How Akshay Kumar Is Redefining Patriotism For Today's Generation
When I was a child, Independence Day celebrations were never complete without watching Raajkumar-Nana Patekar-starrer Tiranga. If it was not the chest-thumping patriotism of Tiranga, it was Manoj ‘Bharat’ Kumar who was the staple of Independence Day.
The films would aim to put in touch with our ‘Indianness’ – with a generous dose of jingoism – mostly at the cost of western countries or the neighbours across the border. The western values were targeted and ‘mere desh ki dharti’ celebrated. Now, as we celebrate the 70 years of independence, the ethos have changed just like the mascot of nationalism in Indian cinema.
Today, the de facto face of Indian pride in cinema is Akshay Kumar and no film says it as clearly as his latest, Toilet Ek Prem Katha. The film sees him taking on the society, hand-me-down sanskriti and even his own family to fight for the right for proper sanitation.
And that is the beauty and innovation of Akshay’s patriotism - he hails the Indian culture but fights the evils embedded within the society. Unlike a Bharat Kumar, Akshay’s characters do not demonise the western culture, instead they tell the world that when it comes to making India great – thoda hai, thode ki zaroorat hai.
So whether it is Airlift and India evacuating its people from a war-torn Kuwait or Rustom where even infidelity was due to a man’s love for his country, Akshay’s film has India and patriotism at its heart. His upcoming, Padman and Gold, will just take this narrative further.
Clearly cast differently from Manoj Kumar, Akshay’s characters do not wage war against enemies from outside, instead, they intend to cleanse our system from within. Akshay’s first in the series was OMG! Oh My God! (2012). Directed by Umesh Shukla, the film challenged blindly following traditions and beliefs deeply rooted in Indian culture. Though it targetted all religions, the movie faced flak for being “anti-Hindu”. This was much before the hyped Aamir Khan film, PK, saw the light of the day.
Akshay began churning out films like Holiday (2014), Gabbar Is Back (2015), Baby (2015), Airlift and Rustom (2016) every year, along with the usual masala entertainers he is known for. Akshay took on everything from corruption to terrorism in these films to bring India the sweet climax it always desired but could not achieve in real life.
Unlike a Manoj Kumar, who had to explain his behaviour and attire at each step in Britain (Purab Aur Pashchim), when Akshay strolled through the lanes of London (Namastey London and Patiala House), he did so unapologetically. But whatever his character wears, he is rooted to his mitti.
Asked about Akshay’s brand of patriotism, film scholar and author of the book The Making of Don, Krishna Gopalan earlier told Hindustan Times, “If Manoj Kumar is Bharat Kumar, Akshay Kumar would be Mr Hindustan. The two actors are part of different eras. The India of Manoj Kumar was not as confident while the India of Akshay Kumar does not deal with any inferiority complex. Akshay has established with his films that it is cool to be an Indian.”
Much like his onscreen persona, Akshay in real life also promotes causes such as women learning self defense or starting an online portal for kin of soldiers killed in encounters.
Scriptwriter Jaideep Sahni, who has worked with Akshay in Neeraj Pandey’s Special 26, said, “I believe Akshay has a certain awareness and there is a social responsibility that he carries with his persona; he has even taken initiatives like promoting self-defense for women and saving the girl child.”
(This is an edited version of an article which was originally published in 2015)