From my TOI blog, Freeze Frame
A toy train chugs its way up the winding tracks of Darjeeling and takes a turn, perhaps, at the Batasia Loop. A beautiful young girl sits by one of the windows, engrossed in a book. The camera closes in upon her as she looks up from her book to watch the hills in the distance. The faint sound of a harmonica draws her attention. The camera pans out on to an open jeep that drives up another bend and joins the road running parallel to the rail track. Two young men, in Nepali hats are seen on the jeep, one driving while the other breaks away from his harmonica and breaks into, “mere sapnon ki rani kab ayegi tu…”
The rest, as they say, is history. The dimpled, harmonica playing young man who smiled boyishly, crinkling his eyes rode directly into the hearts of almost all young girls of that time and a new star was born. His female following and their hero worship reached a new height for the first time in the history of Indian cinema. The frenzy that surrounded him, the way women threw themselves at him, lined the streets in front of his house to get a glimpse of him, wrote love letters penned in blood, married his photographs, the mass hysteria that surrounded him gave him the crown of the “super star” of Indian cinema. The first of his kind.
This had happened much before I could understand or appreciate cinema. By the time I started watching movies, it was the 80s. I watched him, but only on television, first in black and white and then in colour. By the time I had caught on to his movies, his super stardom was already on the wane.
But the radio had shared some magical songs with me during my growing years that I later realized were picturised on him. To tell you the truth, even though those were the songs I lived for in my adolescent days, wishing that some day some starry eyed boy would sing them quite as romantically, to woo me, I had failed to understand why he was called the “superstar”. His mannerisms, the nod of his head, the way he almost danced but never really did, the way he tilted his head and smiled, the wink of his eyes, the drama in his voice when he spoke – I liked all of that but never understood why they induced a mass hysteria among women of another generation.
Today, here in Mumbai, a light rain was falling from the morning. I was watching the last journey of the superstar of yesteryears, laid down on a bed of white mogras, and surrounded by white lilies and orchids. I watched the crowd that had brought traffic to a halt in that part of the suburb since yesterday. And I still wondered why. Was it only because that in India we place the man on the celluloid high above the celstial stars? Do we immortalize them because they match our fantasies? Do they embody all that we, as lesser beings, can never dream to become or achieve?
Later in the afternoon, I was strolling down the pavement, on my way to run some errands. The neighbourhood taxi stand was a little more crowded than usual and I would have passed by without wondering why. But I thought I heard something that drew my attention to the motley crowd of Sardarjis. They had gathered round an aging gentleman in a yellow turban and long, flowing beard, while he sang “mere sapnon ki rani kab ayegi tu…” thumping on the bonnet of his taxi to keep the beat. The crowd cheered and a young man requested , “Abhi Anand da gana …”
I had also spent a part of the morning on three long distance calls. I spoke to three women, who want to remain unnamed, for reasons they know best and are from that generation when Rajesh Khanna was the superstar. Two of them had seen the meteoritic rise of the star and had witnessed the frenzy for the star among their peers. The third was someone who introduced me to the music that I still hold close to my heart and is responsible in shaping my likes and dislikes in terms of cinema. I asked them the same question, individually. I had to know “Why did Rajesh Khanna become the super star that he was? What was it about him that evoked such a craze among the women of his time?”
By their own submission, they belonged to a much more conservative time. Love, romance were things of another world, from another dimension, mostly found between the pages of novels. And as Jack Pizzey points out in his 1973 BBC documentary on Rajesh Khanna, “Eight Indians out of ten still marry by arrangement to partners they scarcely knew before the wedding, so they are fascinated by the story like this one where the hero falls in love with the heroine and then marries her.”
“Those were simpler days. We had much less to pay attention to outside our limited conservative, middle class life. Cinema was one of the very few forms of entertainment that vied for our attention and we had very few stars to admire. Watching a man wooing a woman in a dark theatre was thrilling. And afterwards, we had a lot of time to think and sigh about the hero, discuss his mannerisms and read tit bits of trivia available in film magazines. So the stars automatically became larger than life. I’d have my heart racing in anticipation just watching Rajesh Khanna tilt his head, wink and smile that smile of his.” came the first candid reply from a lady who I knew to be reserved. Discussing movies and movie stars in her presence were always frowned upon in my girlhood days.
“You have to understand that women by nature are romantic while men most often find it difficult to express themselves. Men of our times were stoic and social norms came in the way of such open show of affection or expressing emotions. When Rajesh Khanna broke into the scene, there was none who were like him. The earlier heroes were either aging or lacked romantic appeal. His simplicity, the way he looked into the eyes of the heroine, the way he pined for love and that twinkle in his eyes – they were the sum total of everything a woman of our time could ever imagine.” Shared one of the voices on the telephone. “He embodied the romance that was missing in our lives. He was breathing life into the idea of romance as we always imagined romance would be.”
“You know, when I would hear all those songs on the radio, I would imagine the situation in my mind and when I watched him lip syncing with the same song on screen, everything fell into place. Everything that I’d imagine about the hero, the way he looks into the heroine’s eyes, the way he would embrace her or play with her hair perhaps, everything matched. His mannerisms were something that none had inflicted upon us before. His voice had a silky smoothness. His smile had a boyish charm. And the way he looked at his woman that melted our hearts to the core. That’s why he was so popular among girls of our times.” reasoned the woman for whom life was fun in spite of how twisted it was in reality.
“In most of the movies that preceded his, the hero always had to scale the wall that society would build between the girl and him or bridge social differences. Love would happen much later after a lot of the boulders were removed. The hero and heroine would perhaps sing a song or two and voila, the movie was over. Rajesh Khanna dared to break down that wall. He would dare to fall head over heels in love and did not make any bones about it. And the girl in question would become the centre of all his attention from the word “go”. And contrary to most of the heroes of his time, who were always larger than life, he ripped open his heart and cried if the character required to. That brought him much closer to earth, closer to where we dwelled in reality. And I’ve seldom seen anybody celebrating life the way he did in movies that saw him die at the end.”
“Who wouldn’t want to be wooed the way he wooed his heroines? What made him larger than life was his portrayal of a man closer to reality, someone who we could relate to. He seemed like the boy next door, the everyman and not a super human. We lived with an image of romance in our mind, an abstract idea. Our lives and times were devoid of the thrill of real life romance and he filled up that void with his charisma and sweet romance.”
So the man who is no more, did he symbolise romance on screen in such a way that his passing has taken away the promise of romance from a whole generation’s life? I wonder.
Picture courtesy : dailyjag.com