In the rigid hierarchy of Bollywood, Akshay Kumar occupies that peculiar spot that places him below the Khans – no matter how consistently he performs it somehow seems he’s never good enough to match the Khans – but above Ajay Devgn and Anil Kapoor. Gauged purely from the reams of media write-ups and ‘public perception’, the Khans come across as powerhouses who have reigned over Bollywood as the Big Guns for nearly three decades. In the film world, the box-office is the ultimate marker and let it not surprise you that if it’s strictly about the numbers then Akshay Kumar is a minor juggernaut. Why is he so under-appreciated, then?
Kumar, whose new release this week Toilet: Ek Prem Katha is believed to be a satirical riff on Prime Minister Modi’s pet cause of public sanitation (the PM famously quipped, “Build toilets first, temple later”), has been the most bankable star at least in the last five years. In 2016 itself, a year that truly belonged to him, Kumar capped three 100 crore blockbusters. These include Airlift, Housefull 3 and Rustom, the last of which won him his first ever National Award for Best Actor.
Compared to the recent films of contemporaries like Shah Rukh Khan and Ajay Devgn, Kumar’s output shines through for its diversity, lean business model and a sincere, unwavering star performance by him. Working mostly with new directors, he’s one of the few top stars who can open a film. Once called the Khiladi Kumar for his action star image, the actor (born Rajiv Bhatia) has now been rechristened the “new Manoj Kumar” by the media, a droll reference to the overt nationalism that has become his cinematic trope of late. While he is seen as being close to the BJP, particularly Prime Minister Narendra Modi and their right-wing politics the plain truth is that when you run big businesses it makes sense to be in the good books of the establishment. In his cinema, Kumar is merely appropriating the trend of the times, one patriotic stride at a time.
Kumar started out as an action star but filmmakers soon began discovering his versatility. The Akshay Kumar of circa-Neeraj Panday is vastly different from the Akshay Kumar of Priyadarshan days. Priyadarshan exploited the actor’s comic potential, a talent that was very much his own and on display in many of his 90s hits. As the Priyadarshan phase, with successful comedies like Hera Pheri, Bhagam Bhag and Garam Masala among others, reached its monotonous dead-end and consequently, ran its course Kumar had found a saviour in Neeraj Pandey. Their teaming up became a turning point for him. Unlike Priyadarshan, Pandey focussed on the Khiladi Kumar’s original talent – action. Together, they worked in Special 26, Baby and Rustom (Pandey was the producer). In an interview with the Hindustan Times, Pandey refused to accept credit for the Akshay Kumar resurgence. Asked if he had helped transform Kumar’s image, Pandey said, “It would be foolish to assume that I did anything in this regard. I would credit him for having the hunger to try something new.”
If the last few years have been the best of Kumar’s career, count 2016 as the zenith. Based on the sensational Nanavati case, a crime of passion that had shocked the city of Bombay (Vinod Khanna’s Achanak of 1973 was based on the case with naval officer Khanna killing his wife and her lover), Rustom, according to one review, “could be seen as another step in Kumar’s ongoing reinvention as the honourable, supremely capable all-Indian hero.” The Rustom National Award prize not only surprised the industry but also led some dissatisfied critics to speculate whether he really deserved the prestigious honour.
In Airlift, Kumar’s business tycoon achieves one of the largest evacuation efforts by the Indian government in war-torn Kuwait in 1990. Once again, Kumar wore his patriotism on his sleeve. But being a patriot can also backfire as Kumar realised recently when social media went abuzz with news of his Canadian citizenship. Why is a Canadian citizen preaching us about our Indian values, mocked the trolls.
Whatever is Akshay Kumar’s identity, citizenship and politics, we do know that his Hindi cinema passport bears the visa of contemporary social issues. Like the past few years, his Toilet: Ek Prem Katha opens in theatres in the August 15 weekend. It’s a time when there is more patriotism than pollution in the air and who better than Akshay Kumar to remind you of your Indian-ness?
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai)