Akshay Kumar is ubiquitous. He had three releases in 2021 and at least four more are planned for 2022. He even looms in the mandatory health advisory tacked to all productions that feature a character smoking.
If Bollywood in 2021 belonged to one actor, it was this gum-baring gent. Previously known as “Khiladi” for his films that used that word in their titles, Akshay Kumar is now one of the most prominent showbiz players in a different game – one in which it helps to have a mercantile, risk-averse approach and a conservative, establishment-friendly image. He steers clear of controversy, turns a profit for his producers, and speaks up for power rather than to it. He is the ideal leading man.
Indeed, we are smack in the Age of Akshay. Its distinguishing features include sub-zero expectations, opportunism and selective memory.
With his blinkers-on approach, Akshay Kumar fits snugly into the ethos of the current dispensation. The 54-year-old actor and producer is one of the most prominent faces of the nationalistic movie (also known as the scold-Muslims movie). On screen, Canada’s most patriotic Indian tearily swears allegiance to the tricolour.
Unlike other Indians, Akshay Kumar doesn’t have to prove his credentials. He is inured from “Go to Pakistan” advice (or “Begone to Canada”, as the case may be). In the pre-Narendra Modi era, his political activity included shocked tweets about rising fuel prices and other ammunition that the Bharatiya Janata Party used to strafe the previous government. Petrol prices have risen even further since then but that doesn’t need to be mentioned – especially not by patriots who are doing their bit to aid the remaking of India.
This year, Kumar’s competition was scarce or distracted by personal setbacks. Several of his peers sat out 2020 and much of 2021. Hrithik Roshan hasn’t been in a movie since War in 2019. For Shah Rukh Khan, who hasn’t had a release since the 2018 debacle Zero, 2021 was annus horribilis with the arrest of his son Aryan in a drug case built on seemingly flimsy evidence.
Aamir Khan hasn’t been in a film since Thugs of Hindostan in 2018, and will return only in 2022 with Laal Singh Chadha. Salman Khan saw his already diminishing box office capital erode further with the straight-to-streamer Radhe: Your Most Wanted Bhai and Antim: The Final Truth, a vehicle for his brother-in-law Aayush Sharma.
Ajay Devgn, the only other actor actively competing with Akshay Kumar for the Most Nationalistic Hero prize, produced the shoddy, Muslim-baiting Bhuj: The Pride of India in 2021. Ranveer Singh emerged from hibernation for an extended cameo in Sooryavanshi (alongside Devgn). Singh also led an ensemble cast in the entertaining but under-performing 83.
Saif Ali Khan was dragged into the Hindutva outrage against the web series Tandav. The controversy over a few scenes in Tandav, which was premiered in January, was an early portent of things to come. Khan also had to face intrusive questions about the name of his second son with Kareena Kapoor.
It’s a busy time for shapeshifting actor-producers who see the benefits of parroting the government’s line and fuelling the Islamophobia rampant in the political discourse. There is opportunity in choosing from between the two Indias – the one that is proudly plural and anarchically free, the other that is being constructed by official policies and unofficial dog whistles.
Under the guise of pursing Kashmiri militants, home-grown Quislings and our hated neighbour’s security establishment, some makers of Hindi films are sending a clear message to India’s Muslims: you are all suspect.
A clear divide is now visible in the Hindi film industry between True Believers and sceptics. The most prominent female votary in the former group is Kangana Ranaut. Unlike Akshay Kumar, she is an unabashed Hindutva proponent and does not bother to sugarcoat her views, whether on the protest against farm laws (the participants were “Khalistani terrorists”) or the freedom struggle from British rule (true freedom didn’t come until Modi became prime minister in 2014).
If it wasn’t for the fact that Ranaut is selective about her roles, and had only one release in 2021 (the Jayalalithaa hagiography Thalaivii), we might well have been in the Age of Kangana. Perhaps we already are and we just don’t know it yet.
It isn’t just an Amazon web series under fire from Hindutva groups – the real tandav is yet to come
Muslim stereotyping in Hindi films: ‘We cannot allow ourselves to forget what constitutes us’