Akshay vs John: Bharat Kumar vs Mr Bharat

New Delhi: Pop goes the patriotism war at the Bollywood box-office on Independence Day, for the second year in a row. Akshay Kumar’s “Mission Mangal” is all set to go into a head-on clash with “Batla House”, starring John Abraham. The season of the Tricolour is set to get a dash of the filmi hue once again on August 15, 2019, after Akshays “Gold” and Johns “Satyamev Jayate” fought for box-office spoils on the same date last year.

In an era when image logistics define stardom more than anything else, Independence Day has been the toast of Bollywood biggies out to milk the ‘deskhbhakti’ genre for a while now. Shah Rukh Khan’s “Chak De! India” opened in the I-Day weekend of 2007. The Ajay Devgan-starrer “Singham Returns” booked the date in 2014. Salman Khan’s patriotic spy thriller, “Ek Tha Tiger”, is widely remembered as an Eid blockbuster. The film’s release date was incidentally August 15, 2012.

Akshay and John, more than the others, have, however, emerged as the stars with a long-term plan to appropriate the image of the patriotic hero in modern-day Bollywood. The face-off between the two actors is not just about Independence Day box-office supremacy. The last man standing also gets to keep the sobriquet of Bollywood’s new-age — “Mr Bharat” — which Manoj Kumar enjoyed back in the day for his steady stream of films that crafted melodrama out of heavy doses of patriotism and nationalism.

Akshay was the smart first mover, in this context. When ‘Rustom’ raked in over Rs 120 crore domestically upon release in the Independence Day weekend of 2016, and went on to win him a National Award as Best Actor, the superstar realised that the box-office value of a film celebrating ‘deshbhakti’ invariably multiplies if it is released on a date that celebrates India itself.

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Most of Akshay’s recent films, soaked in the Tricolour hue, have therefore settled for either January 26 or August 15 as release dates. Having scored with hits such as “Kesari”, “Gold”, “Pad Man”, “Toilet: Ek Prem Katha”, “Rustom”, “Airlift” and “Baby”, Akshay was well on his way to wresting the tag of Bollywood’s resident master of pop patriotism.

Except, John Abraham had other plans.

For John, it all perhaps started by chance, when his cerebral political thriller “Madras Cafe”, directed by Shoojit Sircar, became a multiplex sensation upon releasing a week after the Independence Day of 2013. The actor who, at that point, was looking to shed the image of Bollywood beefcake, found relief in the patriotism genre.

The socio-cultural milieu of the nation was also changing around this time, with a newfound love for one’s country pervading across society. Backing projects that celebrated the Tricolour spirit could only spell a win-win situation for John.

All four John’s releases over 2018 and 2019 have belonged to the patriotism genre. “Parmanu: The Story Of Pokhran”, “Satyamev Jayate”, “Romeo Akbar Walter” and the upcoming “Batla House” are all films that garnered lucrative returns casting John as the ultimate patriot.

There is, however, a difference in the flavour of on-screen ‘deshbhakti’ that these two actors project. Akshay’s superstardom, since his “Khiladi” days, has mostly banked on projecting a good-natured do-gooder. He has successfully rolled that quality into his patriotic roles as well.

So, if Akshay’s protagonist Ishar Singh in “Kesari” is not afraid to lay down his life in the battle of Saragarhi, the affable Tapan Das of “Gold” is ready to spend even the last paisa from his pocket for the betterment of the Indian hockey team, which would go on to win the gold medal at the Olympics in 1948. He was the billionaire who selflessly rescued countless Indians from war-torn Kuwait of 1990 in “Airlift”, and he was the Navy Commander who would put at stake even personal happiness to protect the nation’s official secrets.

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In “Pad Man” and “Toilet: Ek Prem Katha”, he shifted focus to rural development, through issues of hygiene and cleanliness, and in “Baby”, the actor was seen heading a near-impossible mission to bring a top terrorist to book.

All these roles comprise a seamless build-up to “Mission Mangal”, where Akshay plays the mission director who fights against all odds to make ISRO’s Mars Orbit Mission happen.

Each of the actor’s roles has seen him address subjects that redefine what the archetypal Bollywood messiah’s reponsibility towards society must be. Interestingly, however, each of these roles have had a larger-than-life hangover. Akshay’s brand of patriotism is tailormade to let him retain his appeal as a mass superstar first and foremost.

John Abraham, on the other hand, has looked at shades of grey, perhaps aware that he could never match Akshay’s sway among the larger audience.

John’s films toasting pop patriotism cater primarily to the urban market. His heroes dwell in domains that are more sleek than Akshay’s. It is the hush-hush world of spies (“Romeo Akbar Walter”), and the classified realm of nuclear testing (“Parmanu: The Story Of Pokhran”). It is a world where Bollywood’s eternal favourite theme of cop corruption gets a new-age twist in violence and character development (“Satyamev Jayate” and the upcoming “Batla House”).

It is a fascinating battle for Bollywood’s crown of patriotism, between Akshay’s earthy Bharat Kumar and John’s dapper Mr Bharat. The desi box-office, of course, looks big enough for both to survive and thrive.

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