious through the years. His phases are clear cut. In his early years he was the action hero who could dance but impressed few as an actor. Then came the phase when he excelled as the comic hero who surprised all with his timing. Lately, he has been a bonafide actor with restrained skills and solid screen presence, who is a National Award winner.

At over 50 now, Akshay commands an unprecedented career high. Realising his Khiladi image was losing impact at a time when Bollywood fans were hunting for solid content, Akshay's strategy to face Bollywood's ongoing era of change, has been clear-cut. He has quickly moved onto making feel-good entertainers that address a social issue.

All his recent films have been riding strong nationalistic fervour, and highlighting societal commentary. If his latest release, "Mission Mangal", encourages empowerment of women through the real-life account of ISRO's Mars Orbit Mission of 2013, "Kesari" earlier fuelled belligerent patriotism by narrating the tale of the Battle of Saragarhi. "Pad Man" encouraged the use of sanitary napkins in rural India while "Toilet: Ek Prem Katha" was about the need to build pucca toilets in rural India. He has played the patriot who fights for the nation in "Baby" just as in "Airlift" he has thrived essaying the do-gooder NRI who helps rescue thousands of stranded Indians in a daredevil evacuation process from a war-ravaged foreign land.

Among his upcoming films are "Sooryavanshi" where he plays the cop on a mission, and "Laxmmi Bomb", a comedy-horror that denounces superstition and blind faith.

Akshay's strategy has always been to move with the trend. In an India that is politically charged as never before, he has been quick to understand the winning trick of the hour is to focus on issues and talk of social welfare through his films. It may not be the most sureshot idea to score the biggest hit of all time, but it is good enough to a strategy to make it to the "Forbes" list of highest-paid actors in the world – and win a National Award, too. Of course, throwing an occasional "Housefull" flick into the mix occasionally will keep the larger mass fan base happy, too.

Among all of Bollywood's fifty-plus superstars, Akshay looks the best-suited to survive and thrive.

AJAY: FOREVER THE DARK HORSE

Being Ajay Devgn has always had an advantage. When you have such immense talent and understated persona, you can effortlessly juggle genres. Over the years, Ajay has been an action hero, an intense actor, a comedian and an antihero. Most pundits point out how he expresses with his eyes as few other actors can. Over the years, Ajay has learnt to use his gaze variously and with impact.

Ajay Devgn's stature in his generation of top stars has been one of the dark horse, who is forever expected to spring a surprise. Lately, he has focussed on filmmaking too, though not with much success. His two directorial efforts – "U, Me Aur Hum" in 2008 and "Shivaay" in 2016 – were duds.

Over the recent months, Ajay has seen a decent run at the box-office with "De De Pyar De" – a film that raked in 102.4 crore at the domestic box-office, just short of being declared an all-out hit. His other release, ‘Total Dhamaal" was an above average fare given its budget. The film earned Rs 154.3 crore in at the Indian box-office.

Ajay's last major hit was "Golmaal Again" in 2017, and the actor, now over 50, is falling back on a gameplan that has traditionally worked for him: Ajay Devgn believes in quantity. At a time when top stars, male as well as female, are cutting down on films, Ajay is all set to flood the market with four releases over the months of 2020.

In the self-produced period extravaganza "Tanaji", he reunites with wife Kajol to essay the valiant Marathi warrior, Tanaji Malusare. "Bhuj" is a slice-of-life patriotism multistarrer where he plays the role of Squadron Leader Vijay Karnik. In "Maidaan", Ajay will essay the role of Syed Abdul Rahim, the man widely regarded as the architect of football in modern India. And in Neeraj Pandey's "Chanakya" he plays the title role of the Chanakya, the man universally accepted as the pioneer of economics and political science in India.

It doesn't take long to understand Ajay Devgn's gameplan, looking at that roster. He has latched onto the nationalist formula, which at this point of time is reaping rich benefits at the Bollywood box-office. His roles in his upcoming films are all about towering personalities who led in their respective fields.

For Ajay, a blockbuster is long due. Maybe, it lurks somewhere in his 2020 roster.

Both Akshay and Ajay, like almost every top actor lately, prefer producing their own films – at least the ones they consider important. So, over the coming months, Akshay co-produces all his major upcoming films. Ajay has signed up as a producer on "Bhuj" and "Tanaji".

Clearly, acting spells big money, but producing your own film spells big business for our Bollywood stars.

(Figures courtesy koimoi.com)

COMING UP IN THE SERIES: THE NEW-GEN MAVERICKS

--IANS

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