Sunday 26 August 2012

Stars and Strives

I grew up in India loving movies. It was our family tradition to go to the movies every Sunday evening, and that love for movies continues even today. When I immigrated to the US in 1983, my interaction with Indian cinema reduced considerably. In 2001, I started visiting India more often and worked across India as part of large philanthropic projects. During one of my trips to India, I was travelling from Bombay to Delhi. I was in the last bus that drives you from the terminal to the plane, and there were only a handful of people in the bus. As we approached the staircase, I saw an old man in a white khadi churidar and kurta, making his way slowly and painstakingly up the stairs. An airlines employee was carrying his bag while giving him a hand. The old man was shaking slightly. I waited patiently at the bottom of the stairs till they reached the entry to the plane, as I did not want to hurry them. When I entered the plane, I glanced casually at the older gentleman who was settled in business class. He looked familiar but I could not place him. Almost an hour into the flight, I realized that the old man was Rajesh Khanna and it really shook me. And this is why.  

Rajesh Khanna (Photo credits TOI and SamayLive)
My 25 years in the US also included working in Hollywood and meeting stars. I don’t claim to be close friends with any of them but I worked with them in close quarters and learned to treat them as equals. I got to see them as human beings with their own mood swings and faults. So, I was not in awe of them. But the Indian cinema of my childhood was different. I remember my older sister and her friends debating Rajesh Khanna vs. Dharmendra. I remember the splash that Rajesh Khanna made with movies like Aradhana, Anand, etc., I remember his innocent yet mischievous eyes, the tilt of his head, and the unique way he spoke. “Babumoshai” became a household phrase and I can still hum the lyrics to many of the songs from his movies. Being in Hyderabad, I never saw the glitz and glamour of Bombay and never witnessed the crowds of girls who would threw themselves at any film personalities. To me, people like Rajesh Khanna were only characters on a screen. So, when I saw him in that flight, I witnessed the aging of a star and our own fickle nature – how we adulate someone and not even care about them once they pass their prime. It pained me to see him sit a lonely man in that business class with people passing by without even noticing him. That moment to me was not about Rajesh Khanna per se but about the fleeting flow of fame and the loneliness that comes from it. 

Personally, it also made a difference to my re-entry into India. I realized that even though I acknowledge all the changes in my life in America, my life in India was frozen, as it was when I left it in 1983. The music, the actors, the teachers, the schools  - everything seem to be better in 1983 ... NOT because it was truly better but because that was all I knew. I stood still and the scenario around me passed by and I was complaining that it was not keeping pace with me. The truth was that I have not kept pace and did not notice the passing of time. That encounter with Rajesh Khanna dismantled the romantic memory of the India of yester years. Looking at his frail figure fast-forwarded my experience of India and placed it in the present time frame. 

As I read about his death, I thought of that day a decade ago when he played a silent role in my education of India. I also remembered something else. His hands were shaking and head had a slight tremor as he walked up the staircase slowly but his khadi kurta and pajama were starched to perfection and there was not a fold out of place. And the way he placed himself on the seat and sat upright showed a man who was ready to face the crowd and not someone who was hiding from the crowd because he knew that he was no longer famous. He carried himself with confidence and like a star and in some ways, that’s all that matters. 

Photo credits : TOI and SamayLive 

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