Akshay Kumar has certainly lost the plot. An unarmed martial arts expert, the veteran actor seems to have been suffering from ‘past trauma stress disorder’ ever since The Kashmir Files delivered the unexpected blow to his image as the poster boy of the present regime. His latest cinematic offering Samrat Prithviraj appears to be a desperate attempt to regain lost ground in box office battles. Can the fading memories of a legendary hero from the past revive his fortunes?
One would have dismissed the antics of the old warhorse from reel life as inconsequential had Akshay Kumar not inadvertently raised some important questions about the study of history in contemporary India. In interviews promoting his film, he makes sweeping statements about the achievements of Hindu kings not being given a due place in school textbooks. Heroes and villains as portrayed in textbooks and even comics undeniably have a crucial role in shaping impressionable minds. ‘We’ and ‘They’ soon begin to be translated as ‘friends’ and ‘foes’, and seeds of hatred and strife are sown.
The sad part is that there are many like our filmi hero—not a minority among top echelons of politics in all parties—who wasted their time in school and have hazy ideas about what they were taught there. They confuse myths, legends and folklore not to forget customary ‘family’ traditions (more often than not feudal and patriarchal) as heritage and history, and try to cash in on fables during elections.
Truth be told, history in schools has always extolled the accomplishments of rulers in ancient and medieval India. Emperor Ashoka was referred to as Great much before the honorific was suffixed to Akbar’s name. Maharana Pratap’s heroic struggle against the Mughals was described in an inspirational manner. There was no need to ‘rewrite’ the outcome of Haldi Ghati and the claim that the Rajput warrior and his Bhil allies had routed Akbar.
Similarly, no child, adolescent or adult for that matter needs prompts from an actor or a politician about the valour, foresight and wisdom of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. And, despite years of critical scholarship, the glow of the Gupta period as a Golden Age hasn’t dimmed. There are other names like Emperor Harsha of Kannauj who don’t need a half-baked film to ensure their place in the Hall of Fame. As we move southwards, we are reminded of the greatness of Raja Rajendra Chola who remained undefeated lifelong and extended his sway to lands in South East Asia, or Pallava Mahamall who is commemorated in a historic port city named after him and remains immortal without crutches of box office hits or flops. Nor can any student of history forget King Kharavela of Kalinga and Orissa’s contacts with foreign countries in the millennium before the birth of Christ.
It is not only the school history textbooks that have extolled Hindu and Sikh defenders of faith as the pride of India but syllabi of language and literature have prescribed patriotic readings that often take poetic licence with indisputable facts. The history of Hindi literature begins with Veergatha Kaal and relies on heroic ballads linked bhaat chaaran parampara (tradition of hagiographic court poetry). School teachers never shied from accepting that the stirring verses penned by Chand Bardai and Bhushan served a purpose in keeping alive the freedom-loving spirit and will to fight when all seemed lost and a little exaggeration wasn’t out of place. Poetry has played a significant role in martial memories related to Sikh Gurus who repeatedly and willingly chose martyrdom over slavery.
In brief, who needs lectures on history from Akshay Kumar? What we need is a respite from amateur and ill-informed wannabe historians who carry the weight of their illiteracy rather heavily. The poor man apparently is blissfully unaware of even the Hindi cinematic homage paid to non-Muslim Hindu heroes-kings and their retainers like Amar Singh Rathore. Why waste words on a has-been?
The Sarsanghchalak of the RSS has spoken not a day too soon. He has advised those who belong to the parivar not to look for a Shivling in every mosque, and opt for reconciliation rather than revenge. There must be closure if India is to once again become the wonder that it once was. This has sparked not a debate but a series of targeted attacks on Sri Mohan Bhagwat. He is being accused of selling out to politicians in power and betraying the Sangh’s core philosophy. Vitriolic outpourings quoting Guru Golwalkar are becoming increasingly strident. Others feel that the supremo of RSS is only playing the ‘good cop’ role in the charade to distract criticism of the Narendra Modi government.
What all this makes amply clear is how difficult it becomes to dismount for one who chooses to ride the proverbial tiger. Can the genie be somehow lured and locked back in the bottle once it has been uncorked?