26 August 2012

Post Facto: Rajesh Khanna and the women who loved him

From my fortnightly Sunday Guardian column:

Like everyone else, I too have an aunt who was besotted with Rajesh Khanna in her adolescent years. The day before her Higher Secondary exams, the news came that he had married Dimple Kapadia. My masi remembers spending the day of her history exam weeping bitter tears with her girlfriends – had he married Anju Mahendroo who was more-or-less his age, their logic went, that would be one thing. But if he was going to marry a teenager, then oh god, why couldn't he pick one of them?

As a teenaged old-Hindi-movie buff myself, I never quite 'got' Rajesh Khanna. He always seemed to me a little like Dev Anand: entertaining enough, but so invested in the perfect rendition of his carefully cultivated style that no performance of his ever moved me. When he wasn't being maudlin or 'disturbed', there was a twinkle in the eye whose appeal I could see. But both Khanna and Anand seemed to me like some people's preening boyfriends: if pressed, I might grant their good looks, but really they just weren't my type.

When he died, the academic Susmita Dasgupta (author of Amitabh: The Making of a Superstar) wrote a wonderful Facebook 'note', in which she explained, among other things, why she had never been a Khanna fan, despite being surrounded by people who swooned over him and copied his looks: "Frankly, I remained out of all this. Khanna invoked femininity. I was not a pursuant of such sentiments. So when Bachchan came, I took to him like fish to water. I also revelled that he, and not Khanna, was the superstar."

What does it mean to say that a hero "invoked femininity"? In Gangs of Wasseypur II, Ramadhir Singh does a neat recounting of history-through-heroes, which features the same idea: "First men liked Dilip Kumar, and women liked Dev Anand. Then men liked Amitabh Bachchan, and women liked Rajesh Khanna." If one wants to take Ramadhir Singh's idea forward, I suppose we might agree that men like Salman and women like Shah Rukh.

Perhaps there's something there. But what does such a binary make of all the women who loved Bachchan and all the men who modelled themselves on Khanna? Are they to be considered traitors to their gender: masculine women and effeminate men? Do they gesture to the possibility of many kinds of masculinity? Or is the greater identification by one gender something to do with the kinds of films in which they starred?

The more Dasgupta worked on Bachchan, the more uncomfortable she felt about not being able to analyse Khanna as a phenomenon. She eventually met the latter, and her post contains some fertile speculation about the real-life Jatin Khanna. But what is fascinating is her theory that his star persona, as first created by Aradhana and Kati Patang, was the outcome of director "Shakti Samanta's search of a lover for his young widowed mother". He was "a saviour who comes in to breathe life and loveliness into women, ignored and isolated". The tragic figure of the young widow is at the centre of both films. Samanta's father was in the air force, and died in the line of duty in 1947, like Arun Varma in Aradhana, who dies leaving a pregnant fiancé behind.

I watched Aradhana last week at a Rajesh Khanna Retrospective, and Dasgupta is certainly on to something. From scraps of childhood memory, I had imagined Aradhana to be a standard-issue romance, and I was quite surprised at how completely our experience is filtered through Sharmila Tagore's character, Vandana. The first Rajesh dies early on, having provided a few weeks of loving, the memory of which Sharmila must live off. The second appears 25 years later, as Vandana's grown-up son. The two Rajeshes get plenty of screen time, but it is always through Vandana's eyes that we see them: the perfect lover, the yearned-for husband and the adored son.

In contrast, think of the many Bachchan movies in which the mother-son relationship is absolutely crucial – even when the mother is the one who stays alive and ages through the film, the film's point of view is always that of the son. In Yash Chopra's Trishul, for instance, the narrative thrust comes, just as in Aradhana, from the figure of the unwed mother who decides to give birth to the child. But when the son is Bachchan, a mother figure as strong as Waheeda Rehman must die. She can be a symbol in whose name he can fight, but she cannot be the one whose battles we witness.

Whether you're male or female, you can only experience the tragedy of Trishul — or Deewar or Zanjeer ­— through Bachchan's eyes. In a Rajesh Khanna movie, in contrast, you always see him through the heroine's eyes. He is the ultimate hero of heterosexual romance: the man you can soothe, and even better, the man who soothes you.

You can also read this column here.


miHir said...

Shaandar article Trisha. Wo facebook note padhkar mujhe bhi laga tha ki yeh comparison is line par bhi hona chahiye. Thanks for doing that. Lekin baat aur aage honi chahiye. Who were the woman who were secretly writing letters to Rajesh khanna? Where were they gone suddenly when amitabh arrived in the scene? I think there is a very interesting social microcosm of that times there.

Trisha Gupta said...

Thanks Mihir.

It's tragic that there are so few studies of film fandom in India -- barring some work on South Indian stars like Rajinikant like Chiranjeevi. Nothing that I know of for the 60s, 70s: is there a single archive of fan-mail preserved and made public by even a single film star? About where the women went: I suppose with Rajesh Khanna, one speculative answer (based on the one diehard fan I know :)) is that most of his mad female fans were teenagers, and they outgrew that moment in their lives -- at the same time as Bachchan overshadowed Khanna on screen.

miHir said...

Yes you are right. We don't have much studies in India about our cinema crazy public. That's because we don't connect our cinema writings with social science disciplines.

What I'm saying that it's a microcosm of those times. It was the time when Indira Gandhi was turning his 'gungi gudiya' image into the 'durga' image and country was boiling with such passions which are explained in detail in our many social science and history books.

We have many accounts of linking Amitabh's Angry young man persona with the naxal uprising and pre-emergency active times. But we haven't connected the sudden debacle of Rajesh Khanna with this coming of more masculine times. And here the question of 'where those rajesh khanna fan girls gone' comes as an important anecdote for me. Because it then has the direct connection to the way leading ladies in Amitabh's cinema portrayed.

miHir said...

And if you trace back that large and passionate woman following of Rajesh Khanna further, you will understand Shashi kapoor's and Rishi kapoor's and their love stories in every other Amitabh film better.

Rahul said...

Great article, Trisha. Will read it again and comment later, but here are some quick thoughts:
My uncle recounted to me an anecdote - I remembered it today when I read your piece. Ameen Sayani was the MC at a Bollywood ceremony - He introduced Rajesh Khanna as "Skooli" laRkiyon kay Hero - and for Dharmendra, it was "Heroinon" Kay hero. It will be interesting to find out what he said about the others.
Also, I wonder if you have seen Aap ki Adalat featuring Rajesh Khanna in the eighties. I never got the Rajesh Khanna phenomenon either - until I saw that show. For him, his life and his films were extensions of each other. There is something very appealing about someone who takes an idea to its absurd limit- and lives and dies by it. Rajat Sharma asked him - Why do you talk like a film star in real life? Without batting an eyelid - he said in the same affected tone that he employed so gainfully in movies- "Mai 25 saaloN se films mein hoon. Ab aaj Kya main ek reporter ki tarah baat Karoon?" There are several such gems from that interview. He was a genuine and authentic narcissistic- a man who lived his life like a poetry- never an ordinary moment. I think you will find that he had a cohesive sense of life behind his narcissism , it was not just a dramatic device.It was not a mask, it was his face - or as they say, if you wear a mask long enough, it becomes your face.