Mr Bharat: Manoj Kumar To Akshay Kumar

Vinayak Chakravorty

Mar 22, 2019 13:27:10 IST

By now, Bollywood buffs probably suffer withdrawal syndrome if Akshay Kumar does not deliver a fresh dose of pop patriotism on screen every few months. B-Town’s new-generation Mr Bharat has made screen deshbhakti his business — big business, really. It is an image that lets him score tax-free hits, scoop up the National Award and in the process survive a rapidly-changing industry where contemporary superstars Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan are struggling to reinvent.

Mr Bharat: Manoj Kumar To Akshay Kumar

Akshay Kumar (left) & Manoj Kumar

Akshay is back flaunting deshbhakti on his sleeve this weekend with Kesari, a fictionalised account of the Battle of Saragarhi that saw 21 Sikhs valiantly trying to stave off an attack by 10,000 Afghan invaders in 1897. The actor is flamboyantly turned out as Sardar Ishar Singh, who led the fight, wearing a kingsize turban and a pronounced pout for impact.

Kesari is Akshay’s most fiery deshbhakti act yet and it takes his brand of pop patriotism to the next level, beyond the genteel social crusader who was preaching the benefits of toilet hygiene or sanitary pads to rural India.

Interestingly, Akshay’s ongoing deshbhakti strategy recalls memories of Bollywood’s original Mr Bharat. The brand was established decades before he even entered films — by Manoj Kumar, who made a career hardselling the Tricolour emotion in the sixties and the seventies.

Today at 81, Manoj Kumar has retired from the spotlight. His contribution to pop patriotism is restricted to posting videos of Indian soldiers crooning Sandese aata hain on his Twitter handle, @BharatKumar1857, where he introduces himself with a line from his memorable number: “Bharat ka rehne waala hoon, Bharat ki geet sunata hoon”. In contrast, Akshay Kumar’s Twitter identity — @akshaykumar — does not assert jingoism or Indian history. It is mostly about PR activity for the star, and his upcoming films.

There is a vast difference in the Mr Bharat prototype these two actors, separated by generations, have set up. Manoj Kumar’s brand was mellower and more melodramatic than what Akshay has crafted.

Today, Akshay looks set to score big with the Kesari hue in the Holi weekend, although he probably hit the patriotism formula by chance about five years ago while playing the macho soldier who busts a terror outfit while on vacation in Holiday.

At that time, Akshay’s image as a machoman and a comic actor were on the wane. Anyway, traditional notions of Bollywood machismo were being overhauled. The success of Holiday gave out a signal: Playing the mass messiah could still be a saleable proposition if you added a tint of patriotism to the idea.

Soon, he was giving the espionage flick a twist of deshbhakti in Baby (2015). By the time he essayed an anarchist vigilante in Gabbar Is Back the same year, Akshay had already become new Bollywood’s posterboy of patriotism. In 2016, he was rescuing lakhs of fellow countrymen in Airlift and playing the naval officer who sacrifices personal bliss to uphold national security in Rustom — he actually managed a National Award as Best Actor for the last-mentioned role.

Through these films, and the ones that followed, Akshay’s brand of patriotism has grown progressively louder. Yet, at a marketing level, his Mr Bharat is better planned and executed than Manoj Kumar’s. It is also deceptively more realist, and more aggressive while pushing an agenda.

For Akshay, pushing agenda — particularly governmental campaigns — has been an important approach. Over the past couple of years, he has smartly repackaged the larger-than-life Mr Bharat in sync with real-life issues. He was the street-smart lawyer fighting for a woman’s rights in Jolly LLB2 (2017), in a nod to the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao movement. In Toilet Ek Prem Katha the same year, Akshay gave the Swachh Bharat campaign a fictional boost, advocating sanitation hygiene in villages. Pad Man borrowed from the life story of Arunachalam Muruganantham, the man who popularised low-cost sanitary napkins among rural women. Last year’s Gold, based on sporting history, set up the Mr Bharat image as a quasi-fictional hockey coach who battles to create a team that would win India’s first Olympic gold in 1948. In Rajinikanth’s 2.0, as Pakshi Rajan, he highlighted human apathy towards birds.

Akshay’s characters would seem more real than what Manoj Kumar peddled in his days of larger-than-life cinema, which is where a serious problem lies. It is easier to gloss over Manoj Kumar’s brand of overplayed theatrics. Today’s ‘realistic’ protagonists, on the other hand, can easily manipulate mass mindsets while pushing specific agenda. One gets that notion watching Toilet: Ek Prem Katha or Pad Man.

For Manoj Kumar, Mr Bharat as a concept was essentially about setting up melodrama and powerful dialogues. At a commentative level, it was about figuring out the hope and hopelessness of a young nation. Discovering his patriotic mojo with Shaheed in 1965 as Bhagat Singh, Manoj Kumar was playing a city-bred doctor who gives it all up to serve villagers in Himalay Ki God Mein later the same year.

Upkar in 1967 was written to popularise Lal Bahadur Shastri’s message of Jai Jawan Jai Kisan while Purab Aur Pashchim (1970) was a critique of the erosion of Indian values, in the face of western influx. Roti Kapada Aur Makaan in 1974 was a manifesto of homelessness and unemployment in the seventies, which often drove youngsters away from the values of honesty and truth while Dus Numbri (1976) highlighted how counterfeit money was infiltrating society.

By the time Manoj Kumar made the star-studded and over-the-top action melodrama Kranti in 1980, he had obviously run out of social issues to highlight. His graph as a patriotic filmmaker only went downhill after Kranti, with films as Kalyug Aur Ramayan and Deshwasi.

Interestingly, Manoj Kumar and Akshay Kumar co-starred in KC Bokadia’s Maidan-e-Jung in 1995. The film was toplined by Dharmendra, and Manoj Kumar was a tired supporting act by then. The young Akshay Kumar was more concerned about consolidating his Khiladi image, patriotism would have to wait a couple of decades.

Updated Date: Mar 25, 2019 11:58:54 IST

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