Reel Life: Sarkari stars in their hour of reckoning

With ‘Samrat Prithviraj’ and ‘Dhaakad’ bombing at the box office, it’s evident that sarkari endorsement can’t always be an assurance for a film’s success

Akshay Kumar in 'Samrat Prithviraj'
Akshay Kumar in 'Samrat Prithviraj'
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Namrata Joshi

In 2008, at the time of the release of Singh is Kinng, I had written a profile of Akshay Kumar for Outlook magazine in which we had called him the crown prince. Over the decade and a half, one has witnessed the contender to the throne finally becoming the king. Not just ruling Bollywood but also being offered several other coveted roles on a platter, something one hadn’t quite foreseen back then for the star of macho action blockbusters and comic capers.

Playing a celebrity journalist, for instance, Kumar was one of the rare ones to be allowed to grill Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the elections round the corner in 2019 over such significant national issues like the many modes of eating a mango.

This weekend he was jokingly conferred the honorary title of professor of history at the WhatsApp University of Hindutva, what with his remarks on the need to rewrite our academic books that he felt taught little about the “last Hindu king” Prithviraj Chauhan, the role he dons in his latest film, Samrat Prithviraj.

If that wasn’t enough, he was also the expert archaeologist offering his deep perspective on the Varanasi Gyanvapi mosque case—“Dekhne mein shivling hi lagta hai”—in the thick of the talk of debris of old temples having been found there. Incidentally, in his forthcoming film, Ram Setu, he does play an archaeologist exploring the myth surrounding the bridge that Ram’s army is supposed to have built all the way to Lanka.

If these lower depths of shameless co-option of his stardom to the majoritarian agenda weren’t enough, Kumar also hit the very bottom professionally with Samrat Prithviraj turning out to be a disaster at the box office, its earnings on Monday pitched at a mere Rs. 5 crore and reports of shows being reduced Tuesday onwards.

Last heard it had earned a mere Rs. 48 crore in the domestic circuit in five days. This when the teaser of the film had been unspooled with much fanfare some months ago. There was the showreel of the auspicious havan being done by the team, even as tweets from Akshay Kumar fans aka Akkians lambasted the three Khans for eulogising the Mughals and claiming that their own Hindu hero will finally get the veer Hindu raja his due on the big screen.

Where did the fan army vanish at the crucial hour of the film’s release? Why have they abandoned him, not just when it comes to the historical but an assortment of big recent outings like Laxmii, Bellbottom and Bachchhan Paandey.

Something similar happened a couple of weeks back to the Queen of the Establishment. Kangana Ranaut’s Dhaakad also tanked, collecting a laughable Rs 4500 on the eighth day of its release. Like Kumar, Ranaut too had been a different creature back in 2015 when I had met her for another one of the interviews for Outlook.

Fresh from the success of Tanu Weds Manu Returns she seemed like a rooted and free-spirited girl next door in her lived-in Khar penthouse. We had called her “a girl who has kicked a hornet’s nest”. Prophetic indeed!

Kangana Ranaut in 'Dhaakad'
Kangana Ranaut in 'Dhaakad'

Now, as the mascot of the BJP, she has been precisely doing that. Time and again called out for her Islamophobia, bigotry and hatemongering on social media, on issues of religion, gender, mental health and what have you, Twitter had to finally suspend her account last year in May when, tweeting on the post poll violence in West Bengal, she asked PM Modi to show his “viraat roop from early 2000’s”. An oblique but obvious way of calling for organised state-sponsored violence against Muslims in West Bengal, like what many opponents allege happened in Gujarat in 2002 when Modi was the chief minister of the state.

One can’t help marvel at the turnaround in fortunes for the two over the last eight years. For someone earning crores, being amongst the country’s top taxpayers with a loyal fan following amongst the masses and bankability at the box office, Kumar could still not be the guy in the league of the Khans.

Come 2014 and all of it began to swiftly change. The comic and action hero of the masses slowly began mutating into the neo patriot of Bharat with the evident patronage of the ruling dispensation. A filmography once dismissed as pedestrian entertainment began being perceived as gold.

It was no longer about money alone but clout and access to the corridors of power. Kumar had indeed come a long way from Delhi’s Chandni Chowk— 1180, Chhatta Madan Gopal, Paranthewali Gali, to be precise—to Raisina Road.

Ranaut was the other Outsider, the small-town girl from Himachal Pradesh with a bad accent who could never be a sophisticated diva like a Deepika Padukone or Alia Bhatt. However, she rose on her own steam from being an underdog to a bona fide star before the political push sent her into a different noxious galaxy altogether.

Bollywood, media, trade, viewers played along. They always do. Never pausing to cast a critical eye at success, never questioning the pros and cons but aligning with those on the rise, dropping the one hitting the low like a hot potato.

Kumar with a sense of the absurd, a goofy comic timing and playful masculine appeal got lost in becoming a righteous pawn and projection of a political party. The innate likeability and easy relatability giving way to the willing obsequiousness of a lackey.

Akshay Kumar in 'Toilet: Ek Prem Katha'
Akshay Kumar in 'Toilet: Ek Prem Katha'

From an actor of immense promise and waif like beauty, Ranaut became a veritable beast, singularly responsible, among other things, for stoking the vicious public discourse around Bollywood in the light of the Sushant Singh Rajput suicide case.

Forget about the myriad ways they helped the party on ground—Kumar’s Rs. 25 crore donation to the PM CARES fund, for instance—their films have also been all about co-opting with the Establishment. They have been toolkits of the State, falling in line with the larger narrative currently playing on in the country.

Islamophobia, Hindu upper hand, jingoism, good Muslim-bad Muslin divide, there has been a Kumar, of the Canadian passport fame, hand in promoting these themes through his films, all in the guise of nationalism. Many of his righteous stories have been taking off from government schemes—Toilet Ek Prem Katha for that matter.

I have found something extremely vexing in the essentially egotistical but faux sanctimonious and cringingly fawning way he has tried to be the new age Manoj “Bharat” Kumar in patriot acts like Airlift, Padman, Gold, Kesari.

Even more irritating has been the handholding and “male saviour” turn in films that are essentially to do with women—specially Naam Shabana and Mission Mangal. The only Kumar film and role of consequence in the last few years for me has been Jolly LLB2 because it was a genuine film and not pamphleteering or propaganda.

Be it Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi or Thalaivi, a rancid revivalism embedded in the recent films of Ranaut has put even a much-loved Queen and a well-meaning, well-performed, well-made Panga to shade.

Kangana Ranaut in 'Manikarnika'
Kangana Ranaut in 'Manikarnika'

With Ranaut I suspect a tipping point of sorts has been reached. Perhaps the audience has had enough of her shrillness and toxicity for real, to care little for what she portrays on screen anymore. Thing is whether she will get more and more dispensable politically as well, considering we know very well that in the use and throw culture of power politics, the downfall can be as precipitous as the meteoric rise.

Kumar still has a long road ahead. Will he go back to entertainment from being the inspirational conscience of the supposedly shining India? There are telling pictures of Kumar, hands folded in abject supplication in the company of Amit Shah and Yogi Adityanath. An act that may have got his film tax free status but no returns on investment.

Their individual fortunes apart, what shines through most clearly is that while elections might be fickle, filmmaking is even more so. The Kashmir Files is certainly not a replicable model. Perhaps just a one-trick pony. Sarkari endorsement can’t always be an assurance for a film’s success. So where will the partnership of politics and motion picture go from here? The nation surely wants to know...

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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