The Indian media, like the rest of the world, revels in ridiculous controversies. The latest one involves two actors, actually one superstar and one actor.
In an interview with Yashika Mathur of The Hindustan Times actor Naseeruddin Shah was quoted as saying this about the late superstar Rajesh Khanna: “In fact, it was the 70’s 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.”
Shah is known for his candor which is often dipped in caustic resentment. Regarded as one of India’s finest actors Shah’s word on cinema carries weight and he is known for telling it like he sees it. His dismissive comments about Mr. Khanna, celebrated as India’s first superstar, touched off an extremely minor controversy as his daughter, former actor herself and now a popular columnist and writer Twinkle tweeted this to Shah: “Sir if u can't respect the living ,respect the dead--mediocrity is attacking a man who can't respond.”
The usually bilious army of social media users expressed their contempt for Shah who had the audacity to knock down a deity of Hindi cinema from his pedestal while few seemed to concur with him about Mr. Khanna’s craft.
All this was amusing to me for about ten minutes or so, especially because I knew Mr. Khanna well for close to a quarter century and had numerous occasions to talk about many not necessarily news-worthy subjects. One of those subjects was his opinion about fellow actors. In the mid 1980s when after firming up his reputation as a grandee of what was then called art cinema Shah was transiting to the kind of movies that Mr. Khanna once ruled, it was interesting to find out what Mr. Khanna thought of actors like him. “I admire Satyajeet Ray movies very much. I may never act in them but I see their great merit. I also admire actors of art cinema such as Naseer, Shabana (Azmi) and Om Puri. They are stars in their own right,” he told me once. Mr. Khanna said he found Shah particularly “intense” and would be keen to work with him.
He did pair up successfully with Azmi in over half a dozen films and thought very highly of her. However, to my recollection he never acted with Shah. He knew that the prospects of the two coming together were next to zero. Having been who he had been—namely Rajesh Khanna the superstar—he did not seem to spend much energy on such what-ifs unless he was specifically asked. One had to be inside his world to know what it meant to have the kind of worshipful frenzy that surrounded him for so long and that too in his 20s.
Contrary to his well-known self-absorption, I frequently witnessed a rather refreshingly reflective man who could detach the superstar from himself. In what I think is perhaps his most telling observation about himself, Mr. Khanna told me, “I am Jatin (his real name). I am the sole custodian of Rajesh Khanna. He works for me.” I found that to be a remarkable view of self.
I mention this particular observation of Mr. Khanna’s about himself in the context of Shah’s remark that “Intellectually, he wasn’t the most alert person I have ever met.” In Shah’s defense, it is true that most people never saw the more contemplative, intellectually refined side of the man.
It is not my case at all that Mr. Khanna was a universally respected actor. In fact, there is a considerable body of opinion that found his craft pretty much in the ballpark of what Shah says. Such things are always a matter of personal tastes and opinion. I offer no opinion either way because it is irrelevant.
Shah has since apologized to “those who were personally offended”, adding, “My intention was not to attack him but to talk about how a certain phase in history affected the course of Hindi cinema.” Twinkle has tweeted, “This has gone far enough,can everyone please stop,we have all stated our opinions now can everyone go play Pokemon!”
So it’s all good now. Earth survives yet another extremely minor spat about an extremely minor subject whose shelf life is shorter than Kardashian sisters’ clothes.
* I normally do not use formal salutation such as Mr. I do so here by the force of habit since that’s how I addressed him.