By Jyothi Venkatesh
Akshay Kumar celebrated his 55th birthday yesterday. The current superstar was very lean and lanky 34 years ago when I met him for the first time and he was known only as Rajiv Bhatia and was assisting the well-known photographer, Jayesh Sheth. The venue I met him was a lovely cottage with a garden in the exotic Madh Island in Mumbai where I had accompanied the pretty starlet Renu Arya who was excited that she was all set to make her debut in films with a film called Biwi Ho To Aisi starring Farouque Shaikh and Rekha in the lead.
No one knew that yet another lean and lanky boy who was destined to be a competitor to Akshay Kumar was also being introduced in the film Biwi Ho To Aisi. His name was Salman Khan and he was the privileged son of Salim Khan, who was one of the popular writers-duo Salim- Javed. While Salman Khan played the role of Vikram Vicky Bhandari, Renu Arya played the role of his beloved called Aarti in it. The film was directed by rge tgeb prpoduction controller J.K. Bihari and the year was 1988.
Today I am writing this article as a tribute to he then 23-year-old boy called Rajiv Bhatia, who later on emerged as one of the most prolific and handsome stars in the 1990’s with the screen name of Akshay Kumar. The boy who was assisting Jayesh in his photo shoot sessions by catching hold of the lights while he was shooting top notch models and actresses including Rekha, did not know when he was busy assisting Jayesh that a day would come when he would be privileged to act with the likes of Rekha and Salman Khan too in films, as a successful star, as time proved, whereas Renu Arya has receded into oblivion after taking up a job as an air hostess after working in a film like Biwi Ho To Aisi, with Salman Khan as her leading man and Farouque Shaikh and Rekha as her co-actors.
Frankly, I did not dream that the lanky boy would eventually end up as a big superstar in Bollywood called Salman Khan, and what’s more, would give the other stars a big threat and also a run for their money by being prolific with as many as five to six films coming up every year with him as the leading man, most of which are also being produced by him, including Bell Bottom which was the first Hindi film to start shooting post the pandemic, that too in far off Scotland. It is altogether yet another thing that the film flopped like nobody’s business wherever it was released with the exception of Maharashtra and several films have been released in succession one after the other including films ike Bachchan Pandey, Prithviraj and Rakshabandhan and last but not the least the latest Cuttputlli.
Incidentally, I could get to see the film only when it was released on OTT Amazon Prime Video and since Akshay was in London shooting for a film, the PR person Parag Desai had coolly forgotten to invite a senior film critic like me for the press show of Bell Bottom at Baroda. However, one thing that I always notice whenever I bump into the star is that he continues to be down to earth and humble and is yet to throw airs as a superstar.
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We will do a flashback back to the photo session at Madh Island. I still remember how during the break in the shoot by Jayesh Sheth for lunch, when Jayesh asked me if I would like to have chilled beer since it was very sultry hot, I asked him to get three bottles of chilled beer and he in turn had ordered his assistant to fetch them from a wine shop nearby. The boy’s first reaction was to tell us that he does not drink at all and hence he did not know the location of the wine shop. However, when Jayesh handed over a 100 rupee note to him, he said that three bottles of beer would cost Rs 105 as each bottle costed Rs 35. Jayesh and I reprimanded him for telling a ‘lie’ that he does not drink, and he shot back sheepishly, “My friends drink beer and I have seen them buying beer bottles at wine shops”.
Rajiv fetched three bottles of chilled beer for us and when I asked him why he did not buy any ‘chakna’ to go with the beer, he said that he did not have five rupees in hand as change and I gave him a tenner and asked him to fetch some ‘sheng daana’ and without any hesitation, the poor guy ran back to fetch us ‘sheng danas’.
When the press was being introduced to the newcomer Akshay Kumar by director Pramod Chakraborty at a party to mark the completion of his film Deedar, by Chakkida, as Pramod Chakraborty was affectionately called, when I told Akshay Kumar “Glad to meet you”, immediately Akshay told me that he had already met me at Jayesh’s shooting and reminded me that he was assisting Jayesh at that time. I was flummoxed because he did not conceal the truth in front of the media and decided to be his fan for life for telling me the truth.
The next time I met Akshay was in Mauritius where I had gone with the late producer Champak Jain and his brother and my friend Ratan Jain of Venus who was producing the film to cover the shooting of Main Khiladi Tu Anari. Present at the venue was Shilpa Shetty with whom Akshay shot for the breezy romantic title track Main Khiladi Tu Anari the very next day of my having landed there in Mauritius.
Ratan Jain, elder brother of Champak had actually asked the PRO of the film Ajit Ghosh to fetch me to Mauritius with him but he insisted on getting his journalist friends from important papers like Screen, Filmfare, Cine Blitz and Stardust for the outdoor shooting and not me alone as I was just a freelancer and in anger, Ratan just cancelled the idea of taking Ajit Ghosh along and just took only me. It was a lovely trip for five days and my first ever visit to Mauritius way back in 1993.
The day after the shooting of the first day of the song, Akshay was free and offered to drive the car which was at his disposal in the beaches of Mauritius where we could hardly bump into anyone other than the unit. The staunch teetotaler that Akki is, he shunned beer whereas I spent time drinking chilled beer at noon by the beach, in the company of Ajay Devgn’s friend cum Secretary Kumar Mangat.
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While driving the car back, he skidded it over the sand dunes in the beach and the car was almost overturned and when I promptly told Ratan what had happened, Akshay was livid with anger but could only mutter aap ke pet mein kuch nahi rakhte hain aap. The same evening, Abbas (of Abbas and Mustan duo) was all set to celebrate his birthday in the same hotel ( if I remember it was named Blue Beach) where we were staying and there was a big bash in the evening which was also attended by Saif Ali Khan, Rajeshwari, who were shooting for the film Andolan and Tabu and Ajay Devgn who were shooting with Abbas-Mustan for a film which was later shelved and Shilpa Shetty.
Akshay and Ajay are big prank masters in the industry and decided to teach me a lesson by dumping me into the pool when I was gossiping with Tabu and Shilpa Shetty by the pool with a glass of scotch. Just before I was mercilessly dumped, I remember telling Tabu and Shilpa that I did not know swimming at all and when they saw me struggling to come outside the pool, Shilpa started screaming at both of them to jump into the vast pool and rescue me from swimming and drowning.
Ajay and Akshay removed their pants and jumped in their underwear to rescue me from the pool but when Ajay, Akshay and Ratan made me lie by the poolside, I pretended to be breathless to scare everyone off , but though I thought that Tabu or Shilpa would save me by planting their lips on mine to resuscitate me ,when Ratan Jain decided to resuscitate me , I was startled and jumped up and it turned out to be a memorable night for everyone in the unit that day- a birthday neither Abbas, Mustan, Ajay, Akshay, Shilpa or for that matter Tabu would be able to forget till date, I presume.