The Player

Akshay Kumar’s role as Hindutva’s poster boy
1 February 2021
Akshay Kumar started out as an action hero, then morphed into a reliable comic performer and now, in his fifties, has come to be seen as Mr India, an enlightened nationalist hero. Aalok Soni / Hindustan Times

AKSHAY KUMAR loves India. He really does. He has said so in his movies, in his advertisements and in his tweets.

In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic brought the country to its knees, and the actor was grounded. The final round of promotions for his film Sooryavanshi had to be cancelled since the Maharashtra government started telling people not to leave their homes. The release of the cop drama, the latest in the filmmaker Rohit Shetty’s oeuvre, was postponed indefinitely. 

But still, Kumar was as busy as he could be, for his work as a performer in recent times has hardly been limited to films. During the COVID-19 crisis, he came to play the role of the responsible superstar and the morale-booster-in-chief on social media. His Twitter posts were a flood of upbeat content. He pledged a Rs 25-crore donation within minutes of Narendra Modi announcing the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations fund, or PM-CARES. When the prime minister said that the country should show solidarity with its healthcare workers by banging pots and pans, Kumar posted a video of himself loudly beating a thali outside his home. He put together a song of hope, lit a diya, hosted a benefit concert, and told people to stay safe and stay home. In June, when the government wanted to lift lockdown restrictions, Kumar made a public-service advertisement telling people not to worry, to wear masks, to go out but be careful. If the government had a message that season, it seemed Kumar was the messenger.

“I don’t believe in thinking about what the country has given you, but what you can give to the country,” he told the media in December 2019. “For example, you pick a captain of a cricket team, and now it is the team’s responsibility to listen to him. Follow the leader. Koi bhi party ka ho”—no matter which political party he is from—“let him lead the country, because chuna toh aap hi logon ne hai”—it was you people who chose him, after all. 

Since Akshay Kumar made his Bollywood debut in 1991, he has appeared in over a hundred and twenty films, gliding from one phase of his career to the next. He started out as an action hero, then morphed into a reliable comic performer and now, in his fifties, has come to be seen as Mr India, an enlightened nationalist hero.

His recent releases include national-security films such as Baby and Naam Shabana; true-life dramas such as Gold, Kesari and Mission Mangal; and social-reform sagas such as Padman and Toilet. If Kumar is to be believed, it is a mere coincidence that his films are about issues on which the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government likes to keep the spotlight: patriotism, national security, cleanliness campaigns. “Modi sir did Swachh Bharat in 2014, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha came in 2017,” he said in August 2019. “So, you are wrong. The Chandrayaan project”—India’s moon mission—“has been in development since 2015 and we started shooting Mission Mangal in December 2018. So, even that is not possible. This is all coincidental.” Kumar added that the Indian Space Research Organisation “was established on August 15, 1969 and it is coincidental that our film is releasing on the 50th anniversary of its formation. I got to know about this months ago.”

 “In the past four or five years there has been a rise in patriotic films being made, particularly thanks to Akshay Kumar and others,” Atul Mohan, who edits the trade journal Complete Cinema, told me in March last year. “After the coming of the BJP there has been open discussion on issues of patriotism and nationalism, and that has also given a boost to the production of such films. When the prime minister talks openly about patriotism, cleanliness and hygiene, that also gives rise to socially relevant films.”

Behind this wave of nationalism in Hindi cinema, however, there seems to be a system of unspoken collusion. The image-conscious government watches closely not just the content of films but also the opinions publicly expressed by celebrities. Some are approached directly to amplify the government’s voice. Those who cooperate are rewarded in many ways: tax cuts, government assignments, national awards and so on. Those who do not are punished through the misuse of institutions. Kumar emerged early on as a willing colluder, and has been able to skilfully find common ground between his own beliefs and the government’s agenda. 

Akshay Kumar started out as an action hero, then morphed into a reliable comic performer and now, in his fifties, has come to be seen as Mr India, an enlightened nationalist hero. Nitin Kanotra / Hindustan Times

The Hindu-nationalist establishment finds Kumar useful due to a constellation of factors: the perception of him as an outsider to the film industry; people’s image of him as a Hindu alternative to the three big Muslim superstars—Aamir Khan, Shahrukh Khan and Salman Khan; his charitable concerns and responsible messaging in advertisements. The association is mutually beneficial. “If Bollywood’s own visibility is limited from a Friday to another Friday, the PSAs extend his visibility lifeline, along with the ads,” Karthik Srinivasan, an independent communications consultant, told me over email. “The recent spate of biopics and hyper-nationalistic movies being produced (and succeeding) has helped quite a few actors (like Vicky Kaushal and John Abraham, though it hasn’t helped Vivek Oberoi at all), and not just Akshay.”

Film releases have always been carefully timed. Diwali was previously the main release window for producers, but now holiday weekends across the calendar have assumed an importance as a film’s box-office fate hinges on the first week after its debut. Salman Khan has become associated with the Eid weekend, Aamir Khan with the Christmas weekend and now Akshay Kumar with the Republic Day and Independence Day weekends. Gold was released on 15 August 2018, Toilet on 11 August 2017, Mission Mangal on 15 August 2019 and Rustom on 12 August 2016. Airlift came out on 22 January 2016 and Bachchan Pandey will release on Republic Day next year.

While actors such as Vivek Oberoi starred as Narendra Modi in a propagandist biopic, and Kangana Ranaut plans a film on Ayodhya, and while filmmakers such as Vivek Agnihotri and Ashoke Pandit openly flaunt their support of the BJP, Kumar has been more strategic. He has never noticeably risen to defend the government’s programmes or policies, or lashed out at its critics online. “In our minds we need to maintain a distinction between governance and politics,” Sanjay Sarma, a brand, marketing and advertising consultant, told me. “And a lot of people don’t and they see him as a right-wing propagandist. I see it a little differently. He’s smart. He isn’t like [some] who do it blatantly. He understands from a mass perspective if he’s too right-wing he will lose a lot of liberal cinema-watchers.”

Considering the opinions Kumar has expressed in the past and the fact that he holds a Canadian passport, his positioning of himself as a Hindutva-style nationalist seems strategic. True to his nickname—“Khiladi,” or the player—Kumar is playing to the gallery. His opinions appear to be influenced more by the film he is promoting at the moment than by any deep political conviction.

This year, in addition to the cop film, he will likely be seen in Prithviraj, a historical drama where he plays the eponymous twelfth-century Rajput king; Bell Bottom, a spy thriller; and Atrangi Re, a romantic drama. The veteran trade analyst Taran Adarsh said Kumar was yet to breach the Rs 300-crore mark with any of his films, the way Aamir Khan (PK, Dangal) and Salman Khan (Sultan, Tiger Zinda Hai) have. But his films have consistently made more than Rs 100 crore each, and he crossed Rs 200 crore three times in a row with Good Newz, Mission Mangal and Housefull 4. As Anupama Chopra, the editor of Film Companion, told me, “In terms of success and batting averages he is ahead of everyone.”

Akshay Kumar has come to be associated with the Republic Day and Independence Day weekends. Gold was released on 15 August 2018, Toilet on 11 August 2017, Mission Mangal on 15 August 2019 and Rustom on 12 August 2016. Airlift came out on 22 January 2016 and Bachchan Pandey will release on Republic Day next year.

BORN RAJIV HARI OM BHATIA, Kumar grew up in Mumbai interested in sports and martial arts. After training in Thailand, he worked as a martial-arts teacher in his home city. He also had brief careers in photography and modelling, before making his film debut, in 1991, with Saugandh. His father had served in the army, and he had no links to the film industry.

Through the early 1990s, Kumar starred in a series of popular action films called the Khiladi series. At this point, he was very much just the action star. “Akshay was seen as the quintessential outsider, even more than Shah Rukh Khan,” Srinivasan, the communications expert, told me. “Shah Rukh at least had a TV background while he came from Delhi, but Akshay didn’t have that either … From that outsider tag he has steadily worked towards being a well-known brand on his own merit without big-name mentors or Godfathers.”

After early success, a string of flops left Kumar in a rut. In 1997, he approached the director and producer Suneel Darshan, who was in the process of casting for Jaanwar. Darshan knew casting him would be “difficult,” because he was “not saleable” at that point. But he liked what he saw; Kumar was good-looking, sincere and disciplined. Darshan took the risk. Jaanwar turned out to be a big hit, and resuscitated Kumar’s career. The pair went on to make six more movies together, including Andaaz, which launched Priyanka Chopra and Lara Dutta, and which Darshan believes “consolidated him once and for all.”

By all accounts, Kumar is a cordial actor to work with. He has a reputation for waking up early and exercising rabidly. He is generous with his co-stars and committed to his directors. “I have seen his process and dedication,” Anurag Singh, who directed him in Kesari, said. “It is quite easy when the actor turns up at 7 am and is raring to go.” As a producer, he is acutely aware of costs. “He needs just one or two takes; he knows time is money where production is concerned. He is always in a good mood and keeps the atmosphere light.”

“He has a great script-sense and understanding,” R Balki, who directed Kumar in Padman, told me. “He is an actor who gets it. He doesn’t make a fuss; he works from the gut, spontaneously. He thinks on his feet.”

Kumar cultivated an earthy, everyman appeal. Darshan defined his “superstar” quality as his ability to connect with “an entire family.” In 2001, he officially ceased being an industry outsider after he married the actor Twinkle Khanna, daughter of the prominent actors Rajesh Khanna and Dimple Kapadia.

His comic turn with Hera Pheri, in 2001, was revelatory and very successful, suggesting the action star and romantic hero had another gear. Through the first decade of the 2000s, Kumar forged a successful pairing with Priyanka Chopra, and then with Katrina Kaif, churning out three or more films a year through the period. “It’s honestly a remarkable evolution,” Anupama Chopra told me. “What he gained over the years is respect.”

Akshay Kumar has come to be associated with the Republic Day and Independence Day weekends. Gold was released on 15 August 2018, Toilet on 11 August 2017, Mission Mangal on 15 August 2019 and Rustom on 12 August 2016. Airlift came out on 22 January 2016 and Bachchan Pandey will release on Republic Day next year.

Long before Kumar was identified as a Modi supporter, he received a Padma Shri, in 2009, when the United Progressive Alliance was in power. His father-in-law, Rajesh Khanna, had been a Congress member of parliament for one term in the 1990s, and still occasionally campaigned for the party. Kumar’s wife has expressed different views from him on a range of issues, and the two have acknowledged this often. “Both Twinkle and I are not against anyone,” he told Bombay Times in 2017. “She has her point of view and I have mine. That’s the way things should be between a husband and wife.” Some view this as a charming comment on marital dynamics. Others see it as a cute ploy to keep all audiences and political factions happy. 

There is a scene in 2007’s Namastey London of Kumar’s character praising, albeit tangentially, stalwarts of the ruling Congress order of the time—Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh—and the former president APJ Abdul Kalam. His hair is a strange shade of brown but his words are draped in the shades of the tricolour. In a speech reminiscent of an earlier, now anachronistic brand of nationalism, Kumar looks a condescending Englishman in the eye and says, as Katrina Kaif demurely translates:

We come from a nation where we allow a lady of Catholic origin to step aside for a Sikh to be sworn in as prime minister by a Muslim president to govern a nation of over eighty percent Hindus. It may also interest you to know that many of the origins of your words come from Sanskrit. … We have reached the moon and back but yet you people feel we still have only reached as far as the Indian rope trick

It is fallacious to conflate a character’s words with an actor’s beliefs, but the clip has a delicious irony, and is a useful signpost of the way nationalism in cinema has evolved in the past decade or so—and how Kumar has evolved with it.

In 2007, it was still sort of cool to appreciate the UPA government; it had not yet been blighted by scams and scandals, and “secular” was not yet a slur. As it happens, 2007 was a banner year for Kumar—he racked up four hits, at an astonishing success rate. Then Mercury retrograde struck, with a slew of flops, starting with the experimental 2008 film 8 x 10 Tasveer with the director Nagesh Kukunoor, then Chandni Chowk to China and the expensively mounted Blue in 2009. In 2010, Tees Maar Khan did well-below-average business and Action Replayy flopped. By January 2011, the trade analyst Komal Nahta was left asking, “Akshay Kumar finished?” That year, Patiala House and Thank You had underwhelming returns at the box office.

“Turn to any magazine or newspaper reporting on Bollywood, and Akshay Kumar seems to be their favourite punching bag,” Nahta wrote. “Switch on any TV channel these days covering Hindi films and chances are they will be talking about how Akshay is ‘almost finished’ ... But is the situation really so bad for the actor whose name till three years ago spelt box-office magic? Not really!”

Akshay Kumar has come to be associated with the Republic Day and Independence Day weekends. Gold was released on 15 August 2018, Toilet on 11 August 2017, Mission Mangal on 15 August 2019 and Rustom on 12 August 2016. Airlift came out on 22 January 2016 and Bachchan Pandey will release on Republic Day next year.

THROUGH THE END of the 2000s, as his films flopped repeatedly, a disillusioned Kumar began looking further afield. Sure, India was great, but how could Akshay Kumar be great again? 

Kumar first visited Canada in 1995. In 8 x 10 Tasveer, Kumar played a Canadian resident and, during a 2008 visit, he said Toronto was also his home. “After I retire from this industry I am going to come back here and stay here,” he said. Whether that was heartfelt, or a way of ingratiating himself with Canadian audiences, is hard to say. Around the same time, news emerged that Kumar would be working on the director Deepa Mehta’s epic about the Komagata Maru incident, in which Indian immigrants who came to Canada on a Japanese steamship in 1914 were denied entry into the country.

In November 2009, a bad professional year for Kumar, he was named as a torchbearer for the following year’s Winter Olympics in Vancouver. In June 2010, the Canadian government anointed him as a Canadian Tourism Commission Ambassador for India. Rob Moore, the minister of state for tourism and small business, was quoted as saying, “He will play a key role in showcasing all that Canada has to offer as a top tourism destination … We are inviting Indian travellers to see and experience Canada in a whole new way.” 

The association peaked when Kumar was called to host a dinner in 2010 between the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and his Canadian counterpart, Stephen Harper, in what was seen as an unconventional move. After decades of coldness in bilateral ties, newspapers reported this as a momentous occasion. It acquired an added touch of glamour with Kumar’s presence.

In 2011, Kumar produced Breakaway, dubbed in Hindi as Speedy Singhs, set in Toronto and featuring the country’s favourite sport—ice hockey. By 2012, his role with Tourism Canada had ended. “I am not aware of any promotional materials being still in use and cannot speak directly to what made him attractive as it was over eight years ago (our records are kept for six years),” Tess Messmer, a strategic advisor at Destination Canada, told me by email. “Typically, when deciding whether to work with an influencer, we look at their reach (audience and engagement) and their alignment with both the Canada brand and our target traveller.”

Akshay Kumar has come to be associated with the Republic Day and Independence Day weekends. Gold was released on 15 August 2018, Toilet on 11 August 2017, Mission Mangal on 15 August 2019 and Rustom on 12 August 2016. Airlift came out on 22 January 2016 and Bachchan Pandey will release on Republic Day next year.

Probably some time during this period, Kumar was granted Canadian citizenship. Tom Blackwell, the journalist who, in 2019, broke the story of it for the National Post, told me via email that it was unclear when he received citizenship, “but one of Harper’s former cabinet ministers confirmed to me that he was given the special, fast-track citizenship by the Harper government. He worked for the Canadian tourism organization from 2010 to 2012—which is the reason the minister claimed he was given instant citizenship—and told Indian media last year he hadn’t been in Canada for seven years, so that suggests to me it was in the 2010–12 period. But that’s just an informed guess.”

Kumar’s proximity to the Canadian government helped him gain a foothold there. He campaigned for Harper’s party, the Conservative Party of Canada, in the Greater Toronto area, which, as Blackwell told me, has “a large concentration of Indo-Canadian voters, and that tend[s] to swing back and forth between the Liberals and the Conservatives.” According to Blackwell, “Campaigning with a famous Bollywood star would presumably appeal to at least some of those voters. When Harper did this in the 2011 federal election, he won all of those ridings. FYI, most of those ridings went Liberal in the last two elections.”

The association was hardly a secret or a shame, and perhaps the matter might have ended there. Except, immediately thereafter, Kumar’s career started to look up again, and in the process he discovered, as an aging hero, where the next phase of his career might lie: in playing India’s go-to nationalist.

I tried to obtain an interview with Kumar several times but to no avail.

BY 2013, Kumar was back, and reconsolidating, with films such as Rowdy Rathore and Housefull 2. In the same year, Special 26, a low-key thriller he made with the director Neeraj Pandey, marked the start of a recurring, fruitful association. The BJP came to power in 2014 and its brand of nationalism began taking over popular culture. Holiday, in 2014, and Baby, in 2015, resurrected the old action star we knew and gave Kumar a uniform and a dose of righteous anger, with the country front and centre.

Unlike the director Vivek Agnihotri or actors such as Anupam Kher, Kangana Ranaut and Vivek Oberoi, Kumar does not endorse any political party explicitly. Instead, he has found common ground on many issues between his own beliefs and the government’s agenda. Warren Toda / EPA

Baby portrayed a fictional undercover counter-terrorism unit formed after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. “There are glimmers of genuine insight—early in the film, the head of Baby (a suitably grim Danny Denzongpa) says that the fact that terror groups now have Indian recruits reveals a failure of the state,” Anupama Chopra wrote in her review of the film in Hindustan Times. “But Neeraj chooses not to pursue that thorny narrative thread. Instead, we stay with the far more palatable and heroic tale of a few good men and one woman ready to sacrifice their lives for their country.”

Those flecks of ambiguity, or at least attempts to gesture towards the state as less than perfect, had still not been purged entirely. They reappeared in the 2016 film Airlift, widely considered one of Kumar’s better performances, a film that did well at the box office while also being universally hailed by film reviewers. 

Bleached of colour, and pared down in its realism, the film’s plot was derived from the true story of India’s largest overseas evacuation operation, in the early 1990s. Shortly after the Gulf War broke out, stranded Indians in Kuwait struggled to get home. They were helped by a group of NRIs, resulting in an effort that eventually repatriated a hundred and seventy thousand people through a combination of bargaining, diplomacy and perseverance. When the producers happened to mention the project to Kumar during a meeting for a different film, he leapt at the opportunity to star in it.

The movie’s politics are subtle. There is no outright Pakistan-bashing; the hero is very sceptical of his Indian identity at first, almost a reluctant crusader. “To be honest, we never went out to make a patriotic film,” Menon told me last March. “We wanted to tell a story.” Still, there is a call to flag-waving, and the tricolour gets its due. Menon said they were nervous up until the release, and the film’s roaring success somewhat surprised them. It spawned copycat offers for Menon. “They would be like, ‘Let’s make another rescue story, let’s make another India-saves-the-world,’” Menon said. “‘Can we do the Yemen refugee crisis?’ It was mostly ‘do more of the same.’”

“Unfortunately it started a trend which has gone too far,” he added. “It very quickly moved into jingoism, I would prefer to tell stories of valour or bravery that aren’t steeped in jingoism.”

Unlike the director Vivek Agnihotri or actors such as Anupam Kher, Kangana Ranaut and Vivek Oberoi, Kumar does not endorse any political party explicitly. Instead, he has found common ground on many issues between his own beliefs and the government’s agenda. Wikimedia Commons

Kumar meanwhile also continued to make merry and make money with Dishoom and the Housefull series, but his eye stayed on the patriotism prize. In 2016, after a militant attack in the town of Uri in Jammu and Kashmir, the Indian Motion Pictures Producers’ Association decided to ban Pakistani artists from working in India. Kumar deftly sidestepped the debate on this by putting out a video in support of slain jawans. He chided people for taking sides, and instead tried to direct attention to the soldiers’ families and the hardships of working in the army.

Naam Shabana, a 2017 spin-off from Baby, brought him back in a national-security avatar.  Rustom, a 2016 release based on a notorious real-life murder case, again put him in uniform, as he played a fictionalised version of the naval officer KM Nanavati, who shot his wife’s lover but was acquitted by a jury. Critics panned his performance and the film’s rendition of the saga, but, in 2017, Kumar received the National Award. The film director Priyadarshan, who headed the award jury that year, had previously worked with Kumar in Hera Pheri, Garam Masala and Bhool Bhulaiyaa, and the choice was widely attacked. Even though such awards have always been marked with cynical assumptions of nepotism, Kumar’s victory for a lifeless performance appeared particularly farcical. Apurva Asrani, the writer of Aligarh, released the same year, tweeted, “are Canadian citizens eligible for India’s national awards?”

Things were looking up for Kumar. And with Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, a naked promotion of a government initiative—the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, which promoted hygiene and cleanliness—Kumar embraced social causes and positive propaganda in equal measure. The 2017 film has the flakiest of storylines: a man must build a toilet at home to please his wife. As is common for Bollywood’s male stars, Kumar portrays a much younger man—newly married and on a mission to educate the village, fight superstitions and offer a new version of masculinity. He is told, “Your fight is against tradition; that is a very difficult task.” Kumar’s character goes straight to Modi for inspiration. “When our prime minister can stop currency notes, why can’t we stop our bowels?” he asks at one point, in a nod to demonetisation. 

Unlike the director Vivek Agnihotri or actors such as Anupam Kher, Kangana Ranaut and Vivek Oberoi, Kumar does not endorse any political party explicitly. Instead, he has found common ground on many issues between his own beliefs and the government’s agenda. Milind Shelte / The India Today Group / Getty Images

Even before the film came out, Kumar’s efforts were hailed on Twitter by the union minister Suresh Prabhu. After release, the film got tax-free status in Uttar Pradesh, and Kumar was appointed an ambassador for Swachh Bharat. He wrote a chapter in a book about cleaning India up, and attended its launch. The film and the government’s messaging seemed to have blurred into one. Kumar tweeted ahead of the launch: “It has been incredible five years and the change in rural sanitation is extraordinary.” 

He launched an ad campaign for the Swachh Bharat scheme, in which the secretary of the ministry of drinking water and sanitation publicly recognised the actor’s efforts. A release by the ministry noted, “He said that right from his movie, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, which was seen and appreciated by rural and urban people across the country, to his participation in the twin pit toilet advertisement campaign for the Swachh Bharat Mission, Shri Kumar has been a strong supporter of the sanitation movement underway in the country.” 

Though reviewers lacerated the film—calling it “filmi pamphleteering” and a “propaganda juggernaut” that works “exactly like a public service announcement video produced by Swachh Bharat Abhiyan”—it crossed Rs 130 crore at the domestic box office. If Kumar’s bhakti had been in any doubt, with this film the case was closed.

While 2017 was a banner year for toilets, 2018 was going to be the year for menstrual hygiene. Twinkle Khanna approached the director R Balki with an idea to make a film on the life of Arunachalam Muruganantham, a rural entrepreneur who came up with a concept for low-cost sanitary napkins. At first Balki, who prefers to come up with his own ideas, was reluctant. “But the more I got to know, the more I realised it was a fascinating life,” Balki told me last April. In Padman, Kumar again plays an ordinary yet enlightened man, who works tirelessly to alleviate the problems faced by women in rural areas. The film crossed the Rs 100-crore mark in worldwide takings, and brought in its wake more plaudits for Kumar’s social crusading. “A feature film is fundamentally story-driven, not cause-driven,” Balki said. “The first thing in a film is entertainment. If a cause helps entertainment, so be it. People don’t pay money to listen to bhaashans”—speeches. 

Unlike the director Vivek Agnihotri or actors such as Anupam Kher, Kangana Ranaut and Vivek Oberoi, Kumar does not endorse any political party explicitly. Instead, he has found common ground on many issues between his own beliefs and the government’s agenda. Milind Shelte / The India Today Group / Getty Images

The seeds for Mission Mangal—loosely based on the lives of scientists at the Indian Space Research Organisation who contributed to the Mars Orbiter Mission—were sown during promotional work around Padman, when Balki happened to mention this new project he was writing. Though he was part of an ensemble cast in Mission Mangal and Vidya Balan’s part is more pivotal to the story, the film clearly rode on Kumar’s shoulders.

Here, too, positive messages around Indianness mixed seamlessly with government propaganda. The film foregrounds the idea of jugaad—of making do, producing high quality at a low cost—as a central feature of the Mars mission’s success. It associates this with “making in India”—linking to the government’s Make in India initiative, aimed at encouraging companies to manufacture in the country. There are setbacks in the mission, sure, but nothing from which the team cannot recover. “We are not a nation that’s always been proud of ourselves,” Balki said. “Even now we aren’t proud about ourselves for a lot of things. But today we are less shy to say we are Indian.” 

In both Padman and Airlift, the true-life south Indian heroes became north Indians. In Airlift, a bunch of south Indian NRIs were fused into the character of Ranjit Katyal, played by Kumar. Raja Menon said in defence of this that the film was not a biopic, and, in a Hindi movie, the transformation made sense.

Gold brought to life India’s first victory at the Olympics as an independent nation, loosely inspired by the gold-medal winning hockey team at the 1948 Olympics and featuring Kumar attempting a Bengali accent. Though the tricolour was waved aplenty, it portrayed a bonhomie between the Indian and Pakistani teams, and the complexities of old bonds riven by Partition. Kesari, released in 2019, was a saffron-hued tribute to fighting for “Hindustan ki mitti”—Indian soil. The plot, again based loosely on historic events, invoked an outraged victimhood—a Sikh regiment ill-treated by the British must hold off marauding Muslim tribes. 

On the small screen and in ads, Kumar cooked for the army, sold tiles on the strength of nationalism and aligned himself with rural India. In a 2018 video for an event he did on rural empowerment, he asked, “What is a village? My father was from a village … I believe geniuses come from villages.” 

“We wanted a face that would appeal to the rural youth,” Praful Nikam, the president of the Y4D Foundation, which organised the event, told me last March. “We approached a few other actors. He was the only person who didn’t ask for money, but asked, will this benefit rural people?” Nikam added that Kumar’s image “matched our cause.” At one point, Kumar was so impressed by one of the people featured, he even appeared interested in using his story as the concept for a feature film about a farmer who returns to his village after striking it rich. “He said it was a relatable topic, but that he needed to figure out a writer who could make it into an entertaining film,” Nikam said. 

Kumar’s image seems to have been manufactured along the lines on which Modi has sought to construct his own: nationalist, thoughtful, righteous, pro-governance and pro-people. Though Kumar was continuing to make slapstick comedies, by this point he had also become ensconced in the role of the socially-conscious do-gooder, a man with a mission, focussed solely on the nation’s well-being. This made him perfect for another role, and rumours began to circulate that he would soon be playing the prime minister in a biopic. The rumour was eventually denied, but not before the actor Shatrughan Sinha, a BJP MP at the time, and Pahlaj Nihalani, then the chief of the censor board, endorsed the casting choice. “I can’t think of anyone better to play our Prime Minister than Akshay,” Nihalani told DNA. “He has a spotless image of an idealist and visionary. And look at the kind of work he’s doing. Toilet: Ek Prem Katha and Padman are the cinema of social reform that Guru Dutt and V Shantaram were associated with. Also, Akshay has risen from humble working class beginnings to become a national star, just like Modiji. We are certainly looking at a strong possibility of Akshay playing Modiji.”

In 2001, Kumar officially ceased being an industry outsider after he married the actor Twinkle Khanna, daughter of the prominent actors Rajesh Khanna and Dimple Kapadia. Dinodia Photo

HEAVY DOSES OF NATIONALISM are not new to film. The actor Manoj Kumar had his heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, with ultra-nationalist films, but such films never entirely went away. Lagaan was about a bunch of underdog Indians taking on, and defeating, the poncey British at their own game, cricket. The diaspora’s love for the homeland has been a recurring theme in films such as Swades, Pardes and Namastey London.

What sets apart the recent crop of films from previous ones is not only the frequency with which they are being made but also the nature of nationalism on display. “This wave is very different,” Anupama Chopra told me. “This is a pro-establishment bent. It’s a narrowly defined, shrill nationalism.” Films such as Lagaan and Bombay, she said, had “a different texture.”

Akshay Kumar may have owned the nationalist film in a way no other star has, but he is not the only one to try. Salman Khan’s Bharat, John Abraham’s Parmanu and Aamir Khan’s Dangal have all worn the tricolour on their sleeve.

Most mainstream Bollywood films feature upper-caste heroes; Kumar himself has played several of them. Non-upper-caste characters are rare, especially as protagonists. “There was the whole genre of the Muslim social, courtesans and nawabs,” Khalid Mohamed, the critic, filmmaker and former editor of Filmfare, told me. “There were certainly more Islamic characters and elements in the movies once.”

The director Hansal Mehta pointed to the simplistic politics of today’s historical films, or the “safe” nature of sports biopics, in which nationalism is front and centre in an uncomplicated manner. In period dramas, lines are clearly drawn, as they have come to be in real life. Historical dramas—such as Panipat, Padmavat and Tanhaji, two of which made more than Rs 200 crore—amplify the achievements of various upper-caste rulers. In both Padmavat and Kesari, Muslims are shown as barbaric and amoral.

Panipat, based on the Third Battle of Panipat between the Maratha empire and the Durrani empire, even led to diplomatic intervention—the Afghan embassy expressed concern over its historical inaccuracies. “One of the BJP-RSS agendas has been to rewrite the curriculum and history,” Hansal Mehta said. “You are assisting in that retelling of history from a nationalist Hindutva perspective. There are limitations of the medium, there is dramatisation, but you can still make something fairly authentic or that isn’t so tilted on either side. Films like Roja were more balanced the way it looked at Kashmir issue, for instance.” According to Mehta, “we have completely sacrificed nuance” because of polarisation.

The beginning of 2019, leading up to a general election, saw a slew of politically charged films, including PM Narendra Modi, The Accidental Prime Minister and Uri, which drew on the government’s 2016 claim of having conducted “surgical strikes” on militant bases in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. That phrase crept into the promotion of Tanhaji, a period drama, described as “the surgical strike that shook the Mughal empire.”

Uri, a hyper-masculine take on the Uri attack, contributed a rallying cry to everyday language—“How’s the josh?”—which was parroted by the public and BJP politicians on the campaign trail. Modi himself asked the question while addressing a Bollywood gathering, and parliamentarians echoed the line when Piyush Goyal praised Uri during a budget speech. Bollywood had drawn from national myth-making and, in turn, had contributed a pithy slogan to the everyday vernacular. 

“Nationalism is certainly commercially profitable, and a certain shift in topics in the last years is certainly visible—a change that somewhat reflects the political changes in India,” Krzysztof Iwanek, the head of the Asia Research Centre at the War Studies University in Warsaw, Poland, told me over email. “But I do not think Hindu nationalism is a major power and threat in Bollywood cinema now … What I think is taking place is that some in the cinematic industry are making tactical choices. They are choosing the movies, their topics and the ways they package them to tap the political mood.” Iwanek believes that the industry will adapt again once there is a change in government. 

Anurag Kashyap, a director and producer who has frequently criticised this government, said there is no direct relationship between most filmmakers and the government. He described the increase in the number of nationalist films as “purely a business call.” Still, he said, the motives might include that “someone up there will like what they are trying to do. Their agenda may be to get a National Award or Padma Shri, or some benefit from the government.” 

“That’s how showbiz works,” Anurag Singh, who directed Kumar in Kesari, said. “When a particular kind of cinema works, people will try to follow that trend. They know there is a readymade audience for that, and people are watching those kinds of films. It may lead to some kind of saturation, but so far it hasn’t happened.”

Some believe that such films are on their way out. “Audiences will not have the same josh every time if you are being nationalist at the drop of a hat,” Balki said. “There is a phase; it’s been exploited and moved on.” 

Several such films, when seen to promote positive messages, have received tax exemptions in states, enabling them to reach wider audiences. While some filmmakers believe a tax-exempted film may be considered boring, and may not always garner significantly higher earnings, an exemption clearly signals that the government approves. Dangal, Neerja and Hindi Medium all got tax exemptions, as have Kumar’s Airlift, Toilet, Mission Mangal and Padman

“Decreasing the tax burden of select movies, the argument goes, can not only further their messages to more viewers, but also lead producers to pick the ‘right’ subjects for upcoming films,” Iwanek wrote in an article for The Interpreter. “In this way, the states of India exercise a subtle moral authority over cinema, although they usually do not flex this power very often.”

Over email in June last year, Iwanek clarified that “moral authority” is loosely defined. “It does not seem there are set rules on the exact subjects covered by films that may lead to their exemption from the entertainment tax,” he said, pointing out that sports films and those with patriotic or social themes usually earn such benefits. 

But the tax exemption can also work in subtle ways politically. “Firstly, by exempting the movies which the particular governments find politically more useful,” Iwanek said. “Secondly, by exempting the movies made by producers (or the lead actors starring in them) who are closer to the ruling party.” 

The Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper presents Akshay Kumar the uniform of the torch relay for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic and Paralympic games. The Harper government seems to have provided Kumar fast-track Canadian citizenship. Arko Datta / Reuters

IN DECEMBER 2018, a delegation of producers met the prime minister to request changes to the goods-and-services tax regime. Following the meeting, GST rates were dropped from 18 percent to 12 percent for tickets that cost less than a hundred rupees, and from 28 percent to 18 percent for tickets costing more. Stars thanked Modi and the government on social media. The prime minister tweeted about the meeting and the discussions. Modi has held similar interactions with Bollywood stars, and generated several selfies in the process. He has also roped in stars online to encourage people to vote and get fit.

Modi’s government is largely perceived in Bollywood as being interested and accessible, and open to hearing the industry out. It was under a National Democratic Alliance government that the film industry first got “industry” status, in 2001, and it was under the Modi government that Indian filmmakers were included in the ambit of “single-window” clearance for shooting, in the 2019 interim budget, paving the way for easier permissions for filming.

Politicians and governments have always sought to woo Bollywood, to bask in some of its reflected wattage. Film stars, too, have reciprocally enjoyed the benefits of sticking close to power. An undated photograph, from the 1960s or the 1970s, of Indira Gandhi with a cohort of contemporary leading lights, including Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Sharmila Tagore, provides a black-and-white throwback to the kind of photo Modi took with young stars in January 2019. “There are those classic pictures of the whole industry standing behind her,” Khalid Mohamed said. “The centre is always there to attract Bollywood.”

As prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee often attended the Filmfare Awards. The National Awards have long been seen as politically influenced. “Even during the Emergency, you had a lot of filmmakers who made films to please the Congress government,” Mehta said. “Even in Nehruvian times, there were films talking about his brand of socialism. Often artists and others in the mainstream have made films in line with the dispensation. There has always been a tendency to toe the government line of the time.”

But what many people I interviewed told me is that, in terms of scale and intensity, perhaps no government has sought to engage the industry as actively and as determinedly as this one. The Modi government has created an ecosystem in which producing content that the government likes has big rewards, while even remote criticism can have dire consequences.

“The government uses industry people very well,” Anurag Kashyap told me. “This government knows how to use the film industry for their public perception ... Mr Modi is a marketing genius.” He said the rewards could come in ways including “dealing with censorship,” “cases getting dropped,” and “tax-free status.”

Kashyap spoke from his own experience of having been “co-opted.” After this government first came to power, in 2014, he was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, he said. Rajavardhan Rathore, who had taken over as the minister of state for information and broadcasting, reached out to him. Kashyap spoke to Rathore about his concerns around cigarette warnings running during films. He organised a meeting with Rathore and members of the film industry in Mumbai, and did not lend his voice to the protests against the government’s appointment of Gajendra Chauhan, a B-movie actor and BJP loyalist, as the chairman of the Film and Television Institute of India. “I started feeling maybe I’m wrong because of the way the minister and others reached out to me,” Kashyap said. “They must have done similar things to other people.” When Kashyap’s Udta Punjab ran into censorship troubles, he realised he was “being manipulated” and started speaking up again.

Kashyap said his criticism of the government has damaged his films’ prospects. Both Saand ki Aankh and Mukkabaaz, which were shot in Uttar Pradesh and should have got the benefits of the state’s Film Bandhu scheme, were abruptly denied government support. “Because of me being vocal, the producers lost their subsidy,” he said. 

One filmmaker, who did not wish to be named, told me they were approached by a government functionary and told they had been followed online and their comments tracked. The official then went on to hand the filmmaker a document listing the prime minister’s achievements. “See what he has done for our country,” the filmmaker recalled being told, adding that they were asked to tweet something positive. The filmmaker was also told, “You don’t understand what we are doing; it hurts him”—Modi—“a lot.” As a result, the filmmaker said, “I felt a bit intimidated.”

The same filmmaker was, at another point, nudged to make movies about development activities of the government. “There are so many stories you can find,” the filmmaker was told. “They encourage you,” the filmmaker said. “They say ‘Make it, it will be good.’ Either you get the point or you don’t.” 

Actors have frequently joined party politics, run for election or campaigned for candidates. Jaya Bachchan has been a long-time Samajwadi Party MP. Sunil Dutt was a long-time Congress MP following his Bollywood career. Hema Malini has represented the BJP in both houses of parliament. But that is a different nature of alliance between film and politics, premised on individual political interests and inclinations. “Bollywood was never co-opted as part of a larger political strategy,” Sanjay Jha, who was still a Congress spokesperson when we spoke, told me last March. (He was suspended by the party in July.) “Since 2014 there has been an extremely in-your-face relationship between the industry and the political establishment. You are dealing with a political party that recognises the importance of political communication better than most parties.”

How this could take place was laid bare in February 2019, shortly before the general election, when the website Cobrapost released the findings of a months-long sting operation. It purported to show a pervasive rot across the film industry. The sting was conducted by reporters posing as political representatives, most often of the BJP, who offered celebrities money to tweet in support of the government. “It wasn’t surprising; we had been hearing about tweets for sale,” Aniruddha Bahal, the founder of Cobrapost said. “It’s not just the entertainment sector; it’s a lot of other sectors too.”

Several celebrities—including the actors Shakti Kapoor and Sunny Leone, and the singer Mika Singh—ostensibly agreed on camera to take money in exchange for covert promotions. No major stars were approached, but Akshay Kumar’s name appeared once, in passing. “Like Akshay, Akshay is with us,” the actor Jackie Shroff, who appeared willing to cut a deal, said. The reporter demurred, pointing out that people like Kumar and Anupam Kher are already seen as BJP-leaning, whereas a more “neutral” person like Shroff is not, which makes his pro-BJP messaging of greater value. 

“The big guys don’t do it for money outrightly, they do it to feel close to power and curry favours,” Srivatsa YB, the national campaign in-charge of the Youth Congress and a former head of the Congress’s social-media operation in Karnataka, told me. “The influencer network the BJP has is huge. In some cases, the accounts are directly handled by the BJP ... What the BJP has done is made narrative amplification using influencers a cornerstone of their strategy in every issue. They have templatised it.”

Srivatsa said the Congress did not do outright celebrity outreach. Rather, it “encourages them to speak on important issues if they are in the same ideological space,” he said.

The director Anurag Kashyap believes his films’ prospects have suffered because of his criticism of the government. Both Saand ki Aankh and Mukkabaaz, which were shot in Uttar Pradesh and should have got the benefits of the state’s Film Bandhu scheme, were abruptly denied government support. Biplov Bhuyan / Hindustan Times

Few big stars have risked speaking out on political issues. In 2015, the actor Aamir Khan faced intense hostility and commercial consequences for saying the country seemed less tolerant than before. Shah Rukh Khan was quoted as making similar remarks, though he later denied having made them, and was promptly attacked by the BJP. Liberals pilloried big stars for staying quiet during protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act last year, but the silence was not surprising. “Now you feel greater pressure, this government is far more controlling,” one filmmaker told me. “Earlier, people were less afraid to express themselves.” 

Some people continue to speak up, and the anti-CAA protests did see vocal dissent from the likes of Kashyap, the director Anubhav Sinha and the actor Swara Bhaskar. “The fear is income tax, the threat of their films being stalled, violence outside theatres that would derail commercial success,” Sanjay Jha said. “Hollywood is not scared of the president of America ... In India, it is the reverse. You have people bending and crawling to please the government.” 

Ahead of the 2019 general election, the Congress took inputs from different industries for its manifesto. Jha was part of a roundtable with guests from Bollywood. The meeting was held the same day that Modi was in Mumbai to inaugurate the Museum of Cinema at Peddar Road. “Some were paranoid,” Jha told me. “Not many had the courage to come and be part of the conversation.”

It is easy for films to suffer at the hands of activists, religious groups and the government for either their content or the outspokenness of their makers and stars. This makes overtly political films, or overtly political film stars, a risky commercial proposition. At least three films—Fanaa, Firaq and Parzania—were effectively banned in Gujarat during Modi’s tenure as the state’s chief minister. Padmavat, Aarakshan and Madras Cafe also faced opposition in other states.

In January 2020, after Deepika Padukone was seen attending a meeting at Jawaharlal Nehru University amid the ongoing anti-CAA protests, the BJP’s supporters demanded a boycott of her film Chhapaak. Whether or not this had an impact on the fate of the film, which performed poorly, is hard to determine, but it quickly put a target on Padukone’s back.

Kashyap faced similar backlash and found his IMDb page vandalised, and continues to face organised trolling on social media. “They try to discredit you every which way,” Kashyap said. “They create this pressure that, if I go to theatres, there might be violence in the theatres. They go online and downvote the films. They mess up ratings across sites. They create a sense of fear.”

The rise of the nationalist film is a byproduct of this ecosystem. “This is a government playing on majoritarian nationalism and national-security fears,” Jha said. “There are multiple messages being sent, and Bollywood is smart enough to grasp those messages.”

CENTRAL AND STATE GOVERNMENTS have often deployed film stars to put out important messages. It is not unusual for actors to promote awareness on some issues or messages of public importance. Aamir Khan was the brand ambassador for Incredible India from 2009 until he was dropped in 2016, and has featured in ads against drugs. Ajay Devgn featured in tourism ads for the Maharashtra government as a tie-in for his last film, Tanhaji, and Amitabh Bachchan was famously the brand ambassador of Gujarat’s tourism campaign. 

Yet Kumar’s consistency and visibility as a pro-government star have been of a different order. “If he tried fitting into the Bollywood scheme via his marriage to a well-known superstar, being friendly with the government could be his way of fitting into the current ecosystem,” Karthik Srinivasan told me. Kumar seems to have found a way to align government propaganda with his own convictions.

In October 2016, shortly after the Uri attack, he urged people to consider the lives of the jawans who protected the country’s borders rather than engage in pointless debates. From the outset, Kumar has been closely associated with the Bharat Ke Veer fund, a donation outfit set up by the government to distribute money to the families of soldiers killed in action. He has regularly attended the fund’s meetings and, since the scheme was his idea, was made its brand ambassador. In September 2017, Bharat Ke Veer was registered as a trust. Kumar is on the board, along with government functionaries and the former badminton player P Gopichand. 

Vijay Kumar, a nodal officer who has overseen the fund since its inception, insisted that not a single paisa of the fund money has been misused. But others, such as the transparency activist Saket Gokhale, have raised questions about the fund and Akshay Kumar’s involvement, including over how a personal initiative by an actor was taken over by the home ministry. Gokhale has filed right-to-information requests seeking information on this.

“How is disbursement of a government fund meant for uniformed personnel of India killed in action decided by an individual who isn’t even an Indian citizen?” he asked when we spoke in June last year. “On what basis was he appointed? Why is he in the picture? It is not a coincidence that [it is] the same man who is associated with different campaigns of the government, the same man who interviews the prime minister.”

Gokhale said the trust was not notified through a government gazette, as it ought to have been. “This is a government that gives out patriotism certificates,” he mused, “so how does it allow a Canadian citizen to decide which of your bravehearts should get the money?”

In 2019, an election year, Kumar found himself subject to extra scrutiny. He was given the rare chance to interview the prime minister, and an old story of him visiting a naval ship with Modi was dredged up by the Congress. During polling in Mumbai that May, Kumar was caught on camera dismissing a journalist who politely asked him about the criticisms over not having voted. Shortly thereafter, a Twitter brouhaha erupted. Did Bollywood’s citizen extraordinaire not vote? It struck some as especially egregious since, a few weeks before, he had responded to the prime minister’s call to vote by telling people on Twitter, “The true hallmark of a democracy lies in people’s participation in the electoral process. Voting has to be a superhit prem katha between our nation and its voters.” Clearly, that prem katha, or love story, did not include him.

As the month unravelled, so did the stories. Kumar had previously said, in 2017, that he had received “honorary” Canadian citizenship—a claim quickly proven to be untrue by the fact-checking website Alt News. “Based on the information available on the Canadian PM’s website only five people currently hold the title of honorary citizens of Canada and Akshay Kumar is not one of them,” the site reported.

As his Canadian citizenship became a talking point again, the Indian Institute of Human Brands, a think tank that does “celebrity studies,” ran a straw poll of 484 “millennials.” It turned out that 94 percent of the respondents did not know until the previous week that Akshay Kumar had a Canadian passport. “But 82% millennials see nothing wrong in Akshay playing ‘patriotic’ roles,” Sandeep Goyal of IIHB wrote in a blog post, and “91% of those who participated in the straw poll said they would like Khiladi Kumar to continue playing the ‘Bharat’ roles he has been playing lately.” 

Kumar’s nationalist image appeared undented, and “much of that credit should go to the BJP’s hyper-active hyper-nationalistic online army,” Srinivasan, the communications consultant, told me. “They perpetuate views about what or who an ‘Indian’ is, and for them the passport does not mean much. They go by the fact that he is supportive of the current BJP government and that sentiment is all that matters to them to ignore the fact that he chose to be a Canadian citizen.” 

At the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit in December 2019, when Kumar was asked about the citizenship affair, he said he had applied for an Indian passport. “It hurts me that I need to hold a piece of paper to prove my nationalism, but for whatever it is worth, I have applied for an Indian passport and will soon have one,” he said. Last year, I filed RTI requests with the home ministry on Kumar’s citizenship status, but these have only been transferred between departments. I am yet to receive a clear response.

Kumar’s image seems to have been manufactured along the lines on which Modi has sought to construct his own: nationalist, thoughtful, righteous, pro- governance and pro-people. PTI

IN DECEMBER 2019, Kumar “liked” a tweet cheering the Delhi police’s violent entry into Jamia Millia Islamia university during the anti-CAA protests. That prompted a quick retraction, and a clarification that it had been a “mistake” while “accidentally scrolling.” Though Kumar had no issue with aligning himself with the government on nationalism and social schemes, a more nakedly political statement seemed off-brand. Several actors and filmmakers came out on one side or the other of the police’s actions; some left vague, anodyne statements condemning the violence. But Kumar chose to say nothing at all. 

If Kumar was interested in politics and government before 2016, he did not show it online. Up until 2016, his Twitter feed never mentioned the prime minister, the government, or the ruling party. Perhaps, the first time he did so was on 6 February 2016, when he posted a photo of himself and his son with Modi. Since then, his interest in governance and his nationalistic fervour have both grown steadily. He follows just 26 accounts, the prime minister’s being one of them. Deleted tweets can also tell a story. In May 2018, as petrol prices were climbing under the Modi government, it emerged that Kumar had deleted an old tweet from 2012 remarking on petrol price hikes during the UPA regime. 

In the past three years in particular, his tweets have closely followed the prime minister’s lead on many fronts. Other actors too have done so on their social media pages too—Kangana Ranaut flagrantly, others much more frugally. For instance, Kumar often echoes Modi’s tweets on fitness. He tweeted about Modi’s visit to the United States, urged people to follow the prime minister’s “janata curfew” in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and talked up Modi’s interview with the British adventurer Bear Grylls. 

In a PSA shot during the COVID-19 lockdown and released in June 2020, Kumar echoed a catchword bandied about by the prime minister as he urged people to become “atmanirbhar,” or self-reliant, in protecting themselves even as they started moving outside their homes. “Not that I expected anything great or even sensible from Akshay Kumar and the government of India, but this video makes a mockery of the thousands who have died,” Aqsa Shaikh, a doctor and associate professor of community medicine, told me at the time. “And we have not yet seen the peak! We have not yet developed herd immunity … what is more hypocritical is the same Akshay Kumar had given a message two months back to listen to the government and stay at home and avoid any bravado.”

But Kumar’s pro-government credentials were not bulletproof. Trouble began with the death of the actor Sushant Singh Rajput, which triggered a major upheaval in Bollywood. Rajput was originally from Bihar, and “justice for Sushant” became a rallying cry for the BJP ahead of an approaching state election in Bihar. Pro-government news channels and troll armies spread conspiracy theories, hurled around murder allegations and launched an attack against Bollywood’s bigwigs in a rabid hunt for scapegoats. Kumar soon came into the cross-hairs too. 

In September 2020, in line with the PM’s call to be atmanirbhar, Kumar announced a new indigenously developed online game called Fearless and United Guards, or Fau-G. Created by the mobile-gaming company nCore, Fau-G was to be an alternative to the globally popular PUBG, which had been recently banned as part of the Modi government’s crusade against Chinese apps. Twenty percent of the proceeds from the venture were to be given to Bharat Ke Veer. But the announcement ran afoul of the Sushant Singh Rajput truthers, who alleged that Fau-G had been conceptualised by Rajput. Then, a YouTuber in Bihar linked Kumar to the actor’s death case, without basis, prompting Kumar to serve him a Rs 500-crore defamation notice. 

As the probe into Rajput’s death grew to investigate Bollywood’s ties to drug peddlers, the film industry came under great public scrutiny. Kumar put out a video gently addressing people’s anger and admitting the industry did have drug users, but pointed out it was not the only such industry and that targeting actors was not the way to go. He was also among several producers to move the courts against the news channels Republic TV and Times Now for irresponsible reporting on the Rajput case. This was seen as a rare show of unity by Bollywood to protect itself. 

In October, soon after the release of a trailer for Kumar’s latest film, Laxmmi Bomb, calls began to circulate for a boycott. A remake of a Tamil film, the horror comedy features Kumar as a character possessed by the spirit of a transwoman. Online mobs objected to the use of a goddess’s name with the word “bomb,” and also to the film’s depiction of an interfaith romance. Kumar was denounced as “Canada Kumar,” a “fake nationalist,”  and “a Pakistani friend.” “#BoycottLaxmmiBomb” trended, along with “#ShameOnUAkshayKumar.” The movie’s producer, Shabinaa Khan, was called a “Kashmiri separatist.” Prashant Patel Umrao, a busybody lawyer with a history of taking offence, led the mob in denouncing Kumar’s “history of promoting Islam for commercial gains.” 

Suddenly, Kumar’s history of trouble with Hindutva’s followers was dredged up. In 2012, a first-information report was lodged against him and others for hurting religious sentiments with the film OMG: Oh My God. The film featured the actor Paresh Rawal, a former BJP member of parliament, as an atheist who tries to sue god, with Kumar playing god. The film was intended as satire about the commercialisation of religion and the proliferation of fraudulent godmen, but ran afoul of Hindutva groups. 

Vishnu Gupta, the national president of the Hindu Sena, approached the information-and-broadcasting minister claiming that the title “Laxmmi Bomb” “was highly derogatory and offensive,” and that the film was “promoting love jihad.” The Hindu Sena had also earlier protested against OMG, to no avail. For Gupta, Kumar’s offensive history and the BJP’s relationship with him was a sign of duplicity. “The BJP has embraced him now and forgiven him,” he said. “This is the two-faced nature of the BJP.” 

The filmmakers relented, and dropped “bomb” from the title, renaming the film Laxmii. Gupta remained cynical. “This is just an image of nationalism to earn money,” he said. “By aligning with the BJP people think they can benefit. People are trying to ride the nationalist wave. But we have no concern whether the BJP or the Congress is in power.” 

Originally intended for theatres, Laxmii was eventually released on the streaming platform Disney+Hotstar in November. Critically, the film bombed, but the platform claimed it got record viewership for a movie premiere. 

More recently, Kumar has been attacked for his links to the online show Tandav, starring his mother-in-law, Dimple Kapadia. Following allegations that it was offensive to Hindus, the show had to make cuts. Calls to boycott Bellbottom, an upcoming Kumar film, have also begun. 

“I have been seeing his double standards,” Kajal Shingala, a social activist and BJP supporter with a massive online following, told me. According to Shingala, Kumar made “selective” comments timed to film releases while his wife keeps mocking the prime minister and the Hindu Right. 

Last Diwali, Kumar announced his new film Ram Setu. He shared a poster of himself in a saffron scarf, with a photo of the Hindu deity Ram in the background. Gupta was unimpressed by Kumar’s self-fashioning as a Hindu nationalist. “The Ram Mandir wave is on, so people will watch it,” he said. “But it has to be made well. Will they show the truth?” 

The charge of opportunism was also raised recently when old videos surfaced of Kumar speaking against wasteful Hindu ritualism. “Why is the word mandir there?” he said at an event while discussing OMG. “Mandir means ‘mann ke andar’”—inside the mind—“the answers are very much within ourselves.” Kumar also said that he no longer visited Vaishno Devi every six months. In another interview, he noted that “there is so much waste” at temples, and said that one does not “even need to go to temples” to be good. 

But Kumar is in no mood to give up his Hindutva fan base. This January, he put out a video announcing that he was donating money for the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya on the site of the demolished Babri Masjid. He also narrated a story about the building of the Ram Setu, a mythical bridge featured in the Ramayana. The video seemed like a simultaneous promotion for two ventures: Kumar’s upcoming film, and the government’s Ram Temple project. He asked people to “give per their capacity for the construction of the historic Ram mandir,” and ended by saying, “Jai Shri Ram.”

Sections of Hindu nationalists have not forgotten Kumar’s comments against “wasteful” Hindu ritualism, while discussing the film OMG. The film, in which Kumar plays God, offers a satirical take on commercialisation of religion.

Bhavya Dore is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist.