The Pulp Pit

How Akshay Kumar reinvented the patriotic hero in Bollywood

To suit current audiences, he is cleverly spiking it with a dose of realism.

 |  The Pulp Pit  |  4-minute read |   25-01-2016
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Airlift, Bollywood’s latest big release, would seem to underline Akshay Kumar’s new brainwave at reinventing his superstardom. He plays Ranjit Katyal, an influential Kuwaiti businessman of Indian origin that official records have never acknowledged as a real person.

The film’s carefully crafted screenplay ironically establishes him as the hero who would rescue over a lakh Indians stranded in Kuwait when Iraq attacked that country in 1990.

Akshay Kumar wants to be Bollywood’s new Bharat Kumar. He has had one release every year lately to evidence as much. Holiday, Baby and Gabbar Is Back have been the actor’s shots at becoming the new-age posterboy of pop patriotism.

Amid his cluttered roster that normally sees three to four releases every year, these have also been Akshay’s roles that stand out in the past couple of years or so.

If 48 is good enough an age for a Bollywood superstar to look for an image overhaul, Akshay is obviously trying to be the new mascot for masala nationalism.

He is not giving up his brand of excesses defined by Boss, Singh Is Bliing or Housefull 3 just yet — shedding image is a tricky deal for a superstar and has to be done gradually — but Akshay is aware the brainless mantra will perhaps not woo the box-office once he crosses 50.

In the run-up to Airlift’s release, the actor has repeated in interviews how Bollywood needs more patriotic themes, that he would love to do more such films.

Also read: Akshay Kumar's Airlift shows the rise of the aam aadmi in Bollywood

The idea could not be better-timed. Akshay is Bollywood’s self-made superstar who has forever ridden an earthy image. His stardom belongs to the masses and, emerging from the bylanes of Purani Dilli, would seem like the apt glam icon to play out the avatar on screen.

Bollywood as an industry has regularly courted patriotism to rake it in over the decades. While most actors turn to the Tricolour formula only sporadically to score at the box-office, Manoj Kumar is one star who succeeded in specifically carving an image out of it.

If Akshay looks to reinvent his stardom using the same mantra — his stock of patriotic releases is surely getting more frequent lately — there is a difference in the brand he is out hawking.

Manoj Kumar as Bollywood’s original Mr Bharat rose in popularity in the sixties and continued to thrive well into the seventies. That was an era when India was still trying to figure out its post-Independence priorities, learning to deal with the dreams and despairs of a still young nation.

Manoj Kumar’s films strived to reiterate the grand vision of the prosperous democracy that India aspired to be, amid the elaborate kitsch that marked his cinema. His characters, uniformly unidimensional, were always meant to stamp Indians as the greatest race anywhere in the world.

Akshay makes films in a far more cynical and insecure era. So, Holiday sees him essay a soldier who is game to bust all rules for the sake of his country.

The professor of Gabbar Is Back teaches his students that crime is okay if it helps finish corruption. Baby had Akshay lead a top secret mission to smuggle a dreaded terrorist into India.

The protagonist in Airlift has less grey shades, but he is authentically imagined. To begin with, Ranjit Katyal identifies himself as Kuwaiti and is not driven by any hyper surge of patriotism for India.

He has a change of heart only after seeing the atrocities committed by Iraqi soldiers all around. The realism about his ironically fictitious character of Ranjit Katyal is in sync with contemporary audience taste — commercial Bollywood is by and large learning to create believable protagonists, and the patriotic hero cannot be an exception.

That element of believability will suit Akshay in his attempt at reorienting his stardom, if he is serious about sticking to his new-age Mr Bharat label.

Also read: Is Akshay Kumar the ultimate Indian hero?

An actor nearing 50, after all, doesn’t look cool bashing up 20 desh ke dushman at a go. As Akshay pops the jingoistic bubbly, he is cleverly spiking it with a regulated dose of realism.

Writer

Vinayak Chakravorty Vinayak Chakravorty @vinayak25

Film critic, Mail Today

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