Akshay Kumar backing Bhumi Pednekar's Durgavati may be a welcome change from him hijacking women's stories
It might be for optics but for now, one can celebrate the fact that Bhumi Pednekar has been positioned as the hero of Durgavati, and Akshay Kumar the presenter.
Despite generally low standards, there are those among the film industry who manage to fail them with such unfailing consistency they can baffle even the most cynical minds among us. It is impossible for Akshay Kumar’s name to not immediately leap to the mind in this context.
In the grand tradition of India’s inherent contradictions, even though the 52-year-old actor is among the most bankable actors in Bollywood currently, his public image has been in shambles for some time now. In the last year, Kumar has found himself increasingly becoming the butt of many sarcastic jokes that paint him as someone who cannot seem to step out of the limelight, even when staying in it makes him seem like a credit hog.
While one half of his audience has praised him for being bold enough to play a transwoman in his upcoming film Laxmmi Bomb, the other half condemned him for not using his substantial clout to get an actual trans person to play the role. Before that, he was scorned for dominating the publicity and promotional material for Mission Mangal, a film about the women in the Indian Space and Research Organisation (ISRO), who made the Mangalyaan possible. Not to mention all the murmurs about the changes made to Toilet: Ek Prem Katha to make Akshay Kumar the focus. And then there is the matter of the widespread disgust for his deeply problematic films, rife with sexist humour, such as the Housefull franchise.
So much so that when Kumar tried to weigh in on the gruesome rapes that have been making waves in the country, hundreds of Twitter users pointed out how his own films are guilty of treating women like objects meant for male pleasure, filled as they are with grossly offensive ideas and dialogues.
Given such a sorry track record, the announcement of his upcoming film Durgavati came as a pleasant surprise. While announcing that the film, starring Kumar’s Toilet: Ek Prem Katha co-star Bhumi Pednekar, would go on the floors in January 2020, Kumar and the rest of the crew posted a photograph on social media. In it, Pednekar takes centerstage, carrying a placard identifying her as the ‘hero’, while Kumar identifies himself as the ‘presenter’. Now, in a logical world, that would be par for the course. The ‘hero’ of the film would obviously be the character after which the film is named! But given the Mission Mangal fiasco, nobody would have been surprised if all eyes had been trained on Kumar instead of Pednekar again.
But small as it might be, it is a victory nonetheless. When an actor with as much mass appeal as Kumar relinquishes the spotlight to his female lead, satisfied with playing ‘presenter’ while she assumes the mantle of the ‘hero’ in a big-budget, masala film, it helps chip away at the age-old notion that mass films can only be successful if they are carried on the shoulders of their leading men. Yes, there are the stray Deepika Padukone and Alia Bhatt films where their popularity eclipses that of the men they are paired with, but it is unusual for a relatively small actress like Pednekar to be the centre of attention in a movie with a superstar like Kumar.
The more I observe from the sidelines, the harder it hits me — one of the most irksome things about Bollywood is not just that the bar for baseline reasonableness has been set so pitifully low for its insiders, it is that despite the laughably low expectations, it is still so rare to see them being fulfilled that it almost comes as a shock on the few occasions that they are.
It is true, in the social media economy, where everyone secretly fancies themselves keyboard warrior, the men and women of Bollywood have to contend with an avalanche of criticism, barbed comments, and even ridicule on a daily, and even hourly basis. And, of course, they never fail to remind us of just how hard it is to be a celebrity in a country with such polarised views about practically everything under the sun. But somehow, we never hear them talking about just how easy it is to become the public’s darling, as well.
When actress Parvathy recently commented on the misogyny that runs through the veins of films like Arjun Reddy and its damaging effect on society — while, gasp, sitting opposite its seething star (Vijay Devarakonda) — it was hailed as an act of shocking audacity. It is understandable why, given the visibly uncomfortable reaction of her fellow panelists when she opened that particular Pandora’s box. It is all well and good to speak in generalities and feel-good platitudes, but sh*t gets too real for the film industry’s delicate constitution if someone pointedly starts taking names, like Parvathy did. Around the same time, Taapsee Pannu was trending on social media for refusing to be bullied into speaking in Hindi by a reporter at an event.
There is a lot that could go wrong between now and by the time Durgavati actually releases. Calling the female lead the hero is one thing, actually treating her character like one is quite another. For all we know, this might just be a clever marketing ploy to temporarily paper over Kumar’s sorely-in-need-of-a-makeover public image. Only time will tell. But for now, let us celebrate this small, promising start, while keeping in mind Bollywood’s history of just about scraping past the lowest of our low expectations.
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