Naseeruddin Shah’s habit of saying things with conviction and later convincingly doing an about turn is the stuff of legends.
Now, before you accuse me of attributing things to Mr. Shah that he never said, let me break it down. A few days ago Mr. Shah called Rajesh Khanna a poor actor and intellectually not the most alert person he ever met.
Shah calling the iconic superstar “a limited” or even a poor actor is a matter of personal choice; being a brilliant actor himself, Shah has all the right in the world to comment on acting as well. In the past, he has suggested that Dilip Kumar’s greatness comes not from his acting prowess but great films such as Ganga Jumna (1961) that he was a part of. Shah also said he doesn’t consider any film in Amitabh Bachchan’s filmography to warrant as great, ergo… well, you get the picture.
But for Naseeruddin Shah to hold Rajesh Khanna responsible for introducing mediocrity to Hindi cinema is both incorrect and ill-informed.
Shah’s statement — “it was the 70s when mediocrity came in Hindi films. That’s when the actor called Rajesh Khanna joined the industry” — is wrong on multiple accounts. Khanna joined films in the mid-1960s but let’s not get into schematics and look at the bigger picture.
The films Khanna was a part of in the beginning, such as Aakhri Khat (1966), Baharon Ke Sapne (1967) or even the highly forgotten Aurat (1967), to the films that announced his arrival – Aradhana (1969), Ittefaq (1969) and Do Raaste (1969), were anything but mediocre. These were films where the hero wasn’t loud, lewd or misogynist and even in the realm of the non art-house escapist fare that they were, every single film still had well-etched women characters.
Even after his breakthrough film Aradhana transformed Khanna into superstar beyond everyone’s wildest imagination, the quality of the films that followed retained this flavor and his stardom. Both Kati Patang (1970) and Amar Prem (1972) retained their essence and continued to be what could be called ‘heroine-centric’ films.
Shah also believes that in the 1970s when Khanna was god and his taste ruled the industry, all that was needed to make a film was a heroine in a purple dress, the hero in a red shirt and Kashmir. But this fascination with Kashmir was a feature of the films before Khanna – legend has it that Shammi Kapoor, who is Shah’s favorite Hindi film actor, once stayed in Kashmir for months on end shooting multiple films one after the other.
“I certainly think Mr Khanna had something to do with it [films having no clear story] because he was God in those days,” said Shah. However, Rajesh Khanna used his stardom to get films like Anand (1971) and Daag(1973), and yet in the short span that he ruled the roost, he could barely be an influence on cinema beyond a point. His personality clashes with some of the talents that would go on to redefine Hindi cinema. His insecurities with Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar, or Amitabh Bachchan, or Sanjeev Kumar being hailed as the best actor of that generation played a significant role in him losing out on films and opportunities.
But even in the sphere that he controlled he was not the kind of influencer that Amitabh Bachchan was in the 1980s where roles were designed for him, or films rumored to be shelved following ego clashes with directors. With the advent of Parallel Cinema, the moment that birthed exceptional artists such as Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, and Naseeruddin Shah, of course, Khanna did a film such as Aavishkar (1974) that saw him break away from his superstar mold.
In an interview given to this writer for his book Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna (HarperCollins, 2014) Rinki Bhattacharya, the costume designer of Aavishkar, shared how Khanna simply left his stardom at the door while doing his film and completely gave himself to director, Basu Bhattacharya, who was also Rinki’s husband at the time.
Even in the 1980s, a decade that could arguably be the worst phase for popular Hindi cinema, Khanna managed to keep away from typical mediocrity. He experimented with Red Rose (1980) a film where he played a psychopath; and even in Souten (1983) and Avtaar (1983). Khanna didn’t resort to dressing in drag as Amitabh Bachchan in Lawaaris (1981) or even the very arty Naseeruddin Shah himself donning a swimsuit to pick-up girls at a swimming pool in Tahalka (1992) (click here to watch video at 23 minutes).
This was also the phase when Jeetendra’s southern remakes, replete with double entendre and songs like Taki re taki, Ladki nahin tu lakhri ka khama hai in Himmatwala (1983) or Ui amma ui amma inMawaali (1983), were the flavor of the season. While Bachchan, with Bichcoo lad gaya in Inquilaab (1984), Hum to tambu mein bambu in Mard (1985) joined in on the brigade, Khanna still managed to look comparatively respectable in 'Jab tanhai mein do badan paas aate hai' or 'Aankhen to kholo swami' in Masterji (1985).
More than a comment on Rajesh Khanna, Naseeruddin Shah’s diatribe is, in fact, an affront to the legions of fans that make Hindi cinema what it is. Moreover, is Shah’s comment on Khanna somewhere implying that fans, and particularly women, prefer mediocrity when it comes to liking a Hindi film star given their fervor for Rajesh Khanna? Isn’t the kind of frenzy that created the phenomenon of Rajesh Khanna, an example of how he was an actor who engaged his fans, and more so female fans, which in itself stands testimony that talent can’t be stereotyped into what makes for good acting?
Rajesh Khanna was a nuanced star and perhaps even a limited actor but being a superstar, he was still a better actor than many so-called geniuses for the simple reason that he allowed the other person in the frame to be, a trait that is lacking in many stars.
Look at the scene where he confronts Rehman in Aap Ki Kasam (1974) and see how in spite of being at the top of his game, a god amongst men, Khanna lets his back be to the camera for a better portion of the scene (click here and go to 1:53:30).
In the 1980s when Mr. Bachchan transformed into a one-man show, his aura somewhere single-handedly killed the concept of a comedian, a supporting actor and to a large extent even the heroine. As a result, the biggest films of the 1980s that featured Mr. Bachchan were but a pale shadow of what the actor was associated with and delivered in the 1970s. In many ways, this can be attributed as a bigger contributor to mediocrity.
Twinkle Khanna’s response to Mr. Shah on twitter- “Sir if u can't respect the living ,respect the dead-mediocrity is attacking a man who can't respond@NaseerudinShah” in many ways sums up the argument. There are some who think that Ms. Khanna’s response reeks of hypocrisy for her speculated roman à clef ‘Ms. Funnybones’ does the same to other people. The difference is Twinkle Khanna/ Ms. Funnybones comments on living people and at least, isn’t as misinformed as Naseeruddin Shah on certain things.
PS: Naseeruddin Shah has since apologized to those who took personal offense. But here too Mr. Shah is misinformed for even after naming ‘Rajesh Khanna’ he says he was “wasn’t talking of a particular person. I was talking about a phenomenon."