Akshay Kumar's miraculous transformation: From khiladi to poster boy of patriotism
At the time of publishing this article, Rustom has earned over Rs 216+ crore in box office collections.
Pitched against Hrithik Roshan's Mohenjo Daro, the Akshay Kumar-starrer, which has been inspired by the story of KM Nanavati vs the State of Maharashtra, did brisk opening business over the Independence Day Weekend and trade experts had predicted an easy sprint to the Rs 100 crore club for Rustom.
It has now been declared the third-highest Bollywood earner of 2016 — with Kumar's own Airlift at the number 2 spot, while Salman Khan's Sultan leads at the top.
But Rustom's success — in the face of mostly negative reviews — isn't surprising.
And it isn't just because Akshay Kumar — who turned 48 on Friday, 9 September 2016 — is considered among the most bankable stars in the Hindi film industry today.
To put it quite simply — Kumar has cornered the market on patriotism, and Rustom capitalised on that.
When we say that he's cornered the market on patriotism, we don't only mean that Akshay has of late timed his releases to make good use of public holidays like Republic Day and Independence Day for his films (just like the Khans — Salman, Shah Rukh and Aamir — have cadged the festive release windows of Eid, Diwali and Christmas respectively at the box office for their films).
For the past few years, Akshay has had at least one film with a strong patriotic theme releasing every year. If at one time, the 'Khiladi' movies were his forte (Khiladi, Main Khiladi Tu Anari, Khiladi 420, Sabse Bada Khiladi, Mr and Mrs Khiladi, International Khiladi and Khiladi 786), it is now films that purvey a pop patriotism that have become Akshay's biggest earners.
Akshay's transformation into patriotic superstar hasn't been sudden. He's played the tough duty-and-desh loving cop in countless films (going all the way back to Mr Bond, Mohra, Insaaf, Angaarey, Barood, Main Khiladi Tu Anari). He's also played the bumbling/corrupt cop (see, Khakee), cop-by-impersonation (Rowdy Rathore, Khiladi 786) and cop-on-a-mission (Special 26) in several others.
From playing cop, it's been a short step for Akshay to play soldier. While some of his attempts at this flopped (Ab Tumhare Hawale Watan Saathiyon), his recent soldierly efforts have certainly worked wonders: Baby and Holiday: A Soldier Is Never Off Duty being cases in point.
Rustom is only the latest in Akshay's line of man-in-a-uniform, mere desh ki vardi roles. In fact, Rustom moved away from its source material (Commander Nanavati's murder of his wife Sylvia's lover Prem Ahuja) to paint a story of military espionage and patriotism, perfectly timed with an Independence Day release date.
Even when he isn't in a uniform, Akshay's characters have espoused patriotism. His other big earner in recent times, Airlift, cast him in the mould of desh bhakt/saviour, as have films like Gabbar Is Back, and the much older Namaste London.
The actor's propensity to take on films with these themes hasn't gone unnoticed — those who write about the film industry have termed Kumar the 'poster boy of pop patriotism'. But Akshay's natonalistic image goes beyond the movies as well.
While he doesn't harp on it, the fact is, having an army officer for a father (Hari Om Bhatia had left the armed forces and was working with Unicef in Delhi by the time Akshay was born) definitely gives the actor the right credentials.
Akshay has said of his father's army background and how that influenced him:
"I don't have many memories of my dad being in the army, as he had given (it) up by the time I was born, but I have always been brought up in an army way. He would wake me up at 5 am and take me for jogging with him. I was always early to bed and early to rise."
Akshay routinely expresses his admiration for the police force and the army; he has also praised the Modi government's decision to hoist the national flag on university campuses. And this year, he featured in a viral video for BeingIndian, called "I'm An Indian":
Taken together, the message that Akshay is sending seems pretty clear: it isn't just about the talk, it's about walking the talk.
Akshay makes that point in his interviews as well, as in this one:
"I am a true patriot, and I feel proud to be associated with such films. I am lucky that I get to do such films. I think we're all patriots, who doesn't like to see the national flag flying high?"
At the same time, Kumar has been careful to note that his patriotism isn't out of the ordinary — that he's one among the masses in the feeling he has for the country. Read what he had to say in this Indian Express interview:
"My father was in the Army, so perhaps due to that I feel like doing such films. I’m fond of the genre. When such stories come in front of you, you feel good about them. But I don’t want to stress on them. I don’t want to enforce this fact that there is extreme patriotism suddenly rising in me.”
With an Independence Day 2017 release date already locked down for his next film with Neeraj Pandey (with whom he has made Special 26, Baby and Rustom) Crack, and a tag line that promises "Every storm has a rage, every rage has a story" it seems like Akshay will be continuing with the patriotic formula with his next release as well.
(A version of this piece was originally published on 18 August 2016)