Another Friday. Another movie with an ageing Bollywood actor playing someone half his age and romancing a 25-year-old debutante. Add to this some fighting against Muslim invaders and (wait for it) lions too! If anything, it just proves that Bear Grylls missed a trick or two. Why, after all, settle for Elephant Dung tea when you can throw in some ardent religious fervour, blend it with self-righteousness and cook up some fresh history?
Samrat Prithviraj has definitely promised a return to familiar territory for the 54-year-old Akshay Kumar, who hasn’t had the best couple of years.
After Laxmii (2020), his big lockdown release was labelled as anti-Hindu by the guardians of our culture, Kumar has had a string of middling outings at the box office. Films like Bell Bottom (2021), Sooryavanshi (2021) and Bachchhan Paandey (2022) were all expected to be huge box-office draws as cinemas got back to normal, but none of them really matched up to those expectations.
'Had to Craft His Image Time & Again'
With over 130 films to his credit and a dozen or so in the pipeline, he’s easily the most prolific actor of his generation. And like any leading man around the world who’s managed to stay in the limelight for so long, he’s had to reinvent and carefully craft his image time and again.
As Khiladi (1992), Kumar’s break-out film celebrated its 30th anniversary this past weekend, it’s enough to bring a wistful smile to every Bollywood fan growing up in the 1990s; that decade did after all, have no less than seven Akshay Kumar films with the word Khiladi in their titles. While it probably didn’t start out as a deliberate move, it still remains one of the best image-building exercises Bollywood has ever seen. That decade might now be remembered by most as the one that established Shah Rukh Khan as a romantic superstar, but it’s also the one that made Akshay Kumar India’s undisputed action hero. He would be known as Khiladi Kumar for a long, long time to come.
'Akshay - India's Answer to Jackie Chan'
To the guy scalping tickets outside a single screen, Akshay Kumar was India’s answer to Jackie Chan. And perhaps that’s where someone somewhere figured that comedy might help Kumar’s star shine brighter.
As a new millennium dawned, the actor began experimenting with comedic roles, something that would bring rich dividends later in his career. Priyadarshan’s Hera Pheri (2000) is still considered to be one of the best comedies ever made in Bollywood, and Kumar’s comedic timing came as a pleasant surprise, particularly to those who looked at his acting skills with scepticism. The next decade-and-a-half were all about leveraging ‘Akki the Star’ over his Khiladi persona and his biggest hits, more often than not, were in the action-comedy genre. Films like Awara Pagal Deewana (2002), Garam Masala (2005) Bhagam Bhag (2006), Bhool Bhulaiyaa (2007), Welcome (2007), Singh is Kinng (2008), Housefull (2010) and Rowdy Rathore (2012) carried the unmistakable stamp of Akshay Kumar, who was becoming a mini-industry all by himself.
'Akshay's Rags-to-Riches Story Added to His Aura'
This act was becoming a little old though, and no one knew it better than the ageing actor himself. It was time for a change.
It’s here that Kumar’s humble beginnings would have a huge part to play. The country was going through changes, and nationalism was on the rise. The industry too found itself being forced to make changes.
Nepotism in the industry was being called out and being an outsider was now an advantage, at least in terms of an actor’s public image. And Kumar was ‘the’ rank outsider, the one who dared to dream of being a leading man, the one who made it to the very top.
What really added to his aura though, was his fascinating rags-to-riches story. As a people, Indians were already buying into the myth of a superman who rose from the ranks of ordinary men, and all it took was some carefully crafted storytelling for Kumar to ride that wave. Good PR, after all, was the new guiding force for a billion people. The slightly exaggerated backstory of a Bangkok cook who mastered multiple martial arts could have been straight out of a movie script, but it firmly established the actor as one of the people, and yet a god amongst them. He just needed to bring some of that to his on-screen avatars, and that’s exactly what he did.
The Stark Change From Churning Out 'Mindless Fare' to 'Scouring India's History'
Over the next few years, he picked films that were starkly different from the kind of mindless fare he was so used to churning out. He played a real-life character in the critically acclaimed Airlift (2016), while Rustom (2016), based on the famous Nanavati murder trial of 1959, even won him the National Award.
In Jolly LLB 2 (2017), he plays a Lucknow-based underdog lawyer while he champions a woman’s right to sanitation in Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017). Continuing in the same vein, the actor played another real-life character in Padman (2018) where he invents a machine to make inexpensive sanitary pads for the women of rural India. In Gold (2018), he plays the coach of the hockey team that won India its first Olympic medal as a free nation in 1948, while in Mission Mangal (2019), he plays a rocket scientist that led the ISRO Mars Orbiter Mission, Mangalyaan.
The path forward was pretty clear. Akshay Kumar would scour India’s history and find interesting characters to play; this would be his legacy.
At this point in his career, Akshay Kumar was clearly at the peak of his popularity – partly because he understood that this was a country thirsty for common-man-turned-saviour stories and partly because he backed his on-screen personas with a synchronous multi-media image reinvention. He would be amongst the first to pledge money to social causes and his social media handles began to address those very social issues. He also made it a point to tell everyone how much he loved his country, just as he did in his movies and the PSAs he was doing. Cynics would question the fact that he forfeited his Indian citizenship years earlier in favour of a Canadian passport, but his believers far outnumbered them. He now had a loyal army of fans and supporters who would back his every move.
Time to Reassess His Choices?
The pandemic, however, seems to have thrown a bit of a spanner in the works for the superstar. While Kumar’s donating Rs. 25Cr to the PM’s relief fund made headlines during the early days of the pandemic, it was people like Sonu Sood who walked away with the honours by being physically present and working for the populace. It would seem like a huge chunk of India’s population had begun to see that true heroes walked amongst them rather than on-screen.
That Kumar plays a Muslim character in Laxmii (2020) didn’t just alienate his core right-wing Hindutva audience but the film being a terrible watch didn’t win him any new fans either. Whether this has a bearing on the fact that all his films since then haven’t done well is probably something that’s given Kumar sleepless nights.
Interestingly, Samrat Prithviraj is the first time he finds himself participating in a film that distorts history in favour of the majoritarian Islamophobic narrative. It’s a ploy that made Kashmir Files the huge success it was, and should have been the one thing that could return Kumar to being the blue-eyed boy of India’s right-wing. He’s pulled out all stops to promote the film and some of the country’s leading politicians have expectedly backed it too as a must-watch. Unfortunately, Prithviraj has done less than Rs. 40 Cr on its opening weekend in India and is highly unlikely to recover its budget that is rumoured to be in the region of a few hundred crores.
Is this then where the veteran actor realises that an online troll army isn’t quite the same thing as a paying audience? Or is this where he reinvents himself again?
(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)