MUMBAI— He is a shade bored of questions like why we get to see him very rarely on screen. Akshaye Khanna has never been in the rat-race, and his recent appearances (“Dishoom,” “Mom” and “Ittefaq”) have been few and far between. His latest release “The Accidental Prime Minister” sees him play his first real-life person, Sanjaya Baru, author, political commentator and ex-editor of “The Financial Express.” For the film is a slice-of-life reflection of what happened to ex-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the last four years of his career as a Prime Minister.
Khanna insists he is a content man and also happy with the fact that so many of his films may not have big hits (or even successful) but are favorites on television even now, like his 2008 flop “Mere Baap Pahele Aap” apart from hits like “Hungama” and others.
He also drops the big truth that he has managed, in the last 22 years, to share screen space with greats like his father Vinod Khanna, Rajesh Khanna, Hema Malini, Amitabh Bachchan, Kader Khan, Amrish Puri and Sridevi (“Who can be bigger than her?”). But not one director, he told India-West, has “used me as an actor as well as Vijay Krishna Gutte,” in his latest film.
Excerpts from an interview:
Q: Did you have any apprehensions about doing this role and film? Or about working with a new director?
A: When Vijay narrated the film to me, I liked the script but did not like my role much. So Vijay said, “Give me chance. I will write again.” When he did, I liked what he had written. Simple! Vijay is one of our most promising directors. I tested him so much by having extensive conversations with him. He could have gone wrong, but he has handled the subject with great maturity. I could not have taken that much of a risk in my career to do a film that could have gone wrong!
Vijay has narrated a beautiful story, and you will come out smiling. It’s light, not serious. Many politicians are humorous and so is this film. And we could not possibly disrespect a man like Singh-saab who had done so many things in public life, and been all the things he has.
Q: Did you read Baru’s book? What was your brief?
A: I have read the book twice. Look, the original book is not really screenplay-friendly. It is a difficult book to crack on the screen into a linear story. But it is a sweet subject, and Singh-saab, the protagonist, comes across as sweet as someone who is like your grandfather. Vijay’s only direct instruction was that I should not Google or watch what Baru was on YouTube but to go with his vision and what was in his brain.
I have watched many films after reading the books on which they were based, and the films fell short, but that will not happen this time. Besides, everything shown in the film is in the public domain. Mind you; it is not a biopic. Singh-saab has spent 50 or 60 years in public life. This covers just 10 years from 2004 to 2014.
And Sanjaya, the character I play, is not an ordinary man. The son of someone who was a politician and past president Narsimha Rao’s constant companion and right-hand, and Rao, in turn, has been Singh-saab’s guru, he has such a strong credibility that Singh-saab told him to leave his job of five years to come to work with him.
We have seen every scam and other things happen in the UPA reign from outside. This time, we get the insider’s perspective. And do recognize that even after the book no one has taken Sanjaya to court. The book and the film are clean and non-controversial.
As for Singh-saab, all his spotless decades in public life and his feats have been ruined, in the last four years of the UPA reign, but after this film, he will get back his reputation.
Q: And yet there has been a PIL (Public Interest Litigation) filed, of all people, against Anupam Kher and you, who are just playing the roles of real-life people.
A: Who are we to comment on that? The judges will decide. We are not aiming for controversy but for a debate. And that’s healthy! The media must support a national debate, which is what is important, for films will come and go.
But I will say one thing: that after Jan. 11, my film’s release date, ours as well as the world’s perception of our freedom of expression and speech in India will change for good. This is a debate, not attack or controversy. A person in public life, a public servant who works for the government, is accountable to society. People, for example, have the right to speak against my late father even now.
Q: You have worked with so many great directors.
A: Yes, I am attached to all my films. But the tragedy of an actor is that he cannot do anything alone. It is the director who must use him. Like Ramesh Sippy made Gabbar Singh. And I do not think anyone has used me like Vijay has. Vijay is a great fan of Manoj Kumar and showed him the trailer. Manoj-saab, such a great director himself, liked it a lot and called me up, saying “Himalayputra (Akshaye’s debut film), kaise ho (how are you)?” And then, he too told me, based only on the trailer, that the way Vijay has used me no one else had done so far.
Vijay did everything for me. I had to just act when the camera switched on! Sometimes, a director has much more contribution to an actor’s performance than the actor himself. After two or three days of shooting, we were chatting in Vijay’s house. He occasionally becomes very serious, and so told me, “If YOU don’t understand my vision, why should I make the movie?” And I replied, “If you cannot explain your vision, why am I here?” He laughed and said that his vision was that I should smile throughout the film, no matter how serious the scene. So I have done that in every shot, and it has worked well!
Q: After 22 years, you are still hungry for work…
A: Yes, to the point that I am starving! My look test for “Sanju” failed, for I was dying to work with Rajkumar Hirani! But now I am also doing a sweet romantic comedy of the kind I have been appreciated for in the past.