on the actor's trail

From taming women to saving the world, Akshay Kumar is Bollywood’s true karma chameleon

The movie star has made a remarkable journey from body building to nation building.

Akshay Kumar has come to the rescue – yet again.

The affable Bollywood star has won praise for his magnanimity in pushing the January 25 release date of his movie Pad Man to prevent a clash with Padmaavat. By letting Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s besieged production have the run of the box office, Kumar has proven his astute understanding of the movie trade. His film should have had the weekend to itself but with Padmaavat announcing its release date after weeks of being pushed around by the censor board, Pad Man would probably have been the second choice for most viewers. Besides, there is the risk that the weekend could be ruined for everyone by violent protests against Padmaavat. So Akshay Kumar made a move that his fans will recognise as the mark of a khiladi, a smart player – he addressed a joint press conference with Bhansali and graciously bowed out of the race.

Grace under pressure has been one of Akshay Kumar’s chief characteristics in recent years. His image makeover is one of the most remarkable in a business that tends to entrap its stars in boxes. His transformation from survivor to statesman is especially impressive if you consider the films that he made at the start of his career in the 1990s.

Few other actors have worked as hard as Kumar to build their resumes, and few have been able to make the transition from being women tamers to champions of women, from high-kicking vigilante to Middle India messiah who questions tradition and entrenched values. Akshay Kumar’s image revamp evokes as much wonder as Shah Rukh Khan’s remarkable rise in the 1990s and Salman Khan’s continuing stranglehold on the popular imagination.

Though he is blessed with many star-making qualities, Kumar nevertheless had to go through the grind, appearing in a string of borderline B-grade films during the ’90s. He was a vessel for the decade’s id, and built his reputation as both an action hero and a randy but always reputable character with an affinity for swimming pool sequences, bare-chested writhing in low-lit spaces, and crotch-thrusting dance moves.

Mr Bond (1998) is one of Kumar’s canonical titles, a tribute to his seductive powers (no less than three women are willing to shed their garments for him at any given point) and athleticism in and outside the bedroom. Kumar’s chest fuzz, an inextricable part of his sex appeal, is on prominent display in this movie as in others in the decade. In one memorable sequence, he floats on a pool with a woman by his side and a piece of paper covering his manhood.

Kumar was easily the biggest male tease of the ’90s. In film after film, Kumar defeated men bigger and stronger than him, finding time in between to channel his fitness levels to the cause of carnal pleasure.

Zehar Hai Ki Pyar Hai, Sabse Bada Khiladi (1995).

Kumar’s untamed machismo wasn’t given play merely in the action sequences and displays of martial arts skills that have speckled his movies. It also found expression in the erotic song, a staple of Kumar’s early movies that included the suggestively named Bharo Maang Meri Bharo from Sabse Bada Khiladi (1995), and reached its zenith in the aptly titled In the Night No Control from Khiladiyon Ki Khiladi (1996).

Inspired strongly by the Laura Branigan hit and Madonna’s Secret, this song features Kumar and Rekha, who is his boss as well as the sister of the woman he loves, in foreplay that includes stripping, a dip in the pool, mud baths, and a bathroom shower sequence.

However, even in his most risqué and offensive moments, Kumar’s characters were always right. In Saugandh (1991), his first leading role, Kumar plays Shiva, who is brought up by his mother to avenge his father’s murder by a dastardly landlord. Shiva’s only purpose in life is to conquer the landlord’s tomboyish daughter Chand (Shantipriya) and marry her. The conquest resembles a prolonged rape. Shiva forcibly kisses Chand, abducts her, tries to force her in various ways to wear a sari, and finally provides her bodily comfort when she shivers in the leaves in which she draped herself to avoid wearing the sari.

Shiva is morally correct, of course. Even as early as Saugandh, Kumar fitted well into the macho all-knowing type most Hindi film heroes inhabit. But the open sexism displayed by many of his previous characters has now been massaged into a friendlier image of a man who knows what is good for everybody, especially women.

Aaj Se Teri, Pad Man (2018).

The tendency to always be at service and rescue the human race lingers in the 50-year-old actor’s films (Baby, Rustom, Jolly LLB 2) but with alterations that befit his age. Body building has given way to nation building. The shaggy-haired hero in singlets and drainpipe trousers has discovered a larger purpose: to be a good son, a caring husband and a perfect citizen. The come-hither naughtiness, accompanied by a broad smile, is now contained with the confines of marriage, with shy wives or wives-to-be being the principal recipients of Kumar’s advances.

The man who bathed with Rekha is now trying out a sanitary napkin to check the fit. This scene from Pad Man is not entirely unfamiliar to fans of his 1990s films – Akshay Kumar’s body has always worked harder than the rest of him.

To paraphrase the title of one of 2017’s Bollywood duds, Akshay Kumar has been risky for far too long. It is now time to be A Gentleman – Sundar and Susheel. By ceding the box office to Padmaavat, and refusing to get sucked into an unequal battle with his rivals, Kumar has displayed his statesmanship, and indicated that he is the adult in the room. From Mr Bond to Mr India, the circle is complete.

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