The two people who passed away last week symbolised the1970s. Mrinal Gore, the “Paniwali bai” and India’s first superstar, Rajesh Khanna. They exemplified two ends of the 1970s — the basic deprivations that touched many classes to some degree, unlike today’s wide gaps, and its mirror image, the lush illusions and grand delusions of Hindi cinema.
Notwithstanding his brief but unparalleled rule in that time, the obituaries to Rajesh Khanna were perplexing, declaring the end of an era. I had to ask myself, which era would that be and did it seriously end, like, now? In fact, as my friend R, who was young in the 1970s, snorted in his text message about the many sentimentally ironic ‘zindagi ka safar babumoshai’ Facebook updates said, “Let’s face it, the man we loved died twenty years ago, this was just the shell of his body.”
Personally, as someone who grew up in the ’80s, despite watching Haathi Mere Saathi and Aan Milo Sajna on Doordarshan Sundays, Rajesh Khanna passed me by. Although I would occasionally note that famous songs which I knew only from radio or antakshari, were picturised on Rajesh Khanna, he already, seemed to belong to some long ago era — i.e., my parents’ youth. And like everything related to someone else’s youth, the stories of how he married Dimple Kapadia to spite his long-time lover Anju Mahendroo seemed like some mixture of unverifiable claims, misremembered rumour or retrospective glamour.
For a man who made the term superstar necessary, Rajesh Khanna left curiously little impression upon the years that followed and hardly features in the catalogue of popular culture products Hindi cinema has spawned. Barring the line “Pushpa, I hate tears” there’s not much presence of Rajesh Khanna in spoofs and animated skits. And I can’t recall notable work on him in the fashionable academic field of Bollywood studies either.
If we agree that our movies and movie stars serve today, the same purpose that myths of gods and kings did once, then it’s interesting how Rajesh Khanna’s films were like a looping thumbnail of his life — romantic passion, burning youthful belief in the present, no care for surrounding reality and tradition in the face of love and a human hubris, followed inevitably by death. Exactly how his career was — a flashy hibiscus that flowers just for two days.
Watching the images of him replaying now, including the freshly viral BBC documentary on him, I am struck though by how he seems to have been the first movie star made primarily for women, with mannerisms that implied that love was all he cared for; that the woman before him was the only thing that existed at that moment, with eyes that saw only her.
This full blooded evocation of the erotic, could hardly have had a very long summer and was of course edged out by the masculine self-absorption and angst of Amitabh Bacchan’s persona, before which women’s main function, as mothers or lovers, was to look at (and of course look after) the man, not be looked at by him. (I know, what a shock).
It’s hard to say if the true meaning of Rajesh Khanna was revealed by his presence, or his very marked absence from public consciousness. His fall may have been accelerated by his personality, but it was inevitable, given our society’s particular relationship with power and status. We are much more comfortable deifiying traditionally masculine figures who are at the centre of their worlds, who control things, as opposed to our rather self-doubting, feckless relationship with love and the vulnerabilities and change it stands for.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com.
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.