Akshay Kumar’s recent film choices don't reflect political leanings but carefully crafted image to stay relevant
Akshay Kumar’s recent film choices have less to do with political leanings, more to a carefully crafted image, an image that keeps him relevant.
There’s been a lot of talk about Akshay Kumar’s political leanings recently. It all started a couple of weeks ago with the hour-long “non-political” interview that Akshay did with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. When the PM (who’s known for avoiding interviews) decides to do a fluff piece bang in the middle of election season, it’s bound to spark debate. The interview covered everything from Modi’s choice of songs to how he likes his mangoes. Understandably, it didn’t go down well with a large section of the population who’re clearly looking for answers to more pressing issues. Whatever the reasons, it’s clearly become the most talked about interview of the year so far, the kind that launched a thousand memes, and a couple of YouTube stars.
When Akshay didn’t turn up to vote in Mumbai five days later, social media erupted over the question of his citizenship. Predictably, he was trolled over his Canadian citizenship by left-wingers, who called him everything from an opportunist to someone who’s making a business out of nationalism. Right-wingers, on the other hand, defended him saying he’s just proving his loyalty to the country of his birth. The actor himself issued a statement via Twitter saying he doesn’t understand the heightened interest and negativity around his citizenship, when he’s never hidden or denied the fact that he holds a Canadian passport. He went on to say he pays his taxes in India and doesn’t need to prove his love for his country to anyone.
The debate, however, has raged on and lately, there’s even been conjecture around his political ambitions. But for those who have closely followed Akshay’s career, this is probably far from a much simpler truth: one that has to do with a carefully crafted image, an image that keeps him relevant.
Akshay has been on Bollywood’s A-list for the best part of the last quarter of a century, and that’s no mean feat. His bankability has always been around his ‘superstar’ appeal and that’s something that’s always hard to retain over a long period of time. When he broke into the industry in the early ‘90s, he built a niche around his martial arts and action skills, coupled with good comedic timing. You might even say Akshay was India’s answer to Jackie Chan; and in a way, he was. The ‘Khiladi’ moniker came with one of his earliest films way back in 1992, and it served him well over the next decade. But after seven Khiladi films, it was probably time to move on. Hurl whatever accusations you might at the man; complacency would never be one of them.
The dawn of the new millennium saw Akshay seriously delving into his comedic reserves, and taking on out-and-out comedies with masters of the genre. He did no less than six films with Priyadarshan between 2000 and 2010, including gems like Hera Pheri and Bhool Bhulaiya. The blockbuster comedy was suddenly a genre that made its way back to theatres with films like Welcome, Housefull and Singh is Kinng, and Akshay was the face driving them. He also began shedding his action hero image over this decade, and picking rom-coms that played to his comedic strengths, Namastey London and Mujhse Shaadi Karogi being examples that really put the ‘com in rom’. This decade started more or less in the same vein for Akshay, with follow-ups to his successful comedy franchises, and more of the same fare in films like Rowdy Rathore and Desi Boyz.
But then in 2013, he did Special 26, a Neeraj Pandey heist film based on true events that went on to do an unexpected Rs 100 cr+ of business at the box office. While it became one of the most talked about films of that year, what’s most interesting in hindsight is the brand new persona that Akshay Kumar donned for it. The plastered hair, caterpillar moustache and simple ‘light shirt-dark trouser’ garb, coupled with a serious no-nonsense attitude gently heralded signs of a reinvention around the corner. Akshay had discovered a persona that every Indian middle-class male looks up to in real life. With a fresh wave of nationalism hitting the country during these years, it was this ‘every man’ that he developed. He took on roles of military officers more than once in the next few years, in films like Soldier, Baby and Rustom. These roles established the new persona — a mature and serious type who fought his personal demons, but retained a strong sense of duty over everything else.
It was time to take this image further and widen his range and that’s what he did in a series of interesting and varied roles. In Airlift, he plays a rich Kuwaiti businessman responsible for the largest civilian evacuation in history, one that almost echoes his response to his current detractors: that his love for his country and countrymen comes first. He plays a small town lawyer in Jolly LLB 2 and in Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, he takes on India’s sanitation crisis. In Padman, he spreads awareness around menstrual hygiene and plays the role of Arunachalam Muruganantham, a real-life social entrepreneur. In Gold, he plays the team manager of the hockey team that won India its first ever Olympic gold medal, and in Kesari, a period drama, he plays the leader of a platoon making its last stand against marauding invaders.
If Akshay’s first transformation was about a changeover from ‘Khiladi’ to versatile comedian and romantic hero, the last five years have been a complete metamorphosis. Gone are the last vestiges of ‘Akki’; this new Akshay Kumar is a larger-than-life character that reflects the growing populism of the world’s largest democracy. Not everyone likes it but you don’t have to, to be able to admire the street smarts that keep this man relevant as a crowd puller and a superstar. The left and the right can keep fighting over him but all that matters to Akshay Kumar is Akshay Kumar.
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