To star or not to star: Akshay Kumar's Padman urges the content vs popularity conflict

Gautam Chintamani

Jan,14 2017 16:28:06 IST

The fault, as Brutus explained, is not in our stars but in ourselves. This might not be entirely true when it comes to stars of a different kind.

A few days ago the announcement of R. Balki’s new film, which will chronicle the life and achievements of Arunachalam Muruganantham, a social entrepreneur from Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, India who invented a low-cost sanitary pad making machine, was greeted with much enthusiasm.

Akshay Kumar and Twinkle Khanna. Twitter

Akshay Kumar and Twinkle Khanna. Twitter

And, why not. Muruganantham has singlehandedly generated great awareness about traditional unhygienic practices around menstruation in rural India.

His invention can manufacture sanitary pads for less than a third of the commercial cost  and has transformed lives for thousands of women across the nation.

His Ted Talk is one of the most widely shared videos on the Internet. Equally intriguing was the possibility of Akshay Kumar playing the lead role in the film that is tentatively titled Padman. Kumar’s presence was perhaps a foregone conclusion considering that his wife, Twinkle Khanna, was co-producing the film, but the actor clarified that he would not be a part of the film.

Later the producers of the film announced that a Tamil actor would be playing the lead. Kumar’s presence in the film, and that too as the lead, would have ensured the necessary eyeballs, however at the same time, it would also have somewhere hampered the authenticity.

Hindi films have struggled with the catch-22 scenario for a long time, where they believe they need stars to make a project viable enough to reach the maximum number of viewers. But their very presence would bog the entire project down.

Nothing describes this predicament better than Priyanka Chopra in and as Mary Kom (2014). The thought of Ms. Chopra playing Ms. Kom in a biopic that has been officially supported by the celebrated boxing champion is as audacious as it can get.

The creative liberties, beginning with her casting instead of someone who actually resembled Mary Kom, might have marred the authenticity factor yet the film enjoyed a wider appeal thanks to Priyanka Chopra’s presence. Similarly, the casting of Sonam Kapoor as the late Neerja Bhanot in Neerja was readily accepted for the physical affinity that the actor shared with the late brave-heart air hostess.

The critical acclaim that Kapoor garnered for playing Neerja Bhanot was not encumbered by her stardom and while Chopra’s portrayal of Mary Kom was hailed as well, the element of her stardom as something that mars the degree of authenticity continues to be associated with the role.

In the same light, Kumar’s character in Airlift (2016) was constructed on the efforts of not one but four or five people. Kumar as the Kuwait-based Indian businessman Ranjit Katyal made the character, in a manner of speaking, larger than life and this become more pronounced when it was revealed that his role was founded on the lives of two or three people including Mathunny Mathews (popularly known as Toyota Sunny), who along with others coordinated the evacuation of 1, 70,000 stranded Indians during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

The presence of a star in any real life story by itself comes with great baggage.

Had Ben Affleck not playing the ‘hero’ in Argo, a film that he produced and directed as well, the role of the Canadian diplomats in helping the US citizens escape from Iran, which was in many ways attributed to Affleck’s character, would have been highlighted more.

Yet one cannot deny the power the star brings. Take for instance Amitabh Bachchan as the brand ambassador for the government of India’s pulse polio drops mission. In the years that Bachchan was used the programme was a greater success and the continued association with the star from 1995 when he was first used has also been credited as one of the tools that made a great difference in the eradication of the dreaded disease by 2014.

It is here that the other side of the argument – using relatively lesser-known actors to play real-life characters - falls short.

Would Chak De! India have had the same impact had it cast someone else in place of Shah Rukh Khan? Perhaps it might have still been well received, and even successful but the star power added its own value. The story of Arunachalam Muruganantham might not need Akshay Kumar but for better or worse the format of popular Hindi films, unfortunately, is still heavily star dependent.

Intriguingly enough, the manner in which the Padman went against the current and created a machine that is now installed in 23 of 29 Indian states is the ideal story to maybe change the way biopics are made in Bollywood. Both Twinkle Khanna and R. Balki are brands in their own right and they could strike the right balance with Padman where they do not need to trade authenticity in order to accommodate a star to play the lead.

Published Date: Jan 14, 2017 16:28 PM | Updated Date: Jan 14, 2017 16:28 PM