Lights, Camera, Conversation: Some thoughts and recollections on the death of a pop-culture phenomenon, and the gradual dying of an era

When news broke of Rajesh Khanna’s death, and as countless Indians grappled with the shock with tweets and Facebook posts, I was wandering aimlessly around the stores at Hong Kong airport, having hobbled off a 16-hour flight. That’s a long time to spend scrunched up in a chair, willing sleep that won’t come and yet not fully awake. The ensuing layover isn’t much fun either. Everything is so brightly lit that the disorientation is doubled — it’s endless daytime, no night in sight. This is not a state of mind that allows intense emotion. I logged into an airport computer and saw a message on my blog: “Rajesh Khanna RIP.” I paused for a second. Then I signed out.

I expected that, once back home, I’d be flooded with grief, because every time a touchstone of an era crumbles to dust, we lose another link to our past. Our childhoods become evermore distant, ships on a sea of time that become increasingly speck-like as yet another mooring cable snaps off. We pine partly for Rajesh Khanna, partly for the era when he was a star, when we were younger, when things were simpler. Nostalgia is selective about what it enshrines. We don’t remember, for instance, what a nuisance it was to place an STD call; we only recall long, food-filled train journeys with the promise of excited cousins at the destination. These fond flashbacks, I imagined, would finally dredge up all that emotion. But I felt nothing, and I think the reason is the recent ad that Khanna made for Havells fans. The opening is tremendous, with his voice booming over the screams of hordes. “Ask me about fans,” he says, over images of him from his heydays. These images are intercut with those of Khanna in the present day, striding towards a doorway framing a powerful white light — he appears to be heading to some sort of stage. Only, he steps into a room filled with fans — actual fans. He turns to us and says no one can take his fans away from him, and it comes off like a cruel joke, as if these whirring contraptions were the only admirers he was left with. You can tell, sometimes, when someone is dying. Rajesh Khanna, from this ad, was clearly slipping into a different kind of white light. The subsequent hospitalisation wasn’t a shock. His death wasn’t surprising either.

Rajesh Khanna, on screen, was less a painter with a boundless palette than a mechanic with a serviceable toolbox. His tools included a pair of twinkling eyes, a slow-spreading smile, a rapid patter that would slow down suddenly into a drawl, and an acute-angle nod that made his neck appear as if it were a tensely coiled spring sheathed with skin. When the part came along that could be assembled with these tools, Khanna was very good, the way he was in Anand. Off-screen, Khanna’s story was more fascinating, a life filled with hubris and bad judgment. In our country, we tend to revere the superhumanly humble, as if famous people owed it to their devotees to become saint-like, even godlike. But Khanna stayed resolutely lifelike, till the end a thrillingly flawed human.

I was too young to be in thrall of Khanna’s pan-nation stardom, but as if in compensation, I seem to have undertaken a pilgrimage trailing him across a portion of the country. There was Madras, of course, where I watched his films, in theatres and on television (His astounding songs, needless to say, were always around, as inescapable as the swelter of summer). Then in Bangalore during a holiday, my mother and I kept seeing ads announcing a re-release of Bawarchi, but both times we went to the theatre, the film playing was Prem Kahani (Both times, naturally, we watched Prem Kahani).

In Kanpur, my uncle took me to watch Ashanti, a Charlie’s Angels-inspired revenge saga of which I remember but two things: an exciting (for its time) chase where a car veered into the middle of the road and plowed up the median, stake by stake, and a fuzzy scene where Shabana Azmi’s character was photographed in the altogether. Lastly, in Pilani, where I studied, I ended up being ragged by seniors, one of whom bore the name Suraj. He wanted me to guess how he, a Tamilian, came to be called something so unusual. He must have taken pity on my terrified silence, for barely moments later he told me why. His mother, he smiled, was quite the fan of Aradhana.