The Trials and Tribulations of Akshay Kumar

An edited version of this was published in today’s edition of Hindustan Times in Mumbai.

The world, dear reader, is a fickle place. Just Akshay Kumar. 

Ever since he made his debut in 1991, critics have been slamming the actor’s acting skills. He's only good at action scenes, they said. His dialogue delivery is stilted, they whined. How is it possible that a man rumoured to be a 24x7 chemical reaction with women off-screen can't be convincingly romantic with his co-actors on screen, they grumbled. Under the circumstances, you'd think that the critics would have backed off when Kumar recently delivered the performance of a lifetime as an Indian patriot who conducts an apolitical interview with Prime Minister Narendra Modi while the general elections rumbled through India. 

There’s nary a heroine upon whose face Kumar has gazed with as much adoration as he directed at Modi during the course of their informal (but filmed with multiple cameras) chat. Kumar didn’t fumble on a single line. He managed to deliver questions about what home remedies the prime minister favours to cure a common cold with earnest sweetness. When the Prime Minister tossed a cringe-inducing joke about Kumar’s wife, author and columnist Twinkle Khanna, being outspoken, Kumar didn’t slip up and ask if Modi had any tips for better communication between spouses based on his own 51 years of marriage. Neither did Kumar’s expression falter when the Prime Minister claimed President Barack Obama and he address each other using the Hindi tu (which would require Obama to be fluent in Hindu since English doesn’t have an equivalent. Don’t make a face. Maybe he is. He’s Obama. Yes he can). In short, Kumar’s was a masterful performance that showed just how amateur the performances of other actors, sorry journalists, were in the past interviews of the Prime Minister.   

You’d think people would back off now that Kumar has finally hit a high point —  his acting is being praised; there are no scandals going around; even the whispers of buried scandals can’t be heard; Alphonso mangoes are already in the market — but it seems everyone is out to harsh his mellow.

First, there was the jealous gossip about how much he was allegedly paid to do the aforementioned interview (anywhere between Rs 50 crore and Rs 1 crore per minute). Unsurprisingly, this mostly came from journalists for whom having to grovel before, during and after interviews with celebrities is a very real part of the job and yet not included in as a component in the salary breakup. You think you're signing up to do hard-hitting journalism, but instead, there you are, batting your eyelashes and lavishing praise on your interviewee so that your name is not blacklisted. (This is how all celebrity machinery in the country functions, from politics to Bollywood). 

Then came the sniping about Kumar's foreign-ness, with a pesky website named Alt News disclosing that Kumar doesn’t have honorary citizenship but a regular Canadian passport (if you’re feeling like spending some money, do consider donating to Alt News. They do excellent fact checks). Last week, a video clip was uploaded in which Kumar was seen brushing aside a journalist who had asked him, "People love you, but sometimes people criticise you for small things like the fact that you did not vote yesterday." Kumar responded with “Chaliye chaliye (Move on)” and a shove. What would you have Kumar do? Sit down with that journo over mango lassi and explain Kumar can’t vote in India because life is unfair and International Khiladi and the Housefull series don’t count as “historic accomplishment that advances freedom”?

To be fair, if Kumar's filmography qualified him for honorary citizenship, then Canada would also have to give the same to every film reviewer who has survived watching those films. Because that is definitely a historic achievement and no one knows what advancing to freedom feels like as viscerally as a film reviewer making their way to the exit after surviving the worst of Kumar's films. Sensibly, Canada's limited the privilege of honorary citizenship to Malala Yousafzai, Raoul Wallenberg, Nelson Mandela, the 14th Dalai Lama and the Aga Khan.

On Friday, when the buzz around his passport presumably became too loud to ignore, Kumar put up a statement on Twitter.

The statement is a classic example of what is known in journalism as burying the lede, or beginning a story with details of secondary importance while postponing the essential points. In it, he informed us that he pays taxes in India (I should certainly hope so since he’s reportedly paid between Rs 40 and Rs 50 crore per film and is the seventh-highest paid actor in the world) and rued the negativity he’d been subjected to for having a foreign passport, thus exhibiting a remarkable talent for irony. See, a lot of us would readily agree that Kumar is a son of the Indian soil even though his passport is Canadian, but usually when we say things like that, it’s considered anti-national behaviour because the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its supporters aren’t known for that sort of expansive understanding of national identity. Ask the people who have lived in India for generations but haven’t been able to get their names on the National Register for Citizens (NRC) or are told to ‘go back to Pakistan’ because they’re Muslims.

Finally, Kumar ended his statement with, "Lastly, I would like to continue contributing in my small way to the causes that I believe in and make India stronger and stronger."

And so it was that we learnt that the apolitical Kumar does in fact politically lean in a particular direction. That carefully-worded last line in Kumar’s statement makes sure no specifics are articulated even as it pointedly references a very specific rhetoric and ideology – that of the BJP, whose leaders have insisted that the only way to make India strong is to re-elect Modi.

So much for the interview of the Prime Minister being apolitical.

Even if you argue that Kumar’s small contributions may refer to the taxes he pays by virtue of the Bollywood films he’s in, Kumar has been on a dedicated campaign to be jingoistic since 2016, as is evidenced by films like Rustom, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, Pad Man and Kesari. As per the government’s public relations campaign, India is still a free country, which means Kumar is free to voice support for any cause he so desires. It's none of our business why Kumar feels the need to be coy about his politics, but the “causes” he’s endorsing may want to think about whether they're getting enough bang for their buck when celebrity supporters dole out subtly-worded statements.   

To anyone who has been listening to the speeches made by BJP leaders on the election campaign trail, the synergy between the official BJP line and Kumar’s statement is obvious. For example, earlier in April at a rally in Maharashtra, the prime minister said that only his government returning to power will make India strong and a superpower. Union home minister Rajnath Singh said the something similar last week while campaigning in Delhi. "Only and only Modi can give a strong government to the country," said BJP president Amit Shah when he was in Telengana in April. One of the recurring themes of the BJP speeches have been the recent airstrikes carried out against Pakistan to the aggressive virility of the present administration. (Never mind how incidents like the Pulwama attack with its intelligence failure or the recent explosion at Gadchiroli — the deadliest attack on security forces that Maharashtra has suffered in five years — do the opposite.) In case you were wondering about the propriety of appropriating the activities of the Indian Armed Forces as a political party’s promotional tool, let it be known that the Prime Minister has clean chits from the Election Commission. How reassuring.

But hey, it makes sense that the man known for his action movies will side with those who like flexing political muscles, right?

What really emerges from Kumar's apolitical statement is what a magnanimous person the actor is. His heart is big enough to love both Canada, India and BJP, despite his Canadian passport making him precisely the kind of Indian whom the BJP usually mistrusts. The question of what it means to be an Indian and a patriot has been central to the political conversation over the past decade, and those aligned with BJP have repeatedly expressed concern about the 'foreign hand' that seeks to weaken India. For example, despite people like civil rights activist Sudha Bharadwaj and former Congress president Sonia Gandhi giving up foreign passports to become citizens of India, the Right wing depicts them as outsiders who cannot be trusted. There’s a petition in the Supreme Court that wants Congress president Rahul Gandhi debarred because the petitioner is of the belief that Gandhi has “voluntarily acquired British nationality”. An important element of the BJP’s promise that it will make India stronger is its championing of the NRC as a device to identify the outsiders allegedly polluting the purity of our great nation. (We don’t know this for certain since the BJP hasn’t submitted the details, but presumably foreign hands are acceptable when they’re submitting anonymous donations via electoral bonds to the political party’s kitty. More than 50% of the funds the BJP raised through electoral bonds — Rs 487 crore to be precise — were from anonymous sources.)

Speaking in Kalimpong in April, Shah said, "It is our commitment to bring in NRC across the country to chuck out each and every infiltrator," and promised that the BJP government, if elected, "would ensure that each and every Hindu and Buddhist refugee gets citizenship of this country". 

Guess who wouldn't be on an NRC? Unless he can pull off a convincing performance of being a Hindu refugee, Canadian passport holder Akshay Kumar.