Thursday, July 19, 2012

Rajesh Khanna - The man that never was

Rajesh Khanna was a mediocre talent who sold on his looks and mannerisms for some years of his life, before his face started resembling a pudgy strawberry-pie and his buns started tearing the seams. As an actor, his chosen career, he was briefly a superstar and always a ham. His epitaph had already been written forty years ago and might have looked better if he had passed at just the right time, like Monroe did.
Not that he was without tricks. His mannerisms, and that peaking bloom of youth, were used by the likes of Shakti Samant and Hrishikesh Mukherjee to shape some of 70’s cinema’s best magic moments. Classics which owe as much to their directorial and casting skills as much to RK’s brief but infectious jawaani zindabaad. Yes, the man had a trick up his sleeve but it was a single trick. A one-trick pony he remained. Avatars and Sautens were triumphs of cinema rather than the man since RK remained stuck in the same mannerisms.
Rajesh Khanna was not a superstar. He was a supernova. A brief explosion in the galaxy, outshining all other stars, but fated to oblivion once the gas was spent.
The tales of hysteria I heard, first-hand reports, were difficult to digest since the first movies I saw of the man were stuff like Maqsad, and not Anand or Aradhana. Hell, the man had already become a caricature of himself from “Aapki Kasam”. I would wonder if there was any girl who survived a suicide attempt the night he married Dimple, and went on to become a happy mother, career-woman, socially-active ­ What passed through her mind when she looked at the geriatric wigged man fist-fighting Jeetendra and trying to do an Aradhana in the eighties?

A million and one treacly tributes would pour today brimming with clichés. Superstar. India’s greatest romantic star. Pushpa. Anand. Mere sapnon ki raani. Haathi mere saathi. Anju Mahendru. All 70’s. Maybe Tina Munim and Avatar from the 80’s.
 Here, instead of what the man never was, the mask of a superstar his “fans” had reduced him to, even to himself, I would like to reflect on what the man remained once the mask crumbled.

Rajesh Khanna from interview here: “when I started slipping, I hit the bottle. I mean, I am not a super human being. You are not Jesus Christ and I am not Mahatma Gandhi. I remember that once at three o’clock in the morning I was pretty high on spirits and suddenly it was too much for me to stomach because it was my first taste of failure. One after another, seven films had just flopped in a row. It was raining, pitch-dark and up there alone on my terrace, I lost control. I yelled out. Parvardigar, hum garibon ka itna sakt imtihan na le ki hum tere vajood ko inkar kar de,’ … It was because success hit me so much that I couldn’t take the failure.

Ah, stardom. That encounter of a bit of talent, looks or mannerism (sometimes none of these, as in the case of Shahid Kapoor) and chance. The right person at the right place at the right time. Exploding over the powder-keg of media hype. Sometimes, the encounter happens before the media picks the scent. Sometimes, “they” just break the putty of old collapsed stars and slap it into another blinking shape. Backstreet Boys. Britney. Bieber. Vacuous non-entities with just enough aesthetical potential to make over and fill time-tested marketing concepts that would always rake in fresh celebrity-mania: boybands, angsty kohled rebel teens, boy toys, sex symbols, nation’s heartthrobs.

Sometimes, the talent sticks through the stardom because there is enough of it to survive on its own. What we call talent is essentially hard-work and if someone is willing enough to work that far enough without the limelight, chances are he would survive the brief blinding flashlights and the fervid screams beyond. Look at Beatlemania. They survived it, finding their own creative niches afterwards. At the end of the day, they were all talented musicians, who thought themselves as ones and kept working at it.
Where are those cutesy boy-bands? You don’t want to know. You don’t want to meet those guys in their 40s. Some would be bitter, very bitter and might even break your head in alcohol-doused rage. Others, hopefully, might have turned philosophical or spiritual and see their brief undeserved stardom in better perspective (as RK seemed to in the interview). Deluded others might have locked themselves in their castles and are still playing the stars to an audience of servants, or they might be in a rehab with shaved heads and suicide attempts, desperately demanding back our attentions. It is that tattered human bits that remain once the limelight has passed over that bothers me.

The stardom RK got was brief because that charm he had was brief. Charms usually are. In the end, it all comes down to brass tacks. He was an actor and he was a bad actor. But not all of us are the best at what we do. We can only aspire to excellence. Being good is not important to keep us working, aspiring to be better is. And that’s where we have to love what we do. Nobody, other than the utterly deluded Ed Woods, remained mediocre once he had put in hard work in what he did (assuming it was not a whale climbing a tree). Look at John Cusack who survived being a teen celebrity by working hard at being an actor. Greatness comes to few, but professional satisfaction percolates a few branches to all who try. Honest hard-work is life’s own reward.
Carlin was Carlin as he reinvented himself not once, but twice. 70’s and then 80’s. He did not end up as a has-been recycling the same “Indian Sergeant” or “Seven words” to a thin sympathetic audience. His standards of how good he was came from within him.
Unfortunately, there would be no Carlin for RK. RK was a bad actor and remained a bad actor. He was never into acting, just stardom. He never was interested in playing roles for what they were, only as the Rajesh Kha-nna would play them. He came for the fame and never thought beyond. Or perhaps, by the time he could, it was too late. And there was his grief and tragedy.
You cannot work towards superstardom. It happens. Things beyond your control. Kismet. Fate. Reclaiming superstardom is like waiting to be struck by a lightening a second time.
You can work towards excellence. That is within your control.

And stardom is not important in the first place, our humanness is. We are humans, first and last. It is better than being “next to God”. Stardom, the kind that RK experienced, is a most dehumanizing experience. Delinked from the quality of our work, like undeserved praise, it satirizes us. It traps us in an image we are either not or were. It takes away our now ­ if we never get over it.

My fans will always love me ­-
Bull shit. They never loved you in the first place. They never love anyone. They are briefly convinced they love someone, before the media machinery and chance picks the next thing for them to drool and scream over. Those that might still love you, those stalkers with no lives and those smitten girls who have aged with you and remained loyal, love a mask of you that belonged to another time. Give them the real deal, with all the human frailties and oddities, and they won’t recognize you. Your close ones love you -­ friends, family, those random associations life throws at you. They know you and they still love you. Most importantly, you can love yourself. (And I am not talking about the delusional ASN Norma Desmond sort.) You can love yourself when you like what you are. And you are what you do. The impact you make, not in scale but in meaning and intent. You can love yourself if you can, like those who love you, accept yourself for the human you are; ­ if, at the end of the day, you are a man you would like to shake hands with.
Fuck the fans. Forty years after your decline of fortunes began, you were left repeating your stock mannerisms to an audience of table-fans. I only hope that deep down you knew by then the bestial silliness of it all and were secretly laughing at it all. That’s a dignified way to go.

PS: This was a tough piece to write. The man is dead and his earlier movies have touched me greatly. But I believe that I pay far more respect and homage to the “man” here than all the unthinking tripe.


the saint said...

I like the way you write, and also the courage it takes to write such a piece at this time - and though I don't disagree fully or agree fully with everything you say; Salut!

ankur said...

Performance talent and success have never played one to one. But it is not luck, but some celebrity talent...

Alam said...

Whether he is good or bad depends on the yardstick you choose to judge him. I can't say much about acting. But it seems he was a very successful crowed puller. Many enter movie business to be a star and he got himself made into a superstar. That might be the one trick of this pony ....but its a big trick.... And was the biggest in his day and time

Alam said...

Whether he is good or bad depends on the yardstick you choose to judge him. I can't say much about acting. But it seems he was a very successful crowed puller. Many enter movie business to be a star and he got himself made into a superstar. That might be the one trick of this pony ....but its a big trick.... And was the biggest in his day and time

Bland Spice said...

@alam I don't take that his trick worked. But this guy had to suffer for his undue stardom for forty years. he did. my argument is that life is not about the ephemeral dust of stardom, but of constantly reinventing yourself, or just being in peace with the human in us.

Bland Spice said...

"Rajesh Khanna's life can be viewed as a paradigm of stardom's tragedy. He found both success and failure hard to handle."

Finally, an article that talks about the man displaced by his own stardom: