Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Rajesh Khanna - the Dark Star. "Chingari Koyi Bhadke..."

When Rajesh Khanna died, I cried. Not only I, but many cried along with me. A man who generated so much controversy and hysteria is gone. Dead. My tears were not only for him. My tears were also shed for my childhood, youth, and adulthood. Here’s how and why.

Like many in those days I came of age seeing Rajesh Khanna’s films. He was for us the King of Hindi Cinema, its first superstar. In fact, the term was coined for him, because there is no such a term for Hollywood actors, where there are stars but no superstars. Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, and Marilyn Monroe were stars at best, but not superstars. Aradhana, Aap Ki Kasam, Kati Patang, Anand, were some of the iconic films of those years that defined our youthful aspirations. We were carried into an ersatz world by their sweet sentimentality. They were of a type that not even Hollywood with its mushy tearjerkers could match. What was a Roman Holiday, or, To Kill a Mockingbird compared to Anand and Aap Ki Kasam? We were high on Bollywood elixir in those times, we sang the songs, even imitated his mannerism as he crinkled his eyes and smiled, playfully lifting his hands to the skies. We spoke his dialogues imitating his unique delivery. Upcoming actors, would-be directors, anyone, would act like Rajesh Khanna. There was even a Rakesh Khanna, a one-film wonder, who flopped miserably. Nobody in Bollywood could match his ability to get his fans rooting for him in the confines of the dark theatre, he was such a phenomenon.

Many of us wanted to be nothing but Rajesh Khanna when we grew up. His dark personality and offline shenanigans be damned! So, we imitated his hairstyle, his mannerism and wore his guru shirt with some sort of pride combined with hero worship. Umakant, the neighbour, went on to neglect studies, went to theatres instead of school and ended up a duffer, and ruined his family because he was the elder son, and there was too much riding on his success. His son later became a gangster. Ravi another neighbour entered into an affair with a girl in our building which was doomed from the very beginning and spoilt his father’s aim of making him a doctor. So on and so forth.

It was nice to read about Khanna in some detail from Gautam Chintamani’s book Rajesh Khanna – The Dark Star. I finished reading the book, and thought of writing this, not as a review of the said tome, but as a review of the era.

We were so much in awe of him that we spoke of nothing else but his movies in those internet-less and mobile-less years. We would wait with bated breaths for his songs to play on Binaca Geet Mala, on Ceylon radio, on Wednesdays. Remember Binaca? Remember Ceylon? When we would hangout after the day’s cricket was played, we would discuss his latest film. We thought he would go on like that, for ever, and, quite vainly, believed we would never age and grow old. Time stood still for us in those days and we were repetitively assured of its stationary nature by his films in which there was love, heartbreak, and courage, from which we drew inspiration. Not only us, but even adults couldn’t talk of anything else in those days. He was for us, mentor, guardian, and teacher.

Yes, Khanna was dark, he was an enigma. I lapped up all stories that Devyani Chaubal wrote about him in Star and Style, a film magazine of those days. There was a magazine boom thence and every magazine wrote about his various exploits, with his women, with his friends. Devyani’s description of his wedding was detailed, and informed us that he fed all those who had come to ogle at him, and when the food wasn’t enough, he ordered more. He was known to enjoy his drink and his food, and made sure that all his friends also enjoyed their food and drink with him.

There are many stories and legends associated with him. Some are good, some are bad. It is said that he used to lock up his wife in their room preventing her from going anywhere, to stop her from seeing anyone. He was having affairs and he didn’t want his wife to have one. He was jealous and protective of his wife and children. We knew of his weaknesses, but we wanted him to continue, and go on giving us his fantastically idealistic films. Those films gave us fun, music, songs, romance, and our mistaken idealism. They were written and directed by left-leaning idealistic Bengali writers, and directed by intellectually-oriented Bengali directors, genius music directors and singers like RD Burman and Kishore Kumar, who were on steroids, or, so, we now suppose. They worked as a team to deliver a hit and their films never disappointed.

But the star’s shine waned in the dark world where new stars emerged in the galaxy. His rival Amitabh, his co-star in many movies took over the mantle from him. Talk was that he had invited Amitabh, out of kindness, to a party at Prakash Mehra’s house where the director gave him the offer for his first big hit Zanjeer. Khanna was offered Zanjeer, but it didn’t gel with him, maybe, his asking price was too high and, moreover, Mehra was new to the industry. Amitabh went on to do very well, challenging the superstardom of Khanna.

Khanna couldn’t make the transition Amitabh made from lead characters to just grown-up, but, still, strong characters. I read about how he was nearly beaten up for teasing a girl by a man who didn’t know who he was. His films began flopping with shocking regularity. His last years were spent in isolation gazing out of his balcony at his home Ashirwad, probably reminiscing his song in Anand, sung on a beach, “Zindagi Kaisi Yeh Paheli, Hai; Kabhi Yeh Hasaye, Kabhi Yeh Rulaye.” (Roughly: Life is so strange; one moment it makes you smile and then it makes you weep.) The industry that had idolised him, now shunned him. He was not given the recognition and awards he deserved, and had to sit in the second row of a Filmfare award function. Maybe, he made wrong choices, maybe, he was not as self-assured as he was when he did Aradhana.

And, that, dear readers, is why I wept for Rajesh Khanna when he died. The book is a good attempt at capturing the filmography of this super enigmatic actor, analysing his films in great detail, but, somehow, doesn’t shed light on the person who he really was, what turmoil he might have gone through in his declining years. That said, considering the lack of material in our hush-hush Hindi film industry, it’s a commendable work of writing.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Few Thoughts about Sandel and Why Aren't Political Discourse on Religion Being Done?

It happened a few days ago. I was riding a rickshaw to Bandra station after attending the Times Litfest, and as often happens, I talk to the rickshaw driver. I get my story and blog ideas from common people like him, so this time, though my mind was a bit fuzzy from all the talk at the festival, I started a conversation.

He was a young man of 28, though he didn’t look his age. First I ask him if traffic is this bad on Hill Road. He says because of the Sea-Link Road traffic in these parts has increased. Travelling on the Sea-Link is smooth but it causes jams at either ends of it, leading to further chaos in parts like Hill Road where Bollywood celebrities like Shahrukh Khan and Salman Khan live. (As you have guessed by now, I am a die-hard filmy person, though I don’t see Hindi films.) As far as asides go, here’s one: I pass the American Express Laundry, the alleged place where Salman’s car allegedly ran over and killed one person and injured a few others. (He was acquitted in the case today, Dec 10, 2015.)

The rickshawalla smiled often, turning his face to me as he spoke, honesty in his voice and in his eyes. The general view of Bombay’s rickshaw-drivers is of a rough individual who looks surly – sort of Gulshan Grover in a negative role – and doesn’t hesitate to fleece his customers. He broke that stereotype, in my mind, at least. His name is Shahid and he was from near Allahabad, 60 kilometres from where Amitabh lived, he said. In Bombay, he lived near the Bandra terminus and is married and had a child who died (Allah ko pyara ho gaya, he said.). Earning around 500-600 rupees a day, he is content with that income. He owns the vehicle and drives only for a limited period of time. Not particularly greedy, he doesn’t seek to earn more, or, for that matter, seems not ambitious at all. This is because most rickshaw drivers try to earn more by giving their vehicle to another driver in the night shift, so that he can earn more.

The economic theories I heard that day, the one expounded by Harvard professor of government theory Michael Sandel in particular, mentioned that inequalities are what drives people to extremism. Democracies should combat this trend by having a strong public discourse. I don’t know if people here know what discourse means. Have you watched those endless shouting matches on television and a bleary-eyed, bespectacled guy screaming “the Nation wants to know.” Then you get the drift. They – the majoritarians – would rather treat everything as their right, than engage in a public discourse. Well, something to that effect was said, considering my advancing age, and impaired hearing. (Sorry to mention, Times Litfest, the acoustics was abysmal, all I could hear were big booming echoes in the cavernous Mehboob Studios!) I wonder how a young man like Shahid could be so devoid of ambition. How could he not try to earn and give his wife a better life? Sandel said, because of inequalities, everyone should aspire for better incomes and better prospects in whatever they are doing. Agreeable, considering one per cent of Indians own fifty percent of the wealth of India. This man was not crazy for money and seemed very moral in his behaviour and dealing with customers. (When I flagged him, he willingly stopped, while most of his contemporaries just sped away.)

Sandel had also mentioned that money can’t buy morality and that people’s morals are what are being compromised. His topic was “What Money can’t buy.” This man, Shahid, one among the most moral men I have met, doesn’t want to compromise on his morality and is therefore content to lead his life without bitterness. Not for him the issue of religion, which is like a gorilla, sitting in our parliament, flinging everything – mikes, mike stands, speaker’s gavel, paper weights, etc. etc.

Today – that day, December 6 – being the anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in the state from where he came from I asked him if there were riots and animosities in his village, where he grew up. He said there is no such thing. Riots are unknown in his village and people live in harmony. They go to Hindu weddings and invite Hindus to their weddings, and the atmosphere is not at all rancorous as I might have imagined. Or is he fibbing, or, has the situation changed after he left his village? I don’t know. That’s surprising because Allahabad is only 168 kilometres from Ayodhya where the Babri masjid was demolished.

I think the problem, as Sandel mentioned is the reluctance to have a public discourse about religion. As such political discourse in India mean a lot of shouting and accusations being flung at the others. “You are like that, so you must be hated,” is what we hear instead of a political or social discourse.

I also think a vast majority of people feel like Shahid. Then I think of the huge number of jobless youth being radicalised and deprived of a good future. Are these religious extremists doing the right thing? But why aren’t the voices of sanity being heard? Why aren’t they expressing their anguish? On this anniversary of the Babri masjid I have no answers. Those who seek to polarise religions without entering into a public discourse are doing the wrong thing, in my opinion.

And here’s a hat doff to Shahid, may his tribe increase and spread the message of amity and goodwill. I love that guy.