For years, Akshay Kumar suffered from what could only be described as the ‘Dharmendra problem.’ Like Dharmendra, this Khiladi son of the soil has been quietly craving recognition – a disproportionate bulk of which went to the Khans. Both outstanding actors, blessed with mainstream movie star good looks, legit action heroes in the time of hill station romance, diligent, blue-collared workers and laden with dollops of raw and country-cousin innocence when it comes to the wily ways of Bollywood, Dharmendra and Kumar delivered blockbuster after blockbuster but were rarely taken seriously by two constituencies that shape national opinion, the urban sophisticates and chin-stroking critics. While Dharmendra had the advantage of headlining Bimal Roy’s social dramas and Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s middle-of-the-road comedies, Kumar has had no such hosannas. Imagine what he could have done under the literary aegis of a Bimal Roy or Mukherjee. Even Gulzar (who opted for the embarrassingly wooden Suniel Shetty, and Jeetendra before that) would have done.
In the beginning of his career, Kumar was just another long-haired B-movie hero in the Arnie-Sly mould. How this Khiladi managed to turn from a gawky action star to Castro of the Priyadarshan-led comic revolution and Neeraj Pandey’s fast-paced espionage adventures and finally, the patriotic pop icon in the times of jingoism, Kumar’s consistency of staying power and subsequent reinvention is perhaps the most astonishing turnaround in the history of contemporary Hindi cinema. It’s astonishing, but not surprising.
Only less than a decade ago, Kumar was headed for a grinder. He had come to the end of his Priyadarshan phase, which had seen its apogee long back in Hera Pheri. Co-starring Suniel Shetty, his 90s rival and the chameleon-like Paresh Rawal, Hera Pheri is now a much-loved cult classic in the way that Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro and Andaz Apna Apna were to certain movie-goers. But Priyadarshan and Kumar kept pushing it, less in the hope of a Hera Pheri repeat than yet another multi-starrer hit. By 2010, with the likes of De Dana Dan and Khatta Meetha failing to fill seats and with the additional assault of Tees Maar Khan and Patiala House, Akshay Kumar, though still a highly popular movie star, was on his way to becoming a box-office stigma.
And then, OMG: Oh My God!, a brave satire on religion that many critics found way better than Aamir Khan’s PK but curiously lesser known, put Kumar back in the reckoning. It shifted people’s perspective about Kumar, who had so far been associated with massy comedies and action hits and had not shown any experimental streak. Social messaging? That was new for the Akki fans. In 2013, Kumar teamed up with Neeraj Pandey – a Priyadarshan of thrillers – in the enjoyable heist Special 26. Few would have guessed that this trickster pulling off an Ocean’s Eleven-ish con job would in the future films smoothly transition to the other side of the law – becoming, without the audience knowing like a sleight of hand, from criminal to true patriot. It has been suggested that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s newly-elected right-wing government in 2014 and a wave of nationalism in the wake of the BJP assuming power coincided with Kumar’s transformation into a new-age Manoj Kumar. Indeed, if Manoj Kumar were working today, he would have been appropriated by the BJP. Though Akshay Kumar rarely broadcasts his political leanings publicly and like most Bollywood stars appears non-political and non-partisan maintaining safe distance from dissent, his pro-Modi dalliances aren’t lost on observers.
Fast forward to now, every Akshay Kumar film has to have mandatory elements of patriotism into the mix. Even in Rustom, in which Kumar played the betrayed and wounded husband in a film that should have essentially remained about infidelity and a frenzied crime of passion he managed to bring the “traitor or patriot?” angle. In the last few years, Kumar has monopolised the Republic Day and Independence Day holidays, reserving these important dates for his releases. If Salman Khan had Eid, Shah Rukh Khan – Diwali and Aamir Khan – Christmas, Kumar was forced to take the only available slot on the calendar. And he did well in taking that. In 2016, he released Airlift and Rustom in the Republic Day and Independence Day week respectively. Last year, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha opened on August 11, to coincide with Independence Day.
The icing on the cake was his National Award for Rustom, a first in a long and worthy career but some sceptics felt it was undeserved. Come on, even Saif Ali Khan who played second fiddle to Kumar (Main Khiladi Tu Anari), a sort Salman Khan to Aamir Khan (Andaz Apna Apna), got one for Hum Tum. If he can, why not Akshay Kumar?
If the last two years have worn well on Kumar, the next few look even better. Firstly, there’s PadMan that was initially scheduled to open on January 26, continuing with his patriotic bookings, but had to make way for the controversial Padmaavat. Directed by R Balki, the film (releasing on February 9) explores the issue of sanitary hygiene in rural India, loosely making it a diptych to Toilet: Ek Prem Katha. He will also be seen as a villain in the Rajinkanth starrer 2.0 and there’s Gold, which hopes to work India into an Olympic fervour all over again, a la Bhaag Milkha Bhaag.
Finally, just finally, Akshay Kumar finds himself in the top billing, travelling in the same compartment as the Khans. Salman Khan, in fact, thinks he’s a bigger star than the Khans. He may be right. Akshay Kumar’s bankability is much vouched for. Kumar’s films may not be as staggering as Aamir or Salman Khan’s but there’s a sustained consistency and continued presence that makes him a sort of Matt Damon-esque figure of Bollywood.
His silver-fox suaveness, athletic physique and extreme self-discipline (at par with, say, an Amitabh Bachchan) is what the media always cites as Akshay Kumar’s strongest suits. There’s another suit we tend to miss out on: his ferocious appetite for being who he is rather than being someone else, his lack of desperation to be loved and mainly, his outsider, no-industry-connection status. As the Padman star himself once sang, revealing that gaunt face behind a mask amidst prods of “Tu kaun hai? (Who are you)”, “Na hum Amitabh, na Dilip Kumar, na kisi hero ke bachche, hum hain seedhe saadhe Akshay (Neither am I Amitabh and Dilip Kumar nor a star kid, I am the humble Akshay.”
Replace Dilip Kumar with Manoj Kumar in that Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi number and you have the perfect Akshay Kumar ringtone.
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai)