Naseeruddin Shah-Rajesh Khanna row: When the truth offends a nation

  • Sneha Bengani, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jul 28, 2016 14:39 IST
Rajesh Khanna and Naseeruddin Shah were contemporaries, each known for creating his own distinct brand of cinema. (Facebook)

In an exclusive interview with Hindustan Times last week, veteran actor Naseeruddin Shah lamented the mediocrity that has seeped into the Hindi film industry. He said the decline began in the ‘70s, courtesy the late Rajesh Khanna – a superstar by industry standards but a “poor actor” at best.

Expectedly, Kaka’s family and legions of fans cried foul. His daughter, Twinkle Khanna, slammed Shah, saying it was mediocre of him to attack a man who cannot respond.

Read: Rajesh Khanna was a poor actor, says Naseeruddin Shah

Here’s a pearl of wisdom for all those who are crying themselves hoarse over Shah’s insensitivity: Every piece of criticism is not an accusation. Also, death does not grant immunity against analysis. If that were the case, there would be no space left for reasoning, argument or debate. As the lives and work of iconic figures shape the course of history and heavily influence public consciousness, they remain open to scrutiny even after they are gone.

Rajesh Khanna in a still from Aradhana (1969). (YouTube grab)

Though films are the result of dedicated team effort, Indians attribute their success or failure primarily to the leading actors. A movie belongs to its director, writers and the crew behind the camera more than its “hero”. He, however, shoulders the biggest responsibility because of his glamorous position.

So, when Naseeruddin Shah said India’s first superstar had ushered mediocrity into the Hindi film industry, we can hardly blame him. Of course, one cannot single out Rajesh Khanna for the transformation of our films from poignant stories to pitiful excuses for song-and-dance routines — a trend that we are still struggling to do away with. He, however, was certainly the mascot of the phenomenon.

The ones harping on Kaka’s illustrious filmography as the testament of his acting abilities should know that a movie’s box office collection has never been an indicator of the acting prowess of its lead star. Look at some recent films that have made it to the Rs 400-crore club, and you’ll know.

Superstardom is contagious. It makes you believe you are invincible, and then makes you stop trying. Rajesh Khanna was indeed the first superstar India ever saw. Everyone wanted to be him. There was no stopping anyone. Affected mannerisms? We have got to do it too. Romancing a girl your daughter’s age? Sure. Stop experimenting? Okay. Turn serious dramas into musicals? Brilliant! Whatever our superstar did, the industry lapped it up and so did the nation. We loved him.

Read: Naseer apologises after Twinkle slams him for his ‘poor actor’ comment

Before Kaka, actors played characters. After him, they started being themselves (courtesy superstardom) irrespective of who they were in the film, and our current lot of movies is the most painful reminder of this. A Khan is always a Khan, even if he is playing a Gaurav or a Sultan in a film.

Kaka with Sharmila Tagore in a still from Amar Prem’s iconic song Chingari Koi Bhadke. (YouTube grab)

The trend has found such firm footing over the years that being an actor and a star has become two entirely different things, with almost all aspiring to be the latter. Churning out substandard movies that play to the gallery is the new ambition, with even actors who have been around for over a quarter of a century resorting to it. What hope does this leave for upcoming actors or the future of cinema? What did Shah do wrong if he pointed it out?

Read: Fans know Rajesh Khanna’s legacy, says Dimple Kapadia

When you say that Rajesh Khanna was a brilliant actor, who are you really comparing him with? Despite being in my 20s, I still watch movies of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro as fondly as their 50-year-old fans. But I cannot say the same for Kaka’s movies – they look affected, out of place. Isn’t universality or timelessness the mark of a great film or a great actor?

We discuss the deterioration of our cinema fervently at our dining tables day after day, but we crucify the first man who says just what we do – but in plainer words.

Yes, Rajesh Khanna was a superstar. So is Salman Khan.

The writer tweets at @sneha_bengani

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