By crafting a careful saintly image, Akshay Kumar has lost the goofy, comedic quality that made him a superstar
In pretending to care for the world, Kumar has chosen to play to the gallery of sainthood, rather than to his strength. Even his purported risks, like playing a transgender character in Laxmii – are employed towards manufacturing consent for his ‘do-good’ image.
For about a decade starting with Priyadarshan’s timeless Hera Pheri (2000), Akshay Kumar was the toast of Indian theatres. Unlike the Khans, who erected franchises that their fans remain subscribers of well past their decline, Kumar built himself up on characters and the peculiar instinctiveness he played them with.
As it must dawn on the Khans at some point, the biggest of stars need to evolve or risk being forgotten and rejected. Shah Rukh, perhaps the most loved and adored of the three, has learned this the hard way. In contrast, Kumar was never as intimately worshipped, but neither has he witnessed scathing rejection. That was until his latest film Laxmii, a dizzying farce that will force you to rethink filmmaking through the lens of ineptitude. Moreover, it’s Kumar’s painful attempt at resurrecting the offhanded, dispassionate comedian of decades ago that grates the eyes and ears in an age when the actor has cast himself, both in cinema and reality, as a saint. For this visible decline, Kumar has only himself to blame.
Priyadarshan’s Hera Pheri cast Kumar in the kind of role he was born to play, a departure from his attempts to first become the romantic and then the action hero. Low on compassion, Kumar essayed the thuggish Raju with aplomb and the kind of bodily energy that resembled a rabbit fighting for survival. Kumar’s acting, especially the tone in which he spoke, had the kind of gall that only Govinda had teased earlier. Indian comedians or comedy actors were expected to be buffoonish, self-deprecating jokers that people would laugh at. Kumar instead brought to this archetype a certain carefree flamboyance that Govinda had only touched the outer limits of. Mediocre films like Garam Masala, Mujhse Shaadi Karogi and Bhool Bhulaiyaa remain watchable to this day for Kumar’s peculiar yet likeable portrayal of his characters.
Kumar has always been an instinctive actor, in that there is a style that comes uniquely just to him. The actor found his feet after he abandoned his half-hearted attempts to romanticise women and embody the heartthrob. In both Garam Masala and Mujhse Shaadi Karogi, Kumar essays a wannabe playboy, a role he seamlessly fit into given his tendency to accentuate the simple pleasures of life – money and women. Even in a film as seemingly serious as Khakee, Kumar played a corrupt cop who hilariously asks a woman he has just slept with, as if zoned out, ‘kaccha kahan hai mera’. These characters never touched the realms of offensive purely due to Kumar's frothy performances that made everyone laugh.
Few actors can extract a chuckle from the conservatives coded into our pathology. For that matter even in the criminally unwatchable Laxmii, there are glimpses of what this instinctive indelicacy could at one point create. And here we are now. It’s not just that times have changed, which they obviously have, but that Kumar has worked furiously to maintain a moralising tone in his film choices rather than stay true to the aloofness of his golden years. For a while, this worked for his image. But nothing lasts forever.
Cinema no longer accounts for just entertainment and is therefore rapaciously dissected along the lines of social and moral histories, something Bollywood got away with for the longest of times. In these current times, Kumar has actively sought the pursuit of nobility. In trying to champion his real world morality and his obsequiously greasy politics, Kumar has managed to rob his own characters of the instinctive arrogance that lit his stardom.
In pretending to care for the world, with the desperation of approval, Kumar has chosen to play to the gallery of sainthood, rather than to his strength. Even his purported risks – playing a transgender in Laxmii, the lone man in Mission Mangal – are employed towards manufacturing consent for his ‘do-good’ image.
To carry this halo above his head and walk across water, Kumar has had to forego qualities that made him unique. The only question Akshay Kumar needs to ask himself is this: does he want to act like he is living or live like he is acting? Because clearly, the twain shall not meet.
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