For an actor who famously started his working life as a waiter and a cook and whose early days in Bollywood were spent leaping mid-air, Akshay Kumar has come a long way. With $40.5 million (Rs 2.78 billion) to his name and ranked 76 in the global Forbes Top Earning 100 Celebrities 2018 list, he is the biggest celebrity brand that India has today, leaving the industry’s three Khans (Salman, Shah Rukh and Aamir) who have held sway for years, way behind.
Kumar has moved up four places from 2017 list (80) and ousted Salman Khan from the pedestal. Salman, who ranks 82 on the 2018 Forbes list, is down 11 places from 2017 (71) and Shahrukh Khan who was ranked 65 in the 2017 list is not on it this year.
Kumar made his debut in 1991, as an ‘action’ star in movies that looked for athletic prowess over acting chops. Soon however he donned a new mask, that of a comedy star and then recently, he has changed his colours yet again. Today Kumar is known for the nationalistic-patriotic roles he does, a persona he often carries into his off-screen engagements with brands.
Many see this as Kumar’s final coming, his progression from the sidelines of Bollywood and brand endorsements right to the centre of the stage. But what is it about the actor; opportunism or consummate acting skills or an ability to keep his nose to the grind that makes him a saleable brand today?
Hero with many faces
Listen to some of the old interviews of Akshay Kumar on YouTube and if there is one thing that strikes you is that he rarely (if ever) talks about an acting bug. Stunts, dancing, money, martial arts—these are the big attractions that Bollywood held out for him right from the start. In one interview he even spoke about how he was bowled over by the huge jump in his monthly pay packet that came about by doing just one movie.
An actor evolves and so has Akshay, says an industry expert. Now how much of this is to please people or the powers that be or simply mercenery instincts and how much, a reflection of his evolution as an artist is difficult to say he adds.
“It’s not possible to say what part of his evolution has been by accident and what part is deliberate. The fact remains that he has always been a good actor and managed to move from the role of an inane action hero, to becoming an actor’s actor,” says Harish Bijoor, CEO Harish Bijoor Consults.
Akshay’s entry into the Rs 100-crore club is fairly recent, around 5-6 years. Around the same time, Kumar began working on scripts that dealt with social problems or espoused a nationalistic cause. Special 26 (2013) is seen as the turning point, a movie about fighting corruption, it was followed by a host of similar movies until 2016 when Airlift, Jolly LLB 2, Rustom saw him fixing the mould quite firmly around patriotic themes. And then came Toilet–Ek Prem Katha (2017) and most recently Padman (2018) that are all about national pride and common man heroism tales.
His next release Gold (August 2018) also fits the trend.
“With his choice of films, especially in the past few years, he has carved a niche, and that’s given him an edge over his peers like Salman Khan. Also, the evolution of his roles has come as he ages, which is even better,” Bijoor says.
Actor Akshay has gained from the different roles that he has assayed. Sandeep Goyal, founder, Mogae Media believes that his choice of films has not only helped project him as the ‘nice guy’, but has also helped the actor prove his mettle as a versatile artist. “His work, from his Khiladi days, to comedy to his more recent projects, Akshay has proven his versatility.”
The actor as a brand
Not only has Akshay Kumar chosen his roles around a particular theme, he has also been careful about how he cultivates a nice-guy, controversy-free image. Goyal says, “In recent years, his films have allowed him to show his talent as an actor and they also invariably hail him as a hero of the public. This, coupled with the fact that he has been fairly controversy free, has helped mould his image as an honest, socially conscious celebrity.” Kumar has also been in the news for being among the highest advance tax payers from Bollywood, which adds to the image of being an honest citizen.
All the work that has been put into cultivating the persona of Kumar has helped him attract brand endorsement deals. He currently endorses close to 20 brands across categories. Industry estimates put his endorsement fee in the range of that charged by Ranbir Kapoor—Rs 35-40 million per day per brand. He usually dedicates three to four days a year per brand, though the details may vary from deal to deal. With Twinkle Khanna also becoming active on the endorsement front, the couple as a brand has gained popularity. The two have signed on with PC Jewellers and real estate developer Lodha.
However there is a chance that Akshay’s dalliance with nationalistic and patriotism-themed movies could limit endorsement choices. “After a point, it may not make sense for Akshay to endorse a brand like Thums Up or other mass brands. Instead, brands which resonate his personality which may be a bit more niche, but meaningful, would be a better fit,” Bijoor adds. Another hurdle Goyal sees in brand Akshay’s journey to the top is the absence of a significant television presence. “TV gives you a different kind of reach. It got Amitabh Bachchan into people’s homes with KBC and it did wonders for his popularity,” he says.