Legends don’t die. But sometimes, they fade away. And that’s worse than death, especially when they’ve known the kind of super-stardom that Rajesh Khanna experienced between 1969 and 1974. Between Aradhana and Aap Ki Kasam.
I should know. During my younger days, I was a major Khanna fan, watching every film of his at least thrice and loved Sharmila Tagore and Mumtaz only because RK seemed to gel so well with them. I was a first-hand witness to his stardom. And trust me, in all my years as a film person, I’ve never seen such hysteria for anyone.
There was a time in the early 1970s when virtually every theatre in town screened Rajesh Khanna films: Kati Patang, Anand, Do Raaste and Haathi Mere Saathi, all jubilee hits. And then it was all gone. Mr Khanna lost it all. Super-stardom, family, friends, self-confidence.
There’s nothing more heart-breaking than to see your idol defeated. What do you do with the legends when they are in oblivion? “The best way to avoid that almost-inevitable heartbreak of disenchantment is to not come face to face with your idols. You nurture a certain image of them. And the reality is bound to be far removed from your image. This is why I’ve chosen not to meet my absolute idol Lata Mangeshkarji,” said my friend Sanjay Bhansali until I dragged him out of his apprehensions and took him to meet her.
Do your idols always disappoint you? Not necessarily! As a teenager, I was completely besotted with Shabana Azmi, and still continue to be. When I met her for the first time in 1986, she was at the peak of her career. I still remember how generous and warm she was, and how tolerant of my nervous volubility. “Aap mujhe bhi kuch bolne denge,” she had chided me with her Mona Lisa smile when I kept jabbering incessantly.
Would my idol have fallen off her pedestal if she had been patronising and arrogant? I’ve been singularly lucky with the legends. They have invariably turned out to be every bit an embodiment of their mythical image. I thought I’d never meet Lata Mangeshkar. I thought she could never possibly live up to the reputation that I had grown up with.
I remember my first call to her with trembling hands. Fumbling over my words, disbelieving that I was actually speaking to the single-most talented woman God had every created. Over the years, I’ve discovered her to be simple and great fun to be with. During our first meeting, she had me in splits when she described a vain and self-absorbed actor as an ‘I Specialist’. “Never stop to think about your success. Never get carried away and never take yourself seriously,” that’s the formulaic mantra of Lataji’s uninterrupted superstardom for 60 years.
Lataji shares this trait with that other legend, the late Dev Anand. You can laugh at his failed attempts at filmmaking in recent times; you can sneer at him for continuing to make films long after his prime. But you can’t take away from Dev Saab’s unique ability to connect with people.
Every time I spoke to the legendary Dev Anand, he made me feel ten feet tall with his generous comments. To be able to look beyond your own startling success and to reach out to people as fellow-human-beings rather than a swarm of deifying fans, that’s what makes a legend stay that way.
Look at Amitabh Bachchan. Having known him from fairly close quarters, I can vouch for this living legend’s utter disregard for vanity and self-promotion. He hates flatterers and generally keeps away from people who keep reminding him of how great a celebrity he is. “I don’t take appellations like ‘superstar’ and ‘icon’ seriously at all. I’ve gone through a lean phase (late 1990s) when producers had stopped knocking on my door. I know I can lose it all in one minute. And I’m prepared for the downslide,” says the amazing Big B.
I think that’s where Rajesh Khanna went wrong. Constantly surrounded by sycophants and yes-men, Mr Khanna began believing in his own myth. He took his success so seriously that he forgot it was as temporary as you make it out to be. He was surrounded by those who flattered him.
The downslide was sudden, swift and irreversible. No one wanted to give Rajesh Khanna a second chance, not even Rajesh Khanna. I didn’t want to meet this idol from my adolescence who played such a large hand in being a friend and companion in my formative years when I was confused, lonely and disoriented.
I had the opportunity to connect with Rajesh Khanna when his publicist called and asked me if I wanted to speak to him. Since the former icon was sitting close to the caller, I couldn’t say no. I reluctantly spoke to my one-time idol. “Sir, I’m a big fan of yours,” I blurted out to the mega-star who rocked Bollywood even before the terms mega-star and Bollywood were invented. And then, confused and embarrassed, I quickly hung up.
Legends are what they are not because of who they are but what they do. Sooner or later, the karmic cycle catches up with the best of them. It takes a Lata Mangeshkar or Amitabh Bachchan to defy the cycle of success and failure. That’s what legends do. They jump out of their pedestals and fill your hearts with sunshine.