Canadian citizen and the face of Indian nationalism in Bollywood Akshay Kumar has released his fifth film on India’s Independence Day this year. Previous releases include Brothers (2015), Rustom (2016), Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017) and Gold (2018).
Headlining and co-producing Mission Mangal, Akshay Kumar plays the role of a senior eccentric ISRO scientist, Rakesh Dhawan (a hat tip to Satish Dhawan, after whom the space centre at Sriharikota is named), who is given the mission to Mars as a punishment posting for his failure to successfully launch the GSLV Mark III.
Shunted to an old decrepit building, Kumar as Rakesh Dhawan goes about the job of heading the Mars mission much like Devdas mourned Paro. He skulks and talks to a cat, thinks about marriage and having missed out on cultivating hobbies while tunelessly singing old Bollywood songs! It is only when Tara Shinde, played by the brilliant Vidya Balan, comes to him with a jugaad fix (inspired by hot puris and yoyo toys) for sending a lighter PSLV rocket to Mars that Kumar wakes up the scientist in him.
The MOM mission takes on a life of its own when six other team members join in with the skill set required but no mission experience. Four of the six are young women, each one facing a situation that is emblematic of the problems girls face in modern India. The two men, including a senior citizen close to retirement, are there to support and hold up these women. The film belongs to the five women scientists—Vidya Balan, Taapsee Pannu, Kirti Kulhari, Sonakshi Sinha and Nithya Menon—and they bring it alive. The best portions of the film are the life stories of these women and their fearlessness.
Once the team is set and adequately prepped in its patriotic duty of sending a rocket to Mars by jugaad, Akshay Kumar’s only job thereafter is to encourage the women in his team by praising their “home science” aka jugaad skills or sending them off the project for saying that something is scientifically impossible!
Also through the film, Akshay Kumar as Rakesh Dhawan, consistently lauds the work of Dr APJ Abdul Kalam and even has an imaginary conversation with him at a crucial moment in the film, but not once is there a reference to the founder of ISRO and the pioneer of space science in India, Vikram Sarabhai. The fact that this film released on the 50th year of the founding of ISRO and the centenary year of Dr Sarabhai’s birth was not enough to even merit a mention in the film!
This is perhaps in keeping with the selective way history is being read in India today. We are encouraged to forget the seminal works and contributions of visionary founders and leaders who toiled tirelessly to create a post-colonial independent country.
Ironically, even though he is not in a titular role, Mission Mangal is the biggest opener of Akshay Kumar’s career and had one of the highest opening weekend collections for 2019. It has already recovered its cost of production and is projected to be a hit having already done business of ₹100 crore.
Facing up to the stratospheric heights of Mission Mangal is the stoic John Abraham playing a Delhi Police ACP Sanjeev Kumar Yadav in Batla House. After his vigilante act as an arsonist stamping out institutional corruption in Satyamev Jayate last Independence Day, Abraham is back this time as the head of the Delhi police team that courted controversy when they raided Batla House in Jamia Nagar, Delhi in 2008 and shot dead two students supposed to be affiliated with the Indian Mujahideen. The fact that the courts had to censor the film to protect the rights of the accused before allowing its release shows that the subject is actually still sub-judice.
The pitfalls of contemporary history apply to this film too. There is a lack of objectivity when dealing with a subject close to the time of writing about it. While the court-mandated disclaimer before the film states that it is a work of fiction that attempts to show both sides of the story, it is clear that the sympathy of the filmmakers lies with the police and, specifically, with the ACP who does not follow mandated procedure or go by the book, ultimately leading to post traumatic stress and counselling of the officer.
Thus like contemporary history “arouses distrust among some historians for its lack of archival sources or its supposed inability to incorporate dispassionate perspectives”, Batla House too struggles for the right balance and often ends up as an amplification of the sledgehammer of patriotism as a narrative. Speaking to the press on Batla House, Abraham apparently said “he loved the uniform dearly. He respects the uniform, and that is why his films show this. The uniform, bulletproof jacket and action are also his favourite genre.”
Independence Day is perhaps the best occasion for us to show our love for the nation and to engage in a certain patriotic fervour, even jingoistic nationalism. However, the service to the country that is expected of us as citizens and patriots is to remember the foundational ideals of the country. These encourage us to look at and accept diverse points of view and perspectives.
Bollywood has taken tentative steps towards exploring new themes and ideas. Vicky Donor, the first film on sperm donation opened the door to Mission Mangal, our most authentic sci-fi film.
Since 2012 there is a receptiveness to new stories among filmmakers and audiences in India. Therefore, the “face of the patriot” is not only a vigilante or a man in uniform. It is also the young scientist thinking out of the box, giving as good as she gets. It is the face of the Indian citizen and luckily we have so many unique stories to tell in the forthcoming Independence Days.