Akshay Kumar: The conscientious khiladi
In his new film Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, which will be released on the Independence Day weekend, lead actor Akshay Kumar takes on the sanitation crisis in India and the need for toilets within homes for women.
Following suit will be director R. Balki’s Padman, based on the life and work of Arunachalam Muruganantham, who came up with a low-cost sanitary napkin and attempted to spread awareness about menstrual hygiene in rural India. Up next is Gold, a sports drama on the historic first Olympic medal that won as a free nation.
In the last two years, Kumar has acted in Neeraj Pandey’s spy thriller Baby, vigilante action movie Gabbar Is Back, historical drama Airlift and crime thriller Rustom, the last of which won him the National Award for best actor for 2016.
He has also been vocal in his support of diverse causes. This year he launched a web site and mobile application called Bharat Ke Veer or India’s Bravehearts, which enables people to donate to families of army personnel. He has also posted videos advocating self-defence for women, among other social initiatives.
A senior executive at Viacom18 Motion Pictures, co-producer of Toilet: Ek Prem Katha says Kumar is a natural fit for the movie’s subject.
“Of all the vehicles of active social change, cinema has been one of the most powerful,” said Rudrarup Dutta, senior vice president, marketing, Viacom18. “It has constantly been our endeavor to make socially relevant cinema and the subject of this film and Akshay as the lead star were a natural fit. He is not only one of India’s most popular actors but also someone who can straddle all genres of films, his recent success in lending his star appeal to content rich and socially relevant cinema like OMG-Oh My God!, Airlift and Gabbar Is Back makes the proposition of TEPK even stronger.”
There is more to Kumar’s conscientious persona than meets the eye, experts say.
“Generally what happens is if you’re successful over a very long period of time, you also have added pressure as a role model for the youth and with social media playing the role that it does today, you’re constantly responsible for all your actions and behaviour,” said Saurabh Uboweja, brand guru and chief executive officer at brand consulting firm Brands of Desire.
While cinema has the power to influence society, it is also impacted by what’s going on in society itself, Uboweja added. “That also starts affecting the behaviour of celebrities. They know if they do anything that goes against the moral systems that are currently operating in society, they would be perceived in a certain way and judged, perhaps even trolled for a one-off comment here and there,” he said. “So I think it’s becoming more and more important for these celebrities to want and build an image that is in line with what society expects out of you.”
And there is also the baggage that comes with success.
“As you become more successful, you’re more inclined towards serving a higher purpose. You have to be authentic about it, you can’t just be building an image that’s visible on TV or the big screen and be a different person in reality,” Uboweja said.
Actors like Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan have also espoused social causes in their on and off-screen work, but industry experts say that the consistency with which Kumar has pushed contemporary themes across movies and social media is rare for an actor of his stature. That perhaps, also has to do with the success of his films. Both Airlift and Rustom earned upwards of Rs100 crore at the box office and Baby inched close to the mark.
“Everyone can clearly see that there is a conscious strategy. But if any actor feels that something works, you try and replicate that,” said Anirban Blah, managing director, Kwan Entertainment and Marketing Solutions. “I think that’s the nature of the beast. That’s why you have these notions of romantic and action hero. But the underlying theme is that he’s someone who’s always been relatable to the masses. Now when he talks about things like patriotism and nationalism, there’s a certain authenticity to what he says, stronger than a lot of other actors.”
To be sure, Kumar’s inclination towards the same social pushed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has not gone entirely unnoticed. Toilet... for instance, is purported to be a satire in support of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, a government campaign to improve sanitation and end the practice of open defecation.
“It’s difficult to form an opinion on whether celebrities are toeing the line but you could say there is a subtle inclination to not do something against the government, to appear like you’re in compliance with these issues, if not the government (itself),” Uboweja pointed out. “Plus these are all real social issues and they affect all of us.”