By Asad Zaidi
One often forgets the political backdrop to important changes in popular culture and trends in mass entertainment industry. 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 à¤ªà¤¾à¤à¤š à¤¸à¥‚à¤¤à¥à¤°à¥€ à¤•à¤¾à¤°à¥à¤¯à¤•à¥à¤°à¤® (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.
This new 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 some of 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 like Rajbir Singh, SS Rathi and Daya Nayak.
What 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 praying 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 masquerading as.
Rajesh Khanna, although active in this period, was reduced to a ‘has been’, because the industry had decided to dump that kind of cinema which 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.
Rajesh Khanna was of course a charming actor, always ready to play roles combining romantic vulnerability and sheer joy of being alive, but that was not his limit. He was quite good at several things, especially the non-visual parts of an actor’s craft. His speech — a dialogue, a soliloquy, even a mumbling delivered with a certain modulation and weight and with 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.