Bhatia was the son of a government worker in a country in which acting often runs in the family. As a young man, he trained extensively in dance and martial arts, and his first movie role, nonspeaking and uncredited, was as a martial arts instructor in Aaj (1987; Today). He worked at a Bangkok food stall, tried his hand at modeling, and appeared in several films before being offered a starring role in Deedar (1992; “Glimpse”) by director Pramod Chakravarthy. It was in those early stages of his career that he took the professional name Akshay Kumar.
Kumar acted in a steady stream of thrillers and fast-paced dramas, including Khiladi (1992; “Player”), which brought him considerable attention. His athleticism and daredevil nature were well displayed in action films such as Main khiladi tu anari (1994; I’m the Expert, You’re the Novice), in which Kumar played a police inspector protecting a star witness. He again portrayed a conflicted policeman in Mohra (“Pawn”), one of the most popular Indian films of 1994. Despite his success in those high-intensity roles, Kumar’s good looks also led him to star in romantic comedies such as Yeh dillagi (1994; The Game of Love), a loose adaptation of the American film Sabrina, and Dhadkan (2000; “Heartbeat”), a story of arranged marriage in which Kumar’s character must win over his reluctant bride. Ajnabee (2001; “Stranger”) was a change of pace for the usually charming actor, and his turn as a philandering husband and murderer won him his first Filmfare Award, for best villain.