Bollywood has a new messiah—not for itself, but for the government. Akshay Kumar, the Superpatriot. In the last five years, as the collective equity of the three Khans dwindled below just a couple of hundred crores and the fourth Khan, Saif Ali, got into trouble because a political drama he headlined offended politicians for “mocking Hindu gods”, Akshay Kumar, forever a shadow under the Khans in audience perception, emerged the triumphant shape-shifter. Triumphant at the box-office, and triumphant in establishing a new model of Bollywood herogiri—one that derives a generic, feel-good, rousing timbre out of opportunism and channelising history from a narrow prism of history that the political establishment brandishes.
Most films of Rajiv Hari Om Bhatia in the last five to seven years—Akshay Kumar’s pre-Bollywood name—have some common themes and hero trajectories. The man must have a militant zeal to lay down his life fighting Islamic invaders, his only allegiance should be to the call of patriotic duty (Kesari, Rustom, Airlift and others) and social service as enlisted by programmes such as Swachh Bharat (Padman, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha).
His social media personality is an exact mirror of his new screen métier—extolling and doing his bit for every new announcement of the government, its every campaign and every move. His dialogue writers understand the demand for jingoistic oversimplification and exaggerations well: Some words and phrases, such as “desh”, “imaan”, “har har”, “jai” and “kartavya”, are unavoidable in the new Akshay Kumar save-a-nation rhetoric. Take these dialogues from his forthcoming film Samrat Prithviraj Chauhan: Hindustan ka Sher, directed by Dr Chandraprakash Dwivedi and produced by Aditya Chopra under his banner Yash Raj Films, to be released in Hindi, Tamil and Telegu on June 3:
“Vamiki hai toh Ram hai,
Chand hai toh Prithviraj Chauhan hai.”
(Chand referring to Chand Vardai, a poet who wrote an exalted history of the Gujarat-born ruler who defeated Sultan Muhammad Ghori in the first Battle of Tarain in 1191 CE).
“Jai Har Har” is peppered across the battle scenes included in the film’s trailer. More dialogues in translation: “I will not give a grain of my motherland’s soil in return for my life” ; “I have lived for duty, I will live for duty”. The familiarity is tedious, yet staggering.
Prithviraj Chauhan is one of many Hindu kings from medieval Indian history that the Hindutva establishment in India has appropriated as textbook-heroic because of their battles against Islamic invaders. Chauhan was a king from the Chauhan dynasty who ruled the territory of Sapadalaksha with his capital at Ajmer in present-day Rajasthan, who later ruled Delhi before being defeated and excoriated from power at the second Battle of Tarain by Sultan Muhammad Ghori. Historical interpretations of Prithviraj Chauhan are diverse, as examined by historian Cynthia Talbott in her book The Last Hindu Emperor: Prithviraj Chauhan and the Making of the Indian Past 1200-2000.
In popular culture, like Amar Chitra Katha comics and television mythological dramas, Prithviraj has been projected as “the last Hindu emperor”. Going by the trailer, Dwivedi’s film, made with a reported budget of Rs300 crore, is a hyper-projection of this “last Hindu emperor” brand of heroism from the point of view of one victory, the first Battle of Tarain. Much of Prithviraj Chauhan’s perception among generations of Indians rests on his love story with Sanyogita or Samyukta, a Rajput princess who worshipped Prithviraj and whom Prithviraj strategically whisked away against her family’s wishes.
The love story is part of the narrative in the Akshay Kumar film. The battle and the defeat of the Muslim invader is the thrust of the film. Kumar saturates himself in nationalistic valour through every detail of dialogue and setting—a far cry from the Khiladi Kumar of his action hero days of the 1990s and goofball roles of the early 2000s. This new safe, commercially fool-proof pro-Bharat template of Bollywood films, has other followers like Ajay Devgn and John Abraham. The Khans are way behind. Shah Rukh Khan’s last film Zero, which baffled fans as well as critics with its vexing way of treating a dwarf’s love life was in 2018, Salman Khan has had four flops in a row: Race 3 (2018), Dabangg 3 (2019), Radhe (2021) and Antim (2021). It remains to be seen how the Aamir Khan-starrer Laal Singh Chhadha releasing on 11 August, an official remake of Forrest Gump (1994), projects events of India’s post-independent history through the perspective of an autistic man. Till then, Akshay Kumar is the hit monolith. India obviously loves his thunderous history lessons on screen because almost every film of his in the past five years has been a box office success. This Akshay Kumar is also very different from Manoj Kumar, the popular patriotic hero through the 1960s and 1970s. The patriotism of Manoj Kumar’s Purab Aur Paschim or Upkar, although never divorced from military victory, also looked inward—to ordinary heroes like farmers and labourers.
The danger and tragedy implicit in the Akshay Kumar brand of patriotism is obvious. It takes the most popular art form of the country and strips it of imagination, dialectics, questioning and most importantly, fun. Its only driver is selective memory. History is an attempt to memorialize and preserve, but memory or a singular way of chronicling the past is not history; memories, while being a primary source of history can’t stand alone as history. What Akshay Kumar’s superpatriot roles do is lionize and demonize—best done in fairy tales. The emphasis is always on pinning the opponent; valour, duty and bravery become vehicles for defeating a race, a religion or a world view. Great historical fiction, and enjoyable historical fiction, emerges out of contested memories. Akshay Kumar in Samrat Prithviraj Chauhan: Hindustan ka Sher seems to revel in binaries and polarities.