"It was the 70s when mediocrity came in Hindi films. That’s when the actor called Rajesh Khanna joined the industry. For all his success, I think Mr. Khanna was a very limited actor. In fact, he was a poor actor. Intellectually, he wasn’t the most alert person I have ever met. His taste ruled the industry.”
Veteran actor Naseeruddin Shah, whose latest performance in a short film called ‘INT. CAFÉ NIGHT’ has been appreciated by all and sundry, said the above in an interview over the weekend. Shah then went on to bemoan the lack-of-story culture, and how people could just wear random clothes and shoot in Kashmir to make movies – hinting that it was sort of a superstar phenomenon, where aura transcended quality, and Khanna was at the forefront of this revolution of ‘mediocrity’.
If one replaces Khanna’s name with a larger-than-life figure more contemporary like Salman Khan or Rajinikanth, the essence of his statement would still hold true. It may not have come out at the right time, or in the right way, given that Shah has himself participated in movies like Khanna’s through the 90s, and given that he is perhaps the biggest celebrity in the last two decades to consistently occupy the fringes between mainstream and parallel cinema. It also sounds a little condescending, about Khanna’s intellectuality and alertness. But this is the kind of statement all of us make behind closed doors, or during cynical alcohol-fueled trash-talking binges with fellow contemporaries. The only difference: we’re not celebrities, and we don’t owe it to anybody to sound politically correct. We can afford to be opinionated, irrespective of whether it makes sense or not.
It’s however true that Salman Khan is an average actor at best, and it’s perhaps true that Mr. Khanna isn’t regularly quoted while listing the 20th century ‘Hall of Fame’ acting-classics list. As someone who grew up way after his legacy ended, I will never have a full idea of his stature. But as someone who has viewed most of his cinema way after it appeared relevant, it isn’t hard to understand what Shah means. What he wants to say is fairly accurate: India’s superstar culture has been the ultimate door to mediocrity in the arts for decades now. Commercial (and oft crass) Bollywood cinema these days is a direct descendent of these legacies – where anything goes, as long as it guarantees cash in the bank and screams of never-say-live fans.
Some will say Shah is bitter, and some will swear by Khanna’s overlooked acting skills – much like his daughter, Twinkle Khanna (known more popularly as Mrs. Funnybones, a much-read celeb columnist), who tweeted angrily about how her father’s “love for cinema” made him do classics like Anand, Amar Prem etc. Her tweet doesn’t make much sense per se. Her incoherent rage, though, is understandable. She is Khanna’s daughter, who had perhaps a front-row seat to Khanna’s eventual deterioration and fade from glamour and family households.
This proximity may have compelled her to overlook what Shah actually meant – something that she no doubt understands. Her last years with her father must have been a far cry from her first, and somewhere, she must resent the short-sightedness and fickleness of the industry she once left after being a leading heroine. Ironically, she married one of India’s biggest contemporary superstars, Akshay Kumar: certainly the biggest non-Khan in the country. She seems to be reliving those heady days of watching a loved one scale insane heights. But legacies seem to be a family-heirloom sort of thing in Bollywood’s clique-heavy circles. While people like Karan Johar (who defended Twinkle and her father in his tweet) and Twinkle Khanna establish themselves as straight-talking ‘sensible’ writers – a refreshing change from all the diplomacy and fakeness they must have to employ in their days – their reactions may prove that perhaps it’s their columnist personas that serves as the real mask.
It’s a fact that many columnists whose only and real profession is writing also hold people like Johar and Khanna responsible for changing the landscape of publication-hiring trends: everyone wants a famous name, which is why ‘real’ writers will suffer in the long run. These writers will perhaps be as mournful as Shah is, and will die silent deaths every time their articles get a 1000 retweets and 56498 shares for doing little more than speaking candidly about a world they were born in. Credit where it’s due: not many other industry sons/daughters are coherent or skilled enough to do the same.
That they are self-aware and vaguely funny only adds to this new genre of ‘writing’; but tell that to those who’ve passed out of the world’s top journalism schools, worked their way up from being publication interns and copy clerks only to find that their potential space has been usurped by celebrities who’ve decided to grow a conscience overnight.
Twinkle Khanna sounds like any proud daughter, and Johar sounds like any proud daughter’s powerful celebrity friend – which is no different from the closed-door culture they gently tease in their columns. Shah is just a man with a fairly informed opinion, and while he deserves to be derided for the “tone” of his statement, his voice holds more truth in it than entire careers do. He speaks more as a lover of his craft than a slighted contemporary who doesn’t seem to believe he has gotten his worth. But, then again, if everybody was a great actor like Shah, and if quality cinema was the only thing that existed, how would we learn to appreciate it?
Out of the many contradictions and insights into celebrity thinking that this episode puts forth, there’s none more than this: In the end, for all the sense these folks write and speak about, the buck stops at home. There was perhaps a playful shrug when Shah was once asked about Vivaan, his younger son, being one of the stars of ‘Happy New Year’. He didn’t need to apologize after Twinkle’s twitter rant either, but he did – which goes to point that Shah has perhaps reached a stage of his career where he is maybe comfortable with the kind of space he is in.