Back in 2012, when OMG (the first film) was released, Akshay Kumar, the star, was in an interesting phase. He had seen the dizzying heights of success in the mid-to-late 2000s, but at the turn of that decade, blockbuster success seemed elusive. While hits have come since the degree of success hasn’t quite been the same as it was during that golden phase when everything he touched turned to gold.
Success has been on and off during the last decade, but Akshay Kumar has become more than just a film star during this period. He has also come to be known, among other things, for his focus on fitness and for being the ‘highest taxpayer in Bollywood’.
A National Award for Best Actor came his way for his performance in Rustom (2016), in the aftermath of Akshay often speaking about never winning a Best Actor award at any prestigious award function. Somewhere around Pad Man and Mission Mangal, perhaps the biggest transformation of his star image occurred when he came to be seen as a right-wing ally.
The truth is, Akshay always made nationalistic films, but only later on, did they come to be colored with the strong point of jingoism. Apart from occasional sojourns into the comedy genre with films like Housefull and Good Newwz, Akshay’s protagonist was mostly a straight arrow.
Grey characters like Ajay Singh Vardhan from Special 26 or Shoaib Khan from Once Upon a Time in Mumbai Dobaara! were far and few in between. He played the larger-than-life no-nonsense cop; he played the inspiring entrepreneur and of course, he often played the unforgettable historical figure as well.
Amidst the seeming decline of the three Khans, and the rise of new-age heroes, Akshay remained a bridge of times. But he had also begun capturing the imagination of the right wing by starring in films like Ram Setu, Samrat Prithviraj, Kesari… Ironically, these resulted in dismal box-office returns and made him attract the ire of social media from the other side of the fence. Even his ‘neutral’ films came to be bashed, but that’s large because they weren’t great films to begin with.
Akshay Kumar’s evident allegiance came to criticism. Critics pointed out the hypocrisy of his silence over national issues when he had not been as quiet when a previous government ruled. Two subjects became particularly noteworthy: the PM Modi interview of 2019 (yes, the one in which the Prime Minister, among other things, was asked about his love for mangoes) and the topic of his Canadian citizenship. Each time an Akshay Kumar film wouldn’t do well, these topics came up.
The proud Nationalist Akshay Kumar proved his ‘Bharatiya’ credentials by renouncing his Canadian citizenship and flaunting it (‘Dil aur citizenship, dono Hindustani’). But this, strangely, didn’t stop him from getting flak from right-wing zealots, who didn’t take kindly to the messaging in his latest film, OMG 2. A right-wing outfit, in fact, announced a hefty monetary reward for anyone who would ‘spit on him or slap him’. The film, which actually uses Hinduism to browbeat Indian culture’s superiority in understanding sexuality, came in for unexpected criticism from right-wing extremists, who perceived the association with any topic related to sex as an affront. The film also received an unkind A-certification—which again, is ironic, considering that the film itself is about the importance of sex education for school children. All the film’s principal cast, including Govind Namdev, have criticized the certification. Akshay Kumar, curiously, has remained tight-lipped.
And now, Akshay Kumar is at a new juncture where every step is subjected to intense scrutiny by all colors of the political spectrum. Take, for instance, his tweet about the Manipur violence. One section criticized him for his support to the ruling party, while another asked if he had shifted sides. Yet another section questioned him about his silence about violence in other states. One side won’t let him forget the past decade, and the other won’t let him show gumption… nobody will let him lay low. It is like he has been pushed into a corner. While his films often show a common man turning into an invincible hero, how does Akshay Kumar, the brand, transform from here?
The world does not exist in binaries, but we live in an age that won’t agree. There is no doubt that Akshay reaped the benefits of being closely associated with the machine that runs the country, but could it be that some cogs in that machine are now turning the other way? This is another interesting challenge for a man called the man with the Midas touch.