Rajesh Khanna was The Phenomenon: Pritish Nandy
Who do you think was the greatest star of all in Indian cinema and why?
Depends on the cinema you are talking about. In Hindi, it would be Amitabh Bachchan without the slightest doubt. Though I have seen the frenzy over Rajesh Khanna in his heydays and that is what hysteria is all about. There was not much media around in those days, no social networking sites. In fact, no internet at all and satellite television was nowhere near the force it is today. Yet Rajesh Khanna’s fame and popularity grew at an exponential, hysterical pace. Amitabh has been luckier. He has lived through both eras and enjoyed spectacular and well-deserved stardom in both.
But we forget that there was Uttam Kumar in Bengal who was bigger than huge. Shivaji Ganesan and now Rajnikant in Tamil. NTR and Chiranjeevi after him in Telugu. Rajkumar in Kannada. Mammooty and Mohanlal in Malayalam. They were all very big stars without so much of media to back them as today’s stars have. Do you have any idea how big Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand were in their days? They formed this huge triumvirate when we were in school.
You've spoken earlier about how nobody seems to remember anymore that Rajesh Khanna was a superstar. Could you talk a little about him?
He was The Phenomenon and like all great movie stars was delightfully eccentric. He took his stardom very seriously and went out of his way to do the craziest things. The magazines (like his fans) were fida over him. He went out of his way to be charming, rude, funny, obnoxious, totally despicable and totally lovable, all at the same time. I saw his demolition before my own eyes. It was partly his own doing, partly fortuitous, partly inevitable. But it happened so quickly and his superstar status fell apart so quickly that I was taken back by the sheer transience of fame.
I have a theory. Any big movie star who went into politics always lost his stardom promptly. I wrote a cover story on Amitabh for Filmfare (I was its Editor then) and this is exactly what I said. That I loved the fact that he had won the Allahabad elections so convincingly but I also lamented the fact that his stardom would disappear once the people of India realised that the Angry Young Man who stood up against every injustice was now a part of the same unjust system that ruled over them. Luckily, Amitabh retreated from politics. Yet it took him some time (and KBC, I would say) to regain his stature in movies. Now people have forgotten the gap. But Rajesh Khanna still lusts after politics and politics simply will not have him. So he ends up as a sad, lonely caricature of the huge star he once was.
Why do you think the star today is not so larger-than-life? Is it because they are so accesible or because as a society, we’ve stopped looking for icons?
I think overexposure kills them. The mystery is lost, the enigma. They are seen everywhere, in every media, in advertising, walking down fashion ramps, dancing at weddings, endorsing products, performing in shows, preening in photo shoots. It’s just plain overkill. It also gives people the impression that they are greedy, always looking for opportunities to make quick and big money. This kills the mystique of stardom. No one likes stars who they feel are always chasing filthy lucre. They want their stars to be noble, dedicated, larger than life. To be greedy is seen as a weakness. That weakness erodes their imagery. The star is a hero. The hero represents Good. He is someone who fights greed, not succumbs to it.
Earlier, Amitabh Bachchan reached the height of stardom despite the press and him mutually banning each other… do you think a star can survive without the media today?
Sure, they can. Now you have unconventional media that can reach way beyond where conventional media goes. Who cares if a clutch of magazines ban you today! Who cares if some channels blackball you! The moment that happens, other media will flock to you. Plus you have media that no one can ban today: blogs, tweets, short messaging services, social networking sites. They will forever remain open to anyone and everyone to access. So anyone can today survive a media ban. In fact, if they are clever, they can use that ban very effectively to promote themselves excitingly and very differently on new platforms. The conventional platforms are, in any case, becoming very tiring, very predictable, very boring. They are killing, as I said before, the mystique of stardom. Stars must be seen infrequently, heard less. And never, they should never be known for how much money they make. That’s really gross, uncool.
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