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Masala action man mixes it up with Hollywood

  • Story Highlights
  • Bollywood leading man Akshay Kumar has appeared in more than 80 movies
  • A former martial arts teacher, Kumar made his name as an action hero
  • Now he finds himself at the forefront of where Bollywood meets Hollywood
  • India is home to $15 billion film industry -- the world's second largest
By Paul Willis
For CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Bollywood leading man Akshay Kumar plays a character who basks in the glamorous shadow cast by American stars like Sylvester Stallone and Denise Richards in his latest movie.

The 41-year-old is married to fellow Bollywood actor Twinkle Khanna.

Akshay Kumar is one of the biggest names in Indian film.

In reality, Kumar has no need for such humility. One of the biggest names in Indian film, he's increasingly rubbing shoulders with the global glitterati these days.

In "Kambakkht Ishq," he plays a Hollywood stuntman alongside Stallone and Richards, who have cameos in the film.

He starred this year with U.S. rapper Snoop Dogg in the film "Singh is Kinng," and he's set to appear in a film alongside Australian pop star Kylie Minogue later in the year.

The unstoppable rise of Bollywood and the massive popularity of Indian film beyond its homeland have made stars like Kumar hot property.

The poster boy of Indian action films now finds himself at the vanguard of the crossover between the world's two largest movie industries. Video Watch Kumar speak to CNN about his upcoming projects »

The Hollywood men in suits have been eyeing the Indian market greedily for some time. While the economic downturn has hit Tinseltown hard, Bollywood is a rising tiger -- the industry was worth $15 billion in 2008 and is projected to grow by 10 percent, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.

With the notable exception of this year's runaway Oscar hit "Slumdog Millionaire," attempts to make crossover films for both markets have largely failed. The masala mix of genres and exaggerated acting that typifies the Bollywood formula has met limited success in the West.

Instead Hollywood studios have begun bankrolling Bollywood productions solely for the Indian market. But the financial traffic is by no means one-way. In the other direction, Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks recently snagged a multi-million dollar film production deal with Reliance Big Entertainment, one of Bollywood's biggest hitters.

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For Kumar, the strengthening of ties between Hollywood and Bollywood is bringing many opportunities, including the chance to work alongside his childhood hero Stallone. "Well it was great. It was an honor to work with him," he told CNN.

In addition to starring in "Kambakkht Ishq," his other major role this year was as an Indian chef who learns martial arts in "Chandni Chowk Goes to China." The movie was financed by Warner Brothers. (Warner Brothers, like CNN, is owned by Time Warner.)

The typically flamboyant plot of "Chandni Chowk" was loosely inspired by Kumar's own life. Born in Punjab but raised in Delhi, he came to acting late after working as a waiter in Bangkok. While in the Thai capital he learned martial arts, which he taught upon his return to India before becoming a male model.

He landed his first movie role in the 1992 Hindi language film "Deeder" and has gone on to become one of Bollywood's leading men. He is married to fellow actor Twinkle Khanna. The couple created a buzz in India when they fell foul of the country's notoriously strict obscenity laws in March after Kumar encouraged his wife to undo the top button of his jeans at a fashion show in Mumbai. A complaint was lodged with the police and they were briefly questioned.

With more than 80 features to his name, Kumar maintains that a strong work ethic is the reason for his longevity in the movie business. "I think it's the simplest thing. It's actually hard work and punctuality," the 41-year-old told CNN from the London set of his latest movie, a comedy called "Housefull."

"Even if you're not a good actor, to be a producer's actor is essential. If you finish your films on time you save money for the producer," he noted.

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His devotion to the job is coupled with a strong sense of family duty. "I would say my success lies at the feet of my parents because that's been my biggest strength and that's what we Hindus believe," he said.

"Every morning before you go to work just touch your parents' feet and go ahead in life. People may not believe it, but I do."

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