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(Asad Zaidi's note on the superstar is so insightful that I could not resist the temptation to steal it from facebook and post it here.)
One often forgets the political backdrop to important changes in
popular culture and trends in mass entertainment media. The fading of
Rajesh Khanna as a superstar in the mid-1970s and the remarkable rise of
Amitabh Bachchan as the new hero ran parallel to the rise of Sanjay
Gandhi in Indian politics. The romantic-idealist and often vulnerable
screen persona of Rajesh Khanna didn't fit in the emerging new India of
पाँच सूत्री कार्यक्रम (5-Point Programme).
It is said that the
real social engineers of Bombay cinema in that era, the loutish duo of
script and dialogue writers Salim-Javed, had offered an 'image makeover'
to Rajesh Khanna but he wasn't interested. Amitabh Bachchan then
famously underwent the 'transformation' to become the proto-fascist
'angry young man' of Indian cinema.
construct/makeover wasn't a response to any evolutionary impulse
specific to film aesthetic or audience expectation; it was rather a form
of mobilization creating a force of its own. This phenomenon wasn't
confined to Salim-Javed written, Amitabh Bachchan-starrers like
Zanjeer, Deewaar, and Kader Khan-written Inquilaab. Even the 'more
sensible' names of middle cinema were not immune to its appeal: one is
reminded of certain films of Govind Nihalani and Mahesh Bhatt which
dangerously flirted with neo-Nazi sentiments. For some reason, the very
thought of the character type developed in these films brings to mind
not just the subaltern outlaws, underworld dons, Sanjayite or Shiv Sena
goons, but also the much valorised establishment guys -- those encounter
specialists, Rajbir Singh, SS Rathi and Daya Nayak.
happened to female characters in cinema in Salim-Javed (or, alternately,
Sanjay-Amitabh) era is indicative of the nature of the
counter-revolution: the heroine of Rajesh Khanna films simply
evaporated. She became a peripheral figure -- a suffering mom, a bhabhi,
an adoring sister, or just an 'item' girl in dramas mainly focused on
the avenging hero, waiting for him to dispense 'justice'. Even the
eternal femme fatale went missing. Female counterparts of our 'angry
young man' were found more in public life: Maneka Gandhi, Rukhsana
Sultana, Kiran Bedi, Ambica Soni from Sanjay Gandhi stable (along with
their male counterparts: Jagmohan, Arjun Das, Kamal Nath, Jagdish
Tytler, PS Bhinder, Dumpy Ahmad). One wonders why Salim-Javed didn't
feel inspired enough to script these real life women into their films to
share the glory with Inspector Vijay or Kaalia or whoever Amitabh B was
Rajesh Khanna, although active in this
period, was reduced to a 'has been', because the industry has decided to
dump that kind of cinema that propelled him to stardom. Nobody in
Bombay industry wanted a decent hero, and a romantic one at that. An era
was coming to a close, and the reasons had nothing to do with his
"mediocrity" or the cluelessness as some would like to believe.
Ironically, it was perhaps his destiny to join the Congress party in
the interesting times of Narasimha Rao, and then face in three
consecutive Lok Sabha elections three eminent representatives of the
(same) new era as adversaries: LK Advani, Shatrughan Sinha and Jagmohan.
He managed to defeat one of these and sit in Lok Sabha for four years. I
still salute to that memory, and that of Sunil Dutt who was given a
very rough time by his own party during those years.
Khanna was of course a charming actor, always ready to play roles
combining romantic vulnerability and pure joy, but that was not his
limit. He was quiet good at several things, especially the non-visual
parts of an actor's craft. His speech -- the dialogue delivery,
soliloquies and mumbling with its modulation and weight and intelligent
pauses -- would do things his eyes, face or body movement didn't, and he
employed it as an independent force. In Rajesh Khanna the Bombay cinema
had two actors at the price of one. He also happened to be there when
the number of female cinema-goers (and film magazine readers) was
rising. It was an active audience and Rajesh Khanna had its vote. This
among other things made him a superstar.