Did Naseeruddin Shah echo the thoughts of several moviegoers when he declared that 1970s superstar Rajesh Khanna was an overrated actor? Or was he being disrespectful to a matinee idol who gave Hindi cinema some of its biggest successes and appeared in some of the most important movies in the decade?
In an interview with the Hindustan Times newspaper, the famously outspoken thespian named Khanna as being responsible for what he called the onset of mediocrity in Hindi cinema in the 1970s. “That’s when the actor called Rajesh Khanna joined the industry,” Shah said. “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 has been forced to apologise for what is an unflattering but honest assessment of another member of his profession. Rajesh Khanna’s daughter Twinkle, the former actress, interior designer, and popular columnist, has vented her anger against Shah on Twitter, and she got some support from Karan Johar, A-list producer and recent advocate of the live-and-let-live principle.
The polite yet firm reaction has forced Shah to roll back on his statement and declare he did not intend to attack Khanna. Whatever the merit of Shah’s views, the fact remains that no criticism or measured critique of popular actors is welcomed any more, especially of the ones who have died. And the Hindi film industry’s unfailing ability to equate financial clout with talent remains befuddling.
Khanna shot to fame in the late ’60s and’70s with a series of hits that remain landmarks in popular cinema. “The youth needed a new icon they could relate to. Someone who spoke their language and brought the energy and appeal of youth and yet reflected traditional value systems,” writes Yasser Usman in his biography Rajesh Khanna The Untold Story of India’s First Superstar. “An icon who could pave the way for new fashion statements, show the youth a fresh perspective on life and love and cater to their fantasies. Every era has seen the youth searching for such new fantasies and new icons. By the end of 1969, in Hindi cinema, one such fantasy was about to turn into a reality. The void for a fresh icon was ready to be filled.”
Even as Khanna was shimmying to the top, Shah was stacking up good reviews in relatively lesser-known but equally important realist films of the decade, such as Nishant and Bhumika. Our Scroll.in video provides a quick rundown of their contrasting acting styles, whether they are playing blind characters or playing the fool.