In his introduction scene in Tanuja Chandra’s Sangharsh (1999), Akshay Kumar, playing a jailed gangster, is conducting an impromptu viva for Preity Zinta. Zinta’s character is supposed to be a promising CBI officer, but is allowed to display only about as much personality as a bar of soap while Kumar’s Aman Verma runs rings around her. As she is reduced to mush, Kumar prances around his cell, asking questions and answering them himself, doing mental math and drawing on the wall at the same time. It’s as if he is auditioning to be the 8-year-old whose mother grins endlessly and freaks out parents of shorter kids in an energy drink ad. That scene sets the tone for the film, which begins as a face-off between Reet Oberoi (Zinta) and Lajja Shankar, a sociopath and murderer played by Ashutosh Rana, but ends as a story of the martyrdom of Aman Verma.
When Sangharsh released, newspaper reviews hailed Tanuja Chandra’s directorial debut because it seemed to have managed the unthinkable — cast Akshay Kumar successfully in a ‘serious’ role. In English film-writing jargon of the 90s, ‘serious’ or ‘author-backed’ roles usually indicated an actor making a conscious departure from a stereotype associated with him. Beginning with the Khiladi films and topped off by the massive hit that was Mohra (1994), Kumar’s presence in the consciousness of an average Bollywood viewer of the 90s was that of an action star who got eyeballs for his chops and kicks, not for his acting talents. Nobody cared much about the plots, tone or politics of Kumar’s films, as long as he was kicking people away into the stratosphere, not a hair out of place in the neat, black croissant on his head.
Sangharsh hit theatres in a year Shah Rukh Khan had one less-than-mediocre release in Baadshah, Salman Khan played the role of a rake/speaking teddy bear in at least 5 films, Aamir Khan had a massive hit in Sarfarosh and Ajay Devgan had a slew of average releases. Among this bouquet of releases by the heroes of that time, Kumar’s Sangharsh stands out for some of the political choices it makes. While the hero, of course, is a dominant-caste, north Indian, light-skinned, Hindu man, if Sangharsh released today, it would probably have sent right-wing bots and the humans who command them into a meltdown that would erase Arnab Goswami’s arrest from their Twitter troll bible forever. The film’s villain Lajja Shankar is a sociopathic man, a Kali-worshipping child murderer, who wears a red teeka and prays to Hindu gods for immortality while murdering children. The film’s climax takes place amidst a Hindu religious congregation. Slum-dwelling Muslims, usually depicted as thugs and terrorists in Bollywood, are the zealous, heroic accomplices of Aman Verma who risk their lives to save the children in the film.
21 years later, the makers of Akshay Kumar’s upcoming movie have had to hastily change the film’s name from Laxmmi Bomb to Laxmii to appease ‘hurt’ majoritarian sentiments (though by all indications, the movie’s actual offence is against the trans community). In this backdrop, even with all its problems, Sangharsh almost seems like a brave film in comparison. Written by Mahesh Bhatt and Girish Dhamija, Sangharsh is perhaps the only film in Kumar’s repertoire which isn’t a bland ballad to its male lead and ventures into the kind of politics unpalatable to outraged bot-men on Twitter.
Akshay Kumar has also undergone a transformation in the two decades since then. His image as a purely action hero was first changed by Priyadarshan’s brand of slapstick comedies in the early 2000s. Later, it (d)evolved into being the lead attraction for a host of sexist, mindless comedies where women had no purpose but to serve as acolytes to Kumar’s everyman-dressed-in-designer-wear. Post 2014, as the actor began to openly display his allegiance to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, he has also ensured that he balances his regular fare with more overtly political films which have one similarity—Kumar’s character, the do-gooder, will regularly save the ‘honour’, dignity and sometimes career of the women around him.
Loser’ roles and Priyadarshan
The obsession to be a ‘hero’ and not a ‘character’ is an affliction shared by most male lead actors in Bollywood. Aamir Khan has never played a single role that casts him in a negative light. Even in well-meaning films such as Taare Zameen Par and Dangal, Khan has to lead someone to deliverance, whether the object of his benevolence wishes for it or not. Shah Rukh Khan played a slew of unabashed negative characters right up to Baazigar (Darr and Anjaam, for example), after which he also fell into a romantic hero rut. It wasn’t until Shimit Amin’s Chak De! India and Farhan Akhtar’s Don that Khan ventured out of his cut-to-fit romantic man image to try something less ‘heroic’.
In 2000, Kumar appeared in Priyadarshan’s Hera Pheri, a film crucial to salvaging his career from becoming a tired, and increasingly less rewarding, action flick bouquet. As Raju in Hera Pheri — frequently brow-beaten, conniving, greedy and stupid — Kumar explored a space between a stereotypical action hero and a romantic hero, one which no popular actor of the time was interested in. If things went differently, Kumar’s association with Priyadarshan over a slew of slapstick and somewhat sexist comedies such as Phir Hera Pheri, Bhagam Bhaag and Khatta Meetha could have led him to conscious, intelligent explorations of the humdrum lives of ordinary men, roles that Rajkummar Rao and Ayushmann Khurrana found their niche in years later. Kumar’s audience accepted him wholeheartedly as the shoddy, unheroic, slacking defeatist who finds himself in absurd, humorous situations. But perhaps neither Bollywood nor Kumar were ready to commit themselves to this exploration of masculinity at that time. The path Kumar’s career took from there took him mostly towards nauseous, sexist comedies (think Housefull, Entertainment, Singh Is Kinng), where the ‘ordinary man’ dressed like a back-up dancer in a disco number and survived on stale, sexist jokes. Along this, he revived the mindless action films where he walked everywhere in slo-mo, speaking like credit card helpline prompts and bashing people up. It was tiresome.
The saviour of women
Unlike Ajay Devgan, who wore his politics on his sleeve and interviewed Narendra Modi on a Google Hangout two years before he became prime minister, Akshay Kumar slithered into the business of reaping political goods only after BJP’s massive 2014 win. Before the political lines of control were firmly redrawn and it became clear which side was the ‘safe’ one, both Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan spoke up about the seething anti-Muslim hatred visible on social media. The backlash was swift and unforgiving. Kumar reared his head in the political waters only after the ground rules were laid, examples were set, and Bollywood’s famous silence invoked.
While Devgan made films such as Shivaay and Tanhaji, which unabashedly appealed to Hindu pride, Kumar decided to sidle up to the government by using a very convenient stepping stone—women.
His decision, one has to accept, is clever. No matter how many awful Housefull movies Kumar stars in, there’ll be a coterie of people who’ll always point at a Pad Man and howl, ‘did any other actor dare make a film on sanitary pads?’
The ‘beti bachao’ streak in Kumar’s career began with Rustom (2016) which was based on the true story of a Navy officer who murdered his wife’s alleged lover. Now, while the story of Rustom Pavri is complicated and fascinating, the film anointed Kumar as the new-age saviour of women — not one who breaks bones, but stoically stands up for their honour. Don’t be mistaken — these films may include women characters, but they are all written as props to make Le Kumar the absolute Horlicks among men—sweet, and apparently crucial for women to grow strong bones and character. In Rustom, Kumar finds out that his wife’s alleged lover may be planning to shame and defame her, and hence shoots him. Nope, not out of anger or jealousy, but for the sake of a woman’s ‘honour’. The film has elaborate scenes showing Ileana D’Cruz’s Cynthia grovelling in gratitude and guilt after her husband is jailed for murder. Rustom won Kumar his first National Award for best actor.
Other leading men have also embraced the trope of achieving their dream through enabling women’s success. While Aamir Khan received criticism for glorifying an authoritarian, borderline abusive parent in Dangal, Shah Rukh Khan’s work in Chak De! India was a success, with its robust political exploration of an unjustly accused Muslim man coaching an underdog women’s team. Kabir Khan in Chak De! India is a scathing critique of India’s woefully majoritarian politics.
Lakshmikant Chauhan in Pad Man (2018), however, stands for nothing beyond himself, a man who breaks a taboo to save women from their own ignorance. I argued then that Pad Man was a necessary film and I still stand by that opinion, but that doesn’t change the fact that neither the film nor Kumar were interested in exploring the various challenges faced by less privileged women while trying to use sanitary napkins. The film is a long-drawn-out tale of patience, where admiring women change their attitudes, inspired by Chauhan’s efforts.
The film was inspired by the life of Arunachalam Muruganantham, who himself displayed much more nuance while speaking to HuffPost India for an interview. But Pad Man is way better than Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017), a bare-faced appropriation of the struggles of poor women to make a hero out of one man. Though the film’s plot begins with Jaya (played by Bhumi Pednekar) demanding the right to use a toilet, it soon becomes a coming-of-middle-age story of her husband Keshav, who learns the importance of toilets and then heroically fights for his wife’s rights. Jaya, a masters degree holder, is relegated to the background while Keshav emerges victorious in getting his wife a toilet in the house.
In Mission Mangal (2019), Kumar leads a dreary tale where he encourages a group of unmotivated women to embrace the big, shining dream of landing a rover on Mars. In fact, one of the characters, Eka (played by Sonakshi Sinha) is shown as an antithesis to the nobility of Kumar’s Rakesh Dhawan. Why? Because she is a modern woman who dresses well, has casual sex and dreams of working for NASA—until she is chastised and humbled by Dhawan’s dedication to his country. Not content with that, Dhawan also takes the fall for a ‘mistake’ made by Tara Shinde (played by Vidya Balan) like a true gentleman and gets banished from his favourite project.
With Laxmii — where a cis, straight man offers his body as a vessel for a trans woman’s spirit to avenge her death — Kumar is back on familiar turf. Again, he is the noble saviour of marginalised characters. While most of these films claim to be progressive, their politics fit into a right-wing idea (across religions) of men claiming credit for doing things for women, or magnanimously moving aside in a way that ensures the spotlight is on their sacrifice, not the woman’s achievement. Kumar’s characters are not allies of women, they are saviours. Honestly, do we need them?