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.

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