BEING BORN towards the fag end of 1960’s, there was no way one could have experienced first hand what the Rajesh Khanna hysteria was like. For us, while in school, by the time we were grown up enough to be awed by “star power”, it was ‘A’ for Amitabh and ‘B’ for Bachchan.

So, my rendezvous with the Khanna movies began at the Tasweer Mahal theatre in Aligarh considered by many as a symbol of the Aligarh Muslim University’s (AMU) cultural history, and now set to be demolished to pave the way for another structure. This old and dilapidated theatre, that has reminded generations of students of their association with the AMU campus, would run Rajesh Khanna movies almost one after the other, as if the cinema owner himself was a diehard fan of India’s first superstar.

So we got to watch Aaradhna, Kati Patang, Aan Milo Sajna, Dushman, Daag, Anand et al, as we relished the new-found freedom to watch movies at will. This was the early 80’s and ‘The Phenomenon’ was already considered a spent force. Somehow, as one watched those potboilers, one by one, realisation dawned on us as to what kind of impact he must have had during those heady four-five years when he was at the top, and reportedly, even prayed that at least one of his movies comes a cropper.

There was something majestic about the star, dubbed ‘The Phenomenon’ at the zenith of his cine power. The histrionics that came from his stable were unique, oozing every bit of charm. As for his acting skills, few could back him to be on the list of the tallest. Before him was the triumvirate of Dilip Kumar-Raj Kapoor-Dev Anand all of them were exceptionally gifted actors that had ruled the roost. But the Khanna craze swept aside all and sundry.

Now, when Naseeruddin Shah says Rajesh Khanna was “a poor actor”, who pushed mediocrity into the Indian cinema, one is bound to be left amused. To quote Shah, “It was the 70’s when mediocrity came in Hindi films. That’s when the actor called Rajesh Khanna joined the industry. For all his success, I think Mr Khanna was a very limited actor. In fact, he was a poor actor. Intellectually, he wasn’t the most alert person I have ever met. His taste ruled the industry.”

Going further, he said, “The quality of script, acting, music and lyrics deteriorated. Colour came in. You could make a heroine wear a purple dress and hero a red shirt, go to Kashmir and make a movie. You didn’t need a story. This trend continued and I certainly think Mr Khanna had something to do with it because he was God in those days.”

No wonder the comments have left many aghast, and not all those grudging his comments are Khanna aficionados.

While Shah may have apologized to the late actor’s daughter, Twinkle Khanna, the point here is not about apology. Naseer is surely entitled to his opinion. Of course he is. And so are the others who are castigating him for his “vituperation”. But there is clearly more to this debate. Ask the typical Khanna fan, who even more than four decades since his superstardom was down and dusted, still hums ye kya hua… and quite relishes doing that. Which brings us to the core issue of the debate: What is an actor supposed to do for an audience? Entertain? Keep them engaged? Make them laugh, cry, agonise, empathise? Wow them with acting skills? Essay an immortal role? Make them feel high? Take them up an emotional journey? What?

One would guess, any of this, or all of this. Or a combination? Or more. Perhaps, much more. One day we may have enjoyed watching a Baazar, an Ardh Satya, an Arth. Another day we may equally relish a Tridev where, lo, Naseeruddin himself was seen crooning oye oye with a belle half his age. That’s par for the course. We audiences relish watching movies of all hues and shades. Some of us and many of them these days rip me apart for still nursing a taste for the current crop of films only go and watch one from the genre of Pathar Panchali, Shatranj Ke Khiladi and the like. Fair enough.

Cut to Rajesh Khanna. I guess it won’t be fair to categorise as “mediocre” films like Anand, Safar and Namak Haram.

And by the way, didn’t Khanna experiment too, going beyond his lover boy genre (Avishkar, Bawarchi)? True, he also acted in such a large number of eminently forgettable and rank mediocre films, and that he continued doing so for a fairly long time as his career slipped from one depth to another. Few can dispute that. But think also of the innumerable moments of sheer joy he treated his fans to moments that still are an inalienable part of the Indian cine-goers’ collective conscience.

To put it in a slightly perplexing way, Rajesh Khanna was ‘The Rajesh Khanna’ at the peak of his career, because quite simply, he was a Rajesh Khanna! Those forlorn and deep eyes conveying a volcano of emotions, without actually mincing a word (Safar). The cheerful embrace of fait accompli (Anand). The happy-go-lucky man fretting and freezing on coming to terms with the hard facets of class divide (Namak Haram). You find him standing tall, very tall, in these scenes, as an actor.

Rajesh Khanna has given the Hindi filmgoer some of his, or her (more so in Khanna’s case), most cherished screen moments. After all, not for nothing was his then abode, Ashirwad, for years together, a prominent tourist spot in the then Bombay (now Mumbai). It was a mass adulation the intensity of which, arguably, has never been seen before, or after. Delivering hits after super hits in a row, the length and breadth of which is yet to be surpassed by anyone else, required some mettle: Acting mettle, of course! His stardom was no fluke. It required an understanding of the times and the psyche of the masses, as did Salim Jawed later, when they discovered the angry young man in Amitabh Bachchan.

Khanna was intelligent enough, as an actor, to create a range of mannerisms all very own and very well nuanced. They clicked in those times. And how massively! The masses simply swooned over the antics the slight tilting of the head, the wanton smile et al. Khanna belonged to that era. As the era belonged to him. His mannerisms were tailor-made for those times: The late 60’s and the early 70’s.

Times changed and Rajesh Khanna went into the wilderness. And the angry young man took over. But to consign Khanna and his legacy into the dustbin of history, would be grossly unfair to the man.

Naseer says Rajesh Khanna heralded the trend of “mediocre” or “bad” movies, but the era that followed him had had its more-than-fair share of no-brainers, with pedestrian acting, as well as many a gem that featured, among others, the likes of Naseer, the powerhouse actor, who, of course, is one of the best India has ever seen. He continues to mesmerize with his acting skills to this day. His latest short film, where he’s essayed the role of an old man meeting his old flame at his cafe, is a case in point. Compared with the acting prowess of Naseer, most would lag behind including Khanna.

But the beauty of Bollywood is that it gives us both: Naseer and Khanna. And we relish both.

(This article first appeared in Qatar Tribune on July 28, 2016. Below is the web link of the article)

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