Thursday, July 26, 2012

Fame is a bee. It has a sting. It also has wings

(First published in The Pioneer dated July 25, 2012)


Rajesh Khanna died a week ago but he will live on with us forever. Numerous heartfelt tributes have been paid to him, and among them is the remark that an era had come to an end with his death. That is not true. He did not represent an era; he was himself the era. He created what was his own and he has taken it away with him. There is no ‘Rajesh Khanna legacy’, because a legacy is meant to be carried forward, to be promoted. Which actor has the capability — and more important, the charisma — to do that? The country’s first superstar was like a joker in the pack; he fitted into several roles but was essentially a solo performer standing out on his own strength. Others borrowed from him but were in no position to pay back even the interest amount, let alone the principal.
He lived in a world that was both real and illusionary. The reality was that Rajesh Khanna was a national rage, that he gave more than 15 super-hit films in a span of just over two years, that he had the Midas touch. The illusion was that all this fame and the superstardom would never end. He was not a babe in the woods, so it is difficult to understand how Rajesh Khanna could believe in this illusion. But he did — at least for a while — until he came crashing down. Like flies swarm around a piece of sweet, courtiers fawned over him and fed him stories of his invincibility. Rajesh Khanna, who had so brilliantly connected with millions of people across the world through his films, was hopelessly out of touch with the simple philosophical (and physical) reality that what goes up always comes down. Well-known qawwal Aziz Nazan had sung, “Chadta sooraj dheere dheere dhalta hai, dhal jayega”.
When the sun sets on fame, cohorts disappear, only to rearrange before a new rising star. Rajesh Khanna saw that happen and it took him years to come to terms with the harsh reality. But when he did that, it was too late. Not just the courtiers in the film industry but also his fans had migrated. He did his best, tried to turn on his legendary charm and mannerism, but nothing worked. The film industry is ruthless. It does not spare the fallen, not even demi-gods, unless it finds something of value in doing so. In Rajesh Khanna’s case, it sadly found no value. He had begun to fade. As Sheryl Crowe crooned:
Well, there was a time I would have
Hung around just to be seen
Hey man, it’s a shame when you start to fade
Diamond rings and sparkly things
Won’t make your shine stay
Yet, he need not have faded for good. Lesser stars have made comebacks. But Rajesh Khanna must have felt uncomfortable in returning as a commoner to a kingdom that he once ruled, in being referred to a ‘has-been’, in getting a lesser share of the limelight — and that too given condescendingly by those who only some years ago were lying at his feet. He did a few ‘comeback’ films like Amardeep towards the end of 70s, but the spark was gone. The one-time superstar seemed to have given up, and soon thereafter he retreated from the arc-lights.
In later years, he appeared to have come to terms with reality more effectively, mentioning on more than one occasion: Woh bhi ek daur tha, ye bhi ek daur hai. But the truth is that he could never overcome the grief of a fallen star. He dabbled half-heartedly in politics, desperately sought refuge in personal relationships that led more to turmoil than stability and allowed his persona to deteriorate. By the time he was persuaded to do an ad film for a fan manufacturer only months before his death, Rajesh Khanna was a pale shadow of his glorious self. What stood out in the film was his one-liner: Mere fans mujhse koi nahin chheen sakta. True. His fans may have shifted loyalty or lost the ability to count at the box office, but the country’s first superstar always resided in a corner of their hearts — if nothing, at least as nostalgia. He had become an antique; to be gazed at but not touched or used.
I never had the occasion to meet him but I had seen him on a few occasions. As a youngster in Mumbai, I would like many star-struck fans hang out at the Mahim traffic junction hoping to catch a glimpse of him if he were passing by. Across the signal was Bandra where he resided. Every time that his car stopped at the signal, fans would go wild waving at him and shouting out to him. He would wave back with that magical smile and a tilt of his head which had left the country swooning. His famed arrogance was apparently reserved for others; his fans were god to him, and he pampered them heartily.
A myth is being perpetuated in the wake of his death that Rajesh Khanna was a great actor. He was not. ‘Kaka’ was a competent actor, given more to dramatics than understatement. In many of his films such as Anand, Safar and Amar Prem, he was really good. But he wasn’t a great actor in the sense that Dilip Kumar or Sanjeev Kumar was. But the shortcoming was made up by his superstardom status. Perhaps that superstardom also served to constrain him from venturing into dramatically newer genres of acting. Perhaps if he had tried to break the mould and did something innovative, he might have touched greater heights. But, then, what ‘greater height’ was left for him to reach?
The other myth is that he was the film industry’s greatest romatic hero. That honour goes to the evergreeen Dev Anand, though Rajesh Khanna does come a close second.
Along the way, ‘Kaka’ was helped by the magical combination of RD Burman, Kishore Kumar and Anand Bakshi. It is difficult to say who complemented whom the most between Kishore Kumar and the superstar. It is even unnecessary to know that, because in the end magic was created. But, other singers like Mukesh and Mohammed Rafi also gave voice to Rajesh Khanna and their songs were major successes. In terms of quality if not in quantity, these songs were as good (and at times better). Take, for instance, Mukesh’s soulful Jis gali mein tera ghar na ho balma from Kati Patang or the mesmerising Rafi number, Akele hain chale aao from Raaz or Manna Dey’s exquisitely rendered Zindagi kaisi hai paheli from Anand.
Written some 100 years before Rajesh Khanna became a phenomenon, and then a pariah for the film industry, American poet Emily Dickinson had written:
Fame is a bee.
It has a song -
It has a sting -
Ah, too, it has a wing.
Life too has a wing. Ironically, in his death, Rajesh Khanna appears to have got back all the fame and the superstardom that had deserted him. Look at the tributes that keep pouring in, and it is difficult to believe they are for an actor who had ceased performing decades ago and had slipped out of public life since many years. Well, once a superstar, always a superstar.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Chidambaram is competent, but under a cloud

(First published in The Pioneer dated July 11, 2012)


Union Minister for Home Affairs P Chidambaram had an opportunity to somewhat redeem his image when the Prime Minister recently appointed him as the head of the newly constituted Empowered Group of Ministers that is tasked with looking into the forthcoming auction of 2G Spectrum. Mr Chidambaram could have politely declined the position taking the high moral ground that it would be inappropriate for him to head a ministerial panel on an issue over which he is under a cloud of suspicion. But he did not do so. By his acceptance, he has not just set the ground for a confrontation with the Opposition but has also come across as an obstinate politician who cares two hoots for popular perception and for propriety which is expected of senior leaders such as him. For bipartisan observers, his act is not just of obstinacy but also of arrogance.
Just why is Mr Chidambaram so determined to continue denting his own image remains a mystery. Perhaps he very strongly believes that he has done no wrong and that any action of his that seems like a retreat will be interpreted as an acknowledgement of his complicity. He may not agree with this, but the fact is that his credibility among the people is getting severely affected by such intransigence. The more he refuses to exercise caution the more the impression that he is in the wrong gets strengthened.
This is sad, given the fact that Mr Chidambaram is allowing some good work that he has done as Home Minister to be eclipsed by the controversies that have been raised about his alleged complicity in the 2G Spectrum scam that happened when he was the Union Minister for Finance. Of course, there are also allegations that Mr Chidambaram as Home Minister has failed to contain either terrorist attacks or the rising Maoist menace. Among the many Maoist strikes, two stand out: Seventy six Central Reserve Police Force personnel were massacred by Maoists in Chhattisgarh in 2010; and, Maoists derailed a train in West Bengal the same year that led to the death of close to 100 civilians. Still, the fact also is that he has managed to bring a sense of direction in the Home Ministry after he took charge post-26/11 Mumbai attacks. During the disastrous tenure of his predecessor Shivraj Patil, the internal security structure of the country had all but collapsed. Mr Chidambaram has rescued that structure, streamlined it and made it more responsive by ensuring effective coordination among the various security agencies.
The establishment of the National Investigation Agency, the various NSG hubs and the strengthening of coastal security can be cited as his achievements. It was under his supervision that the Indian intelligence agencies managed to collect substantive proof of the involvement of Pakistani state and non-state actors in the 26/11 Mumbai attack. The several dossiers that have been provided to Islamabad contain solid evidence which has been acknowledged even by the West and quoted to coerce Pakistan into action.
Mr Chidambaram has been the only senior Congress leader in the Union Council of Ministers who has spoken out unambiguously and strongly on both Maoist violence and cross-border terrorism. He has backed the drive of the security forces to flush out Maoists and has been critical of the attempts by people — including those from within his party — to glorify the Maoists as martyrs fighting for a social cause. His determined stance on Pakistan-generated terror is in sharp contrast to the meekness of Union Minister for External Affairs SM Krishna who has failed to stand up to Islamabad’s attempt to bully India and who continues to believe in the lies fed by Pakistan. Mr Chidambaram has never minced words on the issue. Very recently, in the backdrop of the Foreign Secretary-level talks between the two countries, he angered Islamabad by categorically (and correctly) stating that Pakistan’s “state actors” were deeply involved in the Mumbai attack. Such plain talk is rare among Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Ministers, who have mastered the art of not calling a spade a spade.
Therefore, given his largely commendable, if not stellar — remember the National Counter-Terrorism Centre fiasco — record as Home Minister, a person of Mr Chidambaram’s intellect would have been expected to steer clear of issues that would obfuscate his achievements. Yet, he has decided to head an EGoM which he should have avoided like the plague. His supporters may say that his alleged complicity in the 2G Spectrum scam is a figment of imagination of his rivals and that a Delhi Trial Court had dismissed a petition seeking to investigate his role as the Finance Minister in the disbursement of 2G licences without going through the auction route. But, hard as the Minister’s defenders may try, they cannot deny the following four facts:
First, as Finance Minister, Mr Chidambaram had all along been aware of the fraud that Union Minister for Telecommunication A Raja was involved in. Second, Mr Chidambaram had the authority to prevent the licences (and the spectrum that came bundled with it) from being distributed at throwaway rates when the matter came up before him.
Third, he made no effort to counter Raja’s scam, which he must have known given his incisive understanding of issues, would lead to a massive loss to the national exchequer. Fourth, not only did he not prevent the fraud from taking place, Mr Chidambaram went a step ahead and endorsed before the Prime Minister Raja’s dubious action. Before doing that, he had many meetings with Raja.
Thus, it cannot also be assumed that the then Finance Minister was not fully briefed about the matter when he proposed to the Prime Minister that Raja’s action should be okayed.
Mr Chidambaram’s supporters have not disputed these facts, but they have maintained that nothing in them points to any mala fide intent on Mr Chidambaram’s part, and that being a party to a wrong decision does not automatically mean being criminally complicit or culpable. But that can only be determined through a proper inquiry, which is what the Opposition has been demanding.
There is another very strong reason why Mr Chidambaram should not have agreed to even be a member of — let alone head — the EGoM on spectrum pricing. There is a petition pending before the Supreme Court against him. The plea seeks to make him a co-accused in the 2G Spectrum scam, and the apex court has reserved its verdict on it.
By not heeding common sense, the very articulate Home Minister has rendered many of his admirers speechless.

Gangs of new directors

(First appeared in The Pioneer dated June 27, 2012)


Few Hindi films are being made today that deserve a repeat watch. In the 50s, the 60s and the early 70s there were many such films. Either they had a strong social message or they were replete with quality music. On occasions they had both. Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt and Kamal Amrohi — to name a few — were master film-makers who combined the finer sensibilities of film-making with musical scores that remained in the public consciousness long after the films stopped playing in the theatres. Later on, Gulzar carried forward that legacy; after all, he belonged to the Bimal Roy school. The films made in the 80s and the 90s were by and large forgettable both for their content and their music.
But over the last decade or so, there has been a revival of sorts. A clutch of brilliant new directors has emerged on the scene, and these directors have been giving Hindi cinema a fresh look that is both contemporary and reminiscent of the days gone by when films were in the true sense the director’s medium of communication. The new-age directors have consistently refused to walk the beaten track and have charted a course that is setting the trend not just for the present but the future as well. Prominent among them are Anurag Kashyap, Vishal Bhardwaj, Dibakar Banerjee and Tigmanshu Dhulia.
Kashyap is currently the toast of town with the release of his latest film, Gangs of Wasseypur. Now, here’s one film that deserves a repeat watch, perhaps repeated watches. Having seen the first part, we are now eagerly awaiting the release of the sequel. Much has already been written about the film that mesmerised audiences at the Cannes International Film Festival this year before it hit screens in India and swept film-goers off their feet. It is not easy to slot the film in conventional terminology. It has raw sex appeal, humour, even a mushy love scene or two and loads of action — so it has to be a masala film, right? Not quite. The film deals with the coal mafia in Dhanbad and the politician-police-criminal nexus that lubricates the mafia’s machinery. It is based on real life incidents — Wasseypur too is a real village in Jharkhand. The film does not seek to provide relief to audiences through songs and dance sequences that, like in most commercial versions, fit incongruously in the script. So, Gangs of Wasseypur must be something of an art (or what is euphemistically called parallel) film, then? That too is a wrong interpretation.
Kashyap’s film is just good cinema, a blend of elements drawn from the so-called commercial variety and the arty products. This is the not the first time that the film-maker has succeeded in merging the two; he did that in Dev D too, and earlier in Black Friday. Every one of his films is a landmark — even Gulaal, which failed to work at the box office and which some critics panned for being too abstract to connect with the audience. But the larger point is that the director had through these films set out to explore a new genre in film-making rather than play safe by churning out the usual inane stuff that passes off as film-making.
Anurag Kashyap has company. Like him, Tigmanshu Dhulia too has been directing films that are not just a delight to watch but also establish the happy fact that the future of Hindi films is bright. His path-breaking film, Haasil, came in 2003. There is perhaps no film made before or after that which has as effectively captured the politics of a university in north India. Set in Allahabad, Haasil beautifully captured both the nuances and the crassness of a city that was once considered the ‘Oxford of the East’. In just the last two years, Dhulia has made as many as three enticing films that have strengthened the trend of good cinema in Hindi films — Shagird; Saheb, Biwi aur Gangster and Paan Singh Tomar. Each one of them is a masterpiece and reflects what good film-making should be. While they have all received critical acclaim, at least the last one is also a box office success.
Eight years ago, a new director made his mark as a ‘different’ film-maker. It was an unusual transformation for him, because until then he was known more for his music compositions — which too, incidentally, were contemporary but still endearing because of their freshness. He is Vishal Bhardwaj. From Maqbool, Bhardwaj straightaway created a niche for himself, and followed it up with other gems like Omkara, Kaminey and Saat Khoon Maaf. The last one bombed at the box office but it still serves as an important milestone not just in Bhardwaj’s career but in Hindi films as well. No director so far has seriously dared to adapt Shakespeare’s play into a Hindi mainstream film. Bhardwaj has done it twice already — and with success on both occasions — with Maqbool (adapted from Macbeth) and Omkara (adapted from Othello). Like with Kashyap and Dhulia, Bhardwaj does not allow market forces to determine the content or the treatment of his films. And yet, the market has whole-heartily embraced him.
So much has been happening in the last decade in Hindi cinema that it is easy to believe that somebody somewhere has set it up for the larger good of film-making. Six years ago, Dibakar Banerjee shot into the limelight with the delightfully titled and rib-tickling Khosla ka Ghosla that dealt with unscrupulous real estate developers. Four years after this film, Banerjee did a clean somersault and directed Love, Sex aur Dhokha, which dealt with voyeurism in contemporary society. Poles apart in every way, the two films heralded the arrival of a director who was willing — like his peers mentioned earlier — to challenge the conventional rules of film-making. In his latest release, Shanghai, Banerjee has yet again done something completely at variance with his earlier approaches.
These four film-makers have not just changed the face of Hindi films but have also opened the doors to other similarly courageous directors and established a conducive environment for new approaches. Thus, we have Sujoy Ghosh with Kahaani and Milan Luthria with The Dirty Picture and Once Upon a Time in Mumbai. The era of great melodies in Hindi films may be over, but the days of meaningful films have returned. As it is said: Better late than never.