As we approach the centenary of Dadasaheb Phalke’s 1913 silent film, it is only natural that many actors who had played their part have departed from the scene. Of late, even those with whom my post-independent India generation grew up have begun to leave us, the latest being the universally recognised first superstar of Hindi cinema, Rajesh Khanna.
There have been superstars in the film world in the southern states. Tamil cinema has had the likes of Sivaji Ganesan and MG Ramachandran (also known as MGR), Telugu had its share of an NTR (NT Rama Rao) and Nageshwar Rao. Now we have the multi-lingual Rajinikanth. Bengal produced greats like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen among others who gave a new grammar to cinematography. Superstars acquired cult status with MGR and NTR later becoming chief ministers of their states and leaving behind a political legacy as well.
Rajesh Khanna was Hindi cinema’s first superstar who rolled out 15 superhits between 1969 and 1972 in a career spanning a decade. The current batch of Khan superstars have been around for two decades. Much has been discussed about the factors that constituted the superstar status — a charming smile, or perhaps a particular nod of the head. There are, however, deeper factors.
Cinema is a powerful medium. Creatively used, it can assimilate all forms of artistic expression — literature, poetry, music, dance, sculpture and painting — giving them a visual mobility. It, thus, has the potential to both reflect upon and influence people’s popular consciousness. In the actors’ appeal that generates the adulation that confers a superstar status, there is a deeper element of giving expression to contemporary societal contradictions and conflicts. A Raj Kapoor gave expression to the rising aspirations of our youth, irrespective of their social or economic status, post-independence. Dev Anand was the eternal romantic. Bimal Roy dwelt on socio-economic problems like land reforms (in Do Bigha Zameen), creating immortal characters like the one portrayed by Balraj Sahni, and untouchability (Sujata). Shyam Benegal contributed much to the portrayal of realism.
Manmohan Desai claimed that his success lay in not allowing the audience to think as they watch the film. There is, of course, this element of transposing the audience into a wonderland as an escape from the pains of real existence. These films nevertheless provoked a reflection on contemporary reality. The late 1960s and the decade of the 70s was witness to a deep churning in our society. Young people, who met at academic institutions or workplaces, decided to spend their lives together breaching the tradition of arranged marriages in a larger number than before. Those facing the trials and tribulations of an uncertain future empathised with ‘Safal hogi teri aradhana’. The discussions in colleges centred around the questions of existence and meaning of life under the intellectual shadow of Jean Paul Sartre’s existentialism or Herbert Marcuse’s one-dimensional man. Coupled with the growing burdens in rural India, these sentiments found expression in superhits like Safar and Anand. Remember the philosophical strain in songs like ‘zindagi ka safar’ or ‘zindagi kaisi hai paheli’. The problems that arose from the breakdown of an old order found reflection in Amar Prem or Khamoshi. The intensification of the class divide and agonies of the working people found reflection in Namak Haram. Thus, there was a strong undercurrent of the contradictions faced by people in most of Rajesh Khanna’s movies that catapulted him to a cult status. He had become the face of contemporary social churning.
Subsequent developments like educated unemployment, ruptures in the rural agrarian order gave rise to a deep discontent which was politically capped by the declaration of internal emergency in 1975. This was a perfect setting for the launch of the ‘angry young man’, paving the way for the emergence of the superstardom of Amitabh Bachchan — Rajesh Khanna’s ‘babu moshai’ in the film Anand.
I recollect watching Sholay during the emergency while being underground along with my comrades from JNU, crossing the rocks and dunes of what is today a mall at Delhi’s Vasant Kunj. After watching the film, we spent a long time deliberating on the need to send professional revolutionaries to liberate Indian villages! Leaving aside nostalgic digressions, it needs to be underlined that superstars are only the symbols and faces that give expression to the soul of the film. This soul lies in the story line and the memorable songs which immortalise the superstar.
Every actor that we remember in Indian cinema is invariably associated with song and music. The explosive combination of RD Burman, Kishore Kumar and Asha Bhosle created magic with the lyrics penned by a Sahir Ludhianvi or Anand Bakshi, a Kaifi Azmi or Shakeel Badayuni and several others who gave flesh and blood to the story of the age. These songs are heard over and over again and every time, the expressions of the superstar flash across our minds. Ironically, while the music director or the singer gets a share of the glory, it is the lyricist who wrote the song who remains the most ‘unsung’ in collective memory.
Superstars are created by their times. Films that give expression to these times are the product of a wide range of creative talents that go into making a superhit. As times change, superstars fade away. A new generation creates its own superstars.
In this context, recollect what the inimitable Johnny Walker had once said when asked how he reconciled to being a ‘nobody’ later in life after having ruled the cinematic roost at one time. He said that Tenzing Norgay once climbed Mount Everest and stood at the top of the world. He could not have continued to live there. Hence, he came down. The same is true for everybody. Alas, this truth is seldom gracefully accepted by superstars.
Sitaram Yechury is CPI(M) Politburo member and Rajya Sabha MP
The views expressed by the author are personal