It is time to ask that perennial question yet again: Albert Pinto ko gussa kyun aata hai? Why is Naseeruddin Shah so angry these days? What's keeping him on the boil?
First he stirred up a needless controversy claiming he is being targetted for being a Muslim. Then he got into a spat with Anupam Kher's bhakts by obliquely attacking his Karma co-actor. "A person who has never lived in Kashmir has started a fight for Kashmiri Pandits. Suddenly, he has become a displaced person," Shah said, provoking an instant response from Kher.
And now he has fired (and retracted) a salvo at the late Rajesh Khanna, calling him a poor actor, blaming him for "mediocrity" in Hindi cinema of the 70s.
To be fair to Shah, there is no logic in the argument that an actor who is not around can't be criticised. The work of an artist can always be evaluated and critiqued, put through the test of time and immortality. So, when Twinkle Khanna objects to Shah's criticism by arguing that her father, the legendary star Rajesh Khanna, should not be attacked because he is not around to defend it, she makes the mistake of treating Kaka's work as sacrosanct, something beyond criticism.
By that logic, it would be sacrilegious to say the great Dev Anand turned out utter rubbish in his later years. Or that the late Indeever, writer of some lyrical poetry, should not be criticised for writing a third-rate song like Sexy, sexy mujhe log bolen.
My objection to Shah's diatribe is simple: How can he call Rajesh Khanna a poor actor? What makes him think Khanna brought about a culture of mediocrity in the 70s?
Naseer Sahab is the doyen of parallel cinema. As filmmaker Sudheer Mishra rightly said, India's parallel cinema movement would have died had it not been carried on the shoulders of Naseeruddin Shah. But, how does Shah fare as an actor in what was known as commercial cinema? A powerful role in Karma, some singing, dancing and punching in Tridev. (Frankly, I had to consult Imdb to look up his commercially successful films). In fact, there was a time when, in spite of his talent and ability, Shah signed films he may be ashamed of remembering today: Zulm Ko Jala Doonga, Police Public, Haadsa, Giddh (The Vulture), Tehelka...
The point is: Commercial cinema has its own idiom, a brand of acting that people relate to. And there is no doubt that Rajesh Khanna was the undisputed first superstar of that cinema. His presence, mannerisms, and style took Indian cinema's popularity to dizzying heights, attracted lakhs of converts and made many producers millionaires.
To say that Khanna's was an age of mediocrity is also incorrect. Some of the films made during that period, starring Kaka, are timeless. They would be rated any day above Shah's police publics, accidents, scavengers and threats of burning down zulm.
Anand? Namak Haram? Safar? Amar Prem? Bawarchi? Kati Patang? Avtaar? There is an endless list of films that can be watched any day, every time bringing the same kind of joy to the viewer. Kaka may not have been the Marlon Brando of Hindi cinema, but he was certainly its Cary Grant.
Frankly, just as we love to watch Mirza Ghalib and Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron a million times, Kati Patang and Anand inspire similar nostalgia and zest.
Kaka's time was also the golden age of Hindi film music. Nobody knows what it was about him, but many composers of his time gave us their best numbers in films starring Rajesh Khanna. His era coincided with the acme of Kishore Kumar and RD Burman. Was it a mere coincidence? I don't think so. My feeling is that composers and singers were inspired by the fact that Khanna's presence would guarantee them a huge audience. So, they produced their best work around Rajesh Khanna.
Acting, ultimately, is what an actor does. And its ultimate judge is the audience. To say that an actor is superior because he can modulate his voice a little better, deliver a dialogue at a slightly higher pitch with infinitesimally clearer diction is a debate the audience rarely gets into.
People go to movies to laugh, cry, dance, sing, imagine themselves romancing the best heroines of their time. Rajesh Khanna made all this possible with his acting.
At Rajesh Khanna's peak, it was often said, Upar Aaka, neeche Kaka. Those whom people love are the greatest actors on the world's stage.