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The Romantic Inside Us

The author tries to demystify why Indians are fascinated about being a superstar & turn into what they see on the screen

What is it about Indians that they go weak at the knees at the sight or sound of an actor on the screen, and probably in their dreams as well ? When Rajesh Khanna passed away recently the whole country went mad — there is no other word for it — and the newspapers, even the usually sober ones — who care more about what is happening in Syria than a murder next door, carried reams upon reams of Khanna stories, as if a monarch had died, and we, his praja, were left to mourn his death.

I saw Khanna only once in Anand, admittedly a picture that grows on you the more you see it. It was supposed to be his picture, for the doctor who treated him, an actor called Amitabh Bachchan, was nobody then. Khanna had all the snappy dialogues, and, of course, the way he used it, mesmerises us.

Your voice and mine mesmerises nobody, not even our wives. Which is why you and I could not become what Rajesh Khanna did, and why the Khannas of the world rule the world, long after they have departed.

This was not always so. I was sitting in a London tube train a year or so after the last war, when the train stopped and a man climbed in, and took his seat near mine. He looked like Alec Guinness, then acting in a famous play in the West End. I asked him if he was indeed Guinness, and he said yes. Nobody took any notice, though he was, like Rajesh Khanna, a famous actor at the time. Famous actors are not supposed to travel by train, but those days everybody did, including ministers, and nobody took any notice of them either.

During the same season, I happened to see Laurence Olivier on the stage, also in the West End. I forget the name of the play, but it could have been Hamlet. Lights failed when Olivier was on the stage, delivering his soliloquy, and we could hardly see the man. But his voice, the precise, clipped English voice, boomed in the theatre like an echo, and we sat glued to our seats, while Hamlet’s world crashed around him and us. When Olivier came on the stage at the end of the play to thank us, he was again just an actor, not Hamlet, and we collected our overcoats and went out.

We Indians, of course, are different. The British, and I suspect, the Europeans, are cold, calculating and as a matter of fact, business-like in everything they do. We have a deeply romantic side, which often takes hold of us, and colours our behaviour without our being conscious of it. When we are face-to-face with a man or a woman on the screen, or on the stage, we are carried away by the romantic environment and start to place ourselves in his or her shoes, and our heart takes over from our brain. We believe, or allow ourselves to believe, that we are indeed Rajesh Khanna ourselves, and we believe we are crying ourselves or making love to Tanuja, Hema Malini or Mumtaz, and when he spouts all those dialogues, written by some hack, it is we, and not Khanna or Bachchan who is delivering them.

Ultimately, we become what we see on the screen, down to the hero’s or villain’s hairstyle, or his clothes, the way he leers at the heroine and fights his rivals. And when he collapses and dies on the screen, we too breath our last in our two-bedroom kitchen flat in Goregaon in Mumbai or Greater Kailash in Delhi, leaving behind a flood of tears and the torn half of an expensive multiplex ticket.

The British are hard-headed realists, and you might say this has cost them their empire. We are romantics, and there are many amongst us — I used to be one and still am, up to a point — who still believe in our romantic past and hope to relive it again in all its glory. Forget Alec Guinness and Laurence Olivier. Give me Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan any time, and their dhishum-dhishum, the glycerine tears and the dard bhare songs. When Rajesh Khanna says “Babu Moshai”, I know he is speaking to me, only me!