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If I can just give to the world more than I take from it, I will be a very happy man. For there is no greater joy in life than to give. Motto : Live, Laugh and Love. You can follow me on Twitter too . My handle is @Raja_Sw.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

How will posterity judge Rajesh Khanna?

My earlier post on Rajesh Khanna, written soon after his death, was an outpouring of emotion more than anything else.  Much of it had to do with my memories of the man from my younger days, especially my school days.  

School life, especially primary/secondary school, is usually the time of your life when you look at things through the most innocent of lenses. Things are often black and white – you don’t know, or usually care, about the complex aspects of any topic.

That post was intended to remember Rajesh Khanna as I knew him – inasmuch as one can “know” an actor who he has never met or had contact with. But Rajesh made a connection with me in my childhood and the post was MY way of thanking him for all those good memories of that time. And though there is some reference to the “other” side of Rajesh (the side we did not see on film), it was not the main focus of that post.  My childhood memories are of Rajesh the ACTOR, not Rajesh the HUMAN BEING.

Today, as I am pushing 50 – and have, over the years, seen a bit of life – I think I can take a distance from just Rajesh the ACTOR and talk a bit about Rajesh the HUMAN BEING. He might hate me for this – for he himself often did not seem to see his life as anything other than one big acting performance (his last words about “pack up” would seem to confirm this) but I do want to discuss this anyway. Because I think this is THE CRUX of the complex character that was Rajesh Khanna.

Much of what I will say here is based on my take on life – and I tend to think it could apply to anybody, not just Rajesh Khanna. But then again it is MY take, so I have no illusions about others necessarily having to agree with me.

Very importantly, everything I say about Rajesh here is NOT being said as a Rajesh fan. My previous post, yes – this one, no. I am writing this as a near-50 adult – not a starry-eyed teenager. I was, am – and will always be – a Rajesh fan, but I think I have the ability to take a reasonable distance from that relationship and be able to construct an opinion divested from the baggage that such closeness carries with it.

Equally importantly, I have absolutely no pretensions about having access to, or being privy to, any aspect of Rajesh Khanna’s life that is not out there in the public doman. I’ve never met him – I’ve only seen him as an actor on screen. And read various items about him in the media over the last 40-odd years. That’s it. My assessment is based entirely on this limited exposure to the man. Those with more exposure to him could very well have a very different (and possibly more informed) take on him.  So I am NOT speaking from an “insider” position, just my humble “averagely informed” opinion.

I’d also like to say that I have no intentions of causing hurt to anybody through this piece. I’ve come across a lot of vicious attacks on Rajesh  in the last four decades. Even just a couple of days ago, barely a day after Rajesh was cremated, I received an e-mail from a friend, linking to an amazingly scurrilous piece about him, published AFTER his death. I will not comment about the content but I think it must take a certain type of mindset to be able to write a piece so scurrilous, so soon after a man’s death.  It really takes all types…

Maybe, in a sense, that article is part of the reason I am writing this. I don’t know what it was trying to achieve – but it does look like those who were baying for Rajesh’s blood during his lifetime, have no intention of leaving him alone in peace even now. After all, there’s this upsurge of sympathy and love for Rajesh Khanna  - and there’s every chance future generations may not remember all the bad things that Rajesh did, right? And how can we allow that to happen? We’ve spent a lifetime telling the world “the truth” – we’re not going to let a lifetime’s work be undone by a minor detail like the man dying. The man may be gone but we must soldier on.

 I cannot help but cast my mind to those lines from that famous “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech  by Mark Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:

The evil that men do lives after them
The good is oft interred with their bones

The “evil” that Rajesh did, does seem to have a much bigger chance of living on, than the good he must have done.

But did Rajesh Khanna do any good? I’m not talking about Rajesh Khanna, the ACTOR here – I am talking about Rajesh Khanna, the HUMAN BEING.

If he did, there’s hardly any mention of it anywhere. It is all either about his acting (his films, his songs) or about all the bad things he’s supposed to have done. At this rate the only thing future generations will remember of him will be these two sides of his life. One flattering, the other most decidedly not.

I’d like somebody to stand up and talk about anything, ANYTHING good that he did as a person. The only positive comment I can remember now is something I read about Zeenat Aman saying that when they (the crew) returned from an overseas shooting (presumably for Aashiq Hoon Baharon Ka), there was some sort of collection drive going on in Bombay for a good cause.  Apparently Rajesh Khanna donated a huge amount – Zeenat did not say how much but she said it was “very generous”.  

So are there any more stories like this out there? Because if there are, it would be nice to get them out there. So as get a more balanced picture about Rajesh Khanna, the person.  I’m feeling like Arnab Goswami here (“the nation needs to know”) but indeed, there is usually more than one side to a story or a person. And for the last almost four decades, there’s only side that has been put out there about Rajesh, the person.

When I  wrote my earlier piece, I tweeted it out to a few persons of a generation earlier than, or the same as, mine. If only hoping to get a perspective that would enrich my own.

Now they are all busy people and may not even have read it, let alone have had the time or interest to respond to it. However, I was very happy and gratified to receive a response from the ever-perspicacious Madhu Trehan, somebody I have always admired and respected from the early days of India Today magazine (I used to “devour” it in the 1970s and the early 80s). Madhu now has a website www.newslaundry.com which I visit regularly – she gives me a reason to have hope that the terms “values” and “current Indian media” can still be used in the same sentence.

In three tweets, Madhu  gave me her take on Rajesh Khanna – and, though they may sound harsh, they are loaded with wisdom – and probably a fair summation of Rajesh Khanna’s biggest failing.

I quote them here (I trust she won’t mind):
@Raja_Sw All I can say, judging a man by his films and what he was as a human being are different parameters

@Raja_Sw I saw a man who took his success too seriously & his failures too seriously-thereby his place on earth too seriously

@Raja_Sw A person who misses his Lightness of Being, has missed the point of existence


That was an angle that I’d NEVER thought of but it tied in very nicely with the angle that I HAD thought of.

And that was that Rajesh Khanna’s biggest failing was that he lived in a bubble.

I cannot help feeling that it is very ironic that one of Rajesh Khanna’s most famous dialogues is one that goes “ye duniya ek rang manch hai aur hum sab rang manch ki kathputhliyaan”.

I firmly believe Rajesh not just delivered this line of dialogue, he got caught up in it – and he lived the rest of his life, trapped by the illusion and delusion of the world that it creates.

The average Joe goes through life with a whole range of experiences shaping his thinking, his evolution and his interactions with society. The more exposed he is to real-life happenings, the hustle-bustle of daily life, the more he comes to terms with the world.

However, Rajesh’s life was anything but like the average Joe’s life.

For starters, he was just 26 when Aradhana released and he was catapulted to an overnight sensation status. The feeling must have been unbelievably heady – some thing that I am unable to even relate to, because I’ve never had (and am never likely to have) the experience of the frenzied adulation of millions and millions of people, falling all over you, wanting to touch you, wanting to marry you, wanting to get one glimpse of you.  It is one thing to aspire for fame and a celebrity status – it is totally another to be able to handle it if and when it does come to you.

Then the sycophants. Rajesh was made to feel like God. Not just by his fans but by those around him. They pampered him, they attended to his every whim and fancy, they ensured the thickening of the walls of the bubble that he got into – and they did such a good job of it that he stayed trapped within.  Apparently Rajesh did not take kindly to criticism – and these so-called well-wishers weren’t going to say or do anything that could get them in his bad books and ruin their own parasitic progress.

Then the habits. Leading from the above, it isn’t strange at all that Rajesh’s habits began getting “aiyaash” (wastrel-like).  “The world can wait, after all I am Rajesh Khanna. A star, not a clerk”. The drinking, the drama, the sense of being God…

Then the fall. I was looking for a term that describes it better than “precipitous” but I cannot find one, so I’ll settle for this. One after another, his films began failing – largely due to the above. With such sycophants around you who don’t dare tell you what you’re doing wrong, with such habits that are bound to reflect on your performances, it should have been seen coming from a mile. The external environment was one thing, but the self-destruction that Rajesh inflicted on himself was the far bigger reason for his fall, in my opinion.

But SO lost was he in that bubble that he got into denial – he  kept telling himself that his films were doing well, that he was still the number one.

And that to me was always his key problem. He was in that bubble, he was in denial for way too long. In order for a person to accept reality, he has to first come out of denial and face reality. Acceptance comes only thereafter. But if somebody does not even come out of denial, there’s no hope, there’s only delusion.

I know I’m saying  seemingly harsh things here – and it is indeed “chhota moonh, badi baat”.  In fact “bahut hi chhota moonh, badi baat”, given our relative statures and achievements in life. But I don’t think I am that far off from the truth.

And sometimes I wish I’d been there with Rajesh during those heady days of his. I’d have told him to his face – and borne the brunt of his response, abuse and all. And I’d have told him again. And again. 

Rajesh may have been getting delusional –but I don't think he was a stupid man. I'd have persisted - and I’d not have let those sycophants and leeches get within a mile of him. 

And, even if a fall had come eventually (the old order changeth, and all that), he would have been man enough to take it into his stride. After all, failure and success are part of life. I might even have tried some poetry and quotes with him, seeing his penchant for drama and the like. Kipling’s “Success and failure are the same imposter” maybe.

Anyway, this is all wishful thinking. And it was not to be. Maybe he was MEANT to be that poster-boy for posterity - for how NOT to let success get to your head, how NOT to burn your bridges, how NOT to trust yes-men around you. Maybe he was meant to be that lesson for future generations.

Anyway this was MY angle. If you combine this with Madhu’s angle – that he seemed to take everything too seriously – his successes, his failures – and therefore his place on earth, then you get a much stronger sense of the man. You get a sense of – and an explanation for – his insecurities, his drinking, his moods.

So this is the “Rajesh Khanna, the person” image that I have.

It is NOT a negative image, mind you. It is a VERY HUMAN image. It could happen to anybody.

Yes, if he hadn’t taken himself and his successes/failures SO seriously, he might have been able to have more equanimity in life and face reality more easily. And if he hadn’t let that success get to his head, he might have had a much happier and more social life, once his heyday would be behind him (as it eventually would be anyway).

But these are all ifs and buts. Life isn’t scripted this way.  The more I think about it, the more I feel Rajesh’s life was a drama in itself – worthy of an Oscar-winning script. I can’t help feeling he would love for that to happen – that somebody makes a film on him. Because for him, his reel-life and his real life were one and the same.

Well, maybe one day somebody WILL make a film on him.

I just hope that that person is kind towards him. Truthful – and kind. Tell the dirty picture if you like – but tell it from the point of view also of somebody who was only human. Who had a lot of charm and charisma – but, for all that, was still only human.

That is all I ask for him. Let posterity not know him only as a superstar. Let posterity also know about the mistakes he made. It is a lesson for one and all.

But, at the same time, let posterity also not sit and judge him on the narrow canvas of his reel life and his real-life actions. Let it also seek to understand the motivations and the tribulations of the very vulnerable mind trapped inside the body of a superstar.

That is all I ask for him.

That is all I ask for him.


Ava Suri said...

"Vulnerable mind trapped in the boyd of a superstar"

So true, Raja.

When he was famous the leeches zoomed in to feed on him, turning his head, when his success dimmed, they fell off, satiated, and left him drained. That is the tragedy of life.

It is indeed extremely difficult to keep a level head on your shoulders in face of such unprecedented adulation, and Rajesh succumbed, like any human being would have.

dustedoff said...

Very well-written, Raja - and insightful. It reminded me in some ways of a blog post that Stuart had written a while back about Indians (in particular) tending to put their idols on a pedestal, and imagining them to be little short of God. The downside of that, of course (and this is my take on it) is that a God is NOT supposed to fall off his pedestal... people forget that these larger-than-life heroes are also, al said and done, human beings, with all the failings and flaws of the species.

Faldo said...

@Raja - Thoughtful piece. As you rightly point out it is important to make an objective analysis of Rajesh Khanna's life rather than looking at events as black or white. Most reports after his death have swung to extremes which possibly does not do him justice. While his faults and eccentricities have been well documented, one has heard of few positive statements about him as a person. Therefore, it might be useful to recollect instances that could make us see a different side of him.

I remember an interview of his where he talked about changing his late coming habits for Haathi Mere Saathi because he used to see the director Chinnappa Devar beating up a spot boy whenever he (RK ) arrived at the sets. When he asked the boy about this, he was told that it was the director's way of showing that he was angry. Devar did not want to directly point this out to Rajesh, as he was the top star those days. From the very next day Khanna made every effort to arrive in time to make sure that the boy did not get beaten up again.

He was known to be a great host and quite generous to friends. I remember reading an article after the release of Alag Alag where he was supposed to have gifted cars to both Anand Bakshi and RD Burman. He was well past his prime then (mid 80s). One has also heard of reports that on his birthday his home was open to all children of the neighborhood and he would have a circus playing (maybe inspired by the success of Haathi Mere Saathi).

Salim said...

It was nice reading your piece - one request please change the font - I feel as I am seeing double :D

sunil said...

Kuch toh log kahenge. Logon ka kaam hain kahana. Choddo ye bekaar ki batein, kahin beet na jaye raina. :)

Abe Lincoln:
It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: "And this, too, shall pass away." How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!

sunil said...

And cheer up! I am totally jealous of "faded" Rajesh Khanna and Amjad Khan in this song I came across in the last week. :)


विश्व दीपक said...

Hey Raja, I am mainly enchanted by your writing, your way of putting the words in such a mould that neither it bloats out of shape, nor it misses the goal by some inches.

Now coming to your article, I too feel that an actor, whether a superstar or not, is a human being in the first place, so he should be allowed to commit the mistakes which are humane and he shouldn't be lynched just for that. After kaka's demise we are seeing a lot of stone-pelting happening on his character, which was not that much predominant before.

Yes, I agree that he was not all white, but never all black too, so why can't we digest his character being gray. Lets accept that and move ahead. It is necessary for kaka's soul to be freed from all allegations , but more than that it is necessary for us to remain true to our "moral values". That's it..

Once again thanks for your post. It made me try to write something in English after a long long time. For this sake alone, I would love to revisit your blog again and again... :)

Raja Swaminathan said...

@Ava, indeed I think success getting to his head did him in. He admitted as much later in life - he just did not know how to handle it.

@Dustedoff, So true. It seems to be a very Indian trait. Blind worship - not healthy. Not for the worshipper, not for the worshippee.

@Faldo, thanks for visiting. Now that you mention it, I remember reading that Chinnappa Devar anecdote long back. Would be really nice if people talk about some good things that Rajesh did too. Surely he did some good?

@Salim, thanks for visiting. Glad you liked the piece. I will change the font. :-)

@Sunil: You are right - this too shall pass. It's not about me - it's about future generations not getting a distorted picture of Rajesh, thanks to his critics building up this monster image of him. That's all I want. And that Maqsad video is SO mid-1980s. It is fun though - Rajesh in yellow pants and all that. And Amjad too. Thanks. :-)

@VDbhai, thanks for visiting and leaving a comment here. You are SO right - everybody is human, everybody has weaknesses. My only wish is that we have an objective take on Rajesh. Am not denying his many weaknesses, but if his critics had their way, he would be the biggest monster on earth! Some balance please, that's all I ask for.

Parvatkanya said...

The world of Bollywood is highly political. Kaka's "fall" made good press, because objectively, he did have a number of hits afterwards as well. All big stars (Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor, Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar) faced an inevitable decline, but the " epic downfall" tag was not given. The usual list of reasons ( arrogance, chamchas, late arrival etc.) are standard behavior in Bollywood but these somehow damaged him more ( as opposed to the arrogance attributed to SRK or AB or Salman Khan's frankness about not waking up till noon!). I think the stories about his humanity have not come up much because media has not focused on it, and he lived an isolated life. His isolation has also been criticized, but he may have felt let down. While Amitabh has acknowledged that he got his break thanks to Kaka, he certainly did not return the favor. Salim-Javed also got their break with Kaka, but then forgot him. I am sure politics had a lot to do with his "downfall", and the press was a part of it.

Raja Swaminathan said...

Thanks for visiting here and commenting, Parvatkanya. Somehow everything seemed to be extreme with Rajesh, didn't it? Extreme adulation, extreme criticism. I don't have a problem with him being criticized, I'd just like people to balance the narrative with good things too that he must have done in his life.

harvey said...

Well-written again!
Well, I don't know how I would have reacted if I was in his position, thus hard to judge him or for that matter any other person.
He was a good actor and that is how he will be remembered and there will be as usual the reports about his private life.
Like this one:

Shipra said...

Totlally totally loved it sir! the subtle way you have put up the negative side without being harsh.
I have always loved MR. RAJESH KHANNA as hathi mere sathi was that movie which used to feature often on doordarshan when i was a kid.
Still i feel pity for how things happened with him. Wish someone could tell him. But his life definitely comes with a lesson. Success is not permanent, you've to maintain it. RIP RAJESH KHANNA! MUCH LOVE.

Raja Swaminathan said...

@Harvey, it's a pity he couldn't handle success but then surely it must not have been easy for him either.

@Shipra, thanks for visiting and liking this article. Regardless of what one thinks of Rajesh Khanna, his life is indeed a lesson for others about how ephemeral success and fame are.

Anonymous said...


Parvatkanya said...

The media made a huge deal of Rajesh "downfall" when they did not do such a hatchet job on others. Wonder why?
Like you, I feel its pointless to analyze why he "failed" (did he? I was amazed by his productivity when I read his filmography on IMDB - and also that he commanded the same salary as Amitabh)...And how he handled success/failure etc. (we are so far removed from the film world that we really have no idea).

A recent interview by his former secretary was a refreshing change as it discussed his hidden side - how well he treated his staff, paid for their weddings etc., how he insisted that all workers renovating his house should have same meals as he did (his house was apparently in constant renovation) especially roti with ghee! And how he was bosom buddies with RD Burman (and good friends with Kishore Kumar, Shakti Samanta, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Asit Sen, Sharmila). he had regular get togethers with them, and daily addebazi with Pancham, whom he told one night (with abhiman) that Pancham did not compose good songs for Raja Rani. This bothered Pancham so much that he turned up next morning, woke him up and said he had composed a new song for Rajesh...Suno, Kaho, Suna!

What is notable is how many wonderful films he made that resonate even today. My favorites are Khamoshi, Aradhana, Amar Prem, Safar, Anand, Aavishkar (those who complain about his mannerisms should watch this, no mannerisms at all), and also some of the more masala films like Aap ki Kasam, Ajnabee, Daag, Mere Jeevan Saathi etc. I would be hard pressed to come up with such a list on any one actor. My other favorite actor is Sanjeev Kumar who was a fantastic actor and also made memorable, sensitive films.

Anonymous said...

it is only today that i happened to read all your write-ups on Kaka. I too belong to the 60's 70's era. I began my movie watching from dev, shammi and kaka and became head over heels crazy of kaka since then (still am). somehow i could not watch AB's. though i like rishi/neetu to a great extent.
all that you had mentioned about Kaka in all your three write-ups were heart-touching. to my knowledge of Kaka...................the right hand doesnt know what the left hand is doing.............type of a person. my cousin had a person who was a frequent visitor to ashirwad and thru them i got to know that kaka was second to none in generosity which was NEVER EVER expressed.
i am really moved by your write-ups.
Really was carried to the years of kaka