On a languorous Sunday afternoon, Rajesh Khanna (Kaka, as we called him) took all of us to Otters Club for sizzlers. Located diagonally opposite Aashirwad, his iconic bungalow in Bandra in Mumbai, one could almost stretch out and touch the club. Since this was an impromptu outing, everybody trooped out without bothering to change into “outside clothes”. Kaka was an indulgent host and he loved the banter of Dimple, Simple and a few friends around him. Tina (Twinkle) was barely three years old, a happy, plump kid who had to be put on a diet by the paediatrician. Kaka was relaxed and in good humour at the family outing but obviously, his presence was noted by other members and their guests.
The next week, Kaka’s eyes twinkled with mischief. “Guess what?” he said. “The club has banned lungis.” Rajesh Khanna had walked into Otters dressed in his homely silk lungi-kurta and it hadn’t occurred to anybody that he was breaking the dress code.
‘Rishi Kapoor would take you out for lunch’
At an outdoor shoot of the Rishi Kapoor-Moushumi Chatterjee-Amjad Khan starrer Phool Khile Hain Gulshan Gulshan (1978), Amjad and Boney Kapoor (the producer who was young and slim and not yet known as Anil Kapoor’s brother or Sridevi’s husband), took a couple of us female journalists to Panhala, a hill station near Kolhapur, for a drive at night and to dinner thereafter. When a few strangers at the next table heckled us, Amjad and Boney were ready to get up and flex their muscles until they decided to let it pass and not aggravate the situation. Meanwhile, Neetu would call up from Bombay (not Mumbai then) and ask me to keep an eye on Rishi, who was dating her then.
When Shashi Kapoor would invite us to his outdoor shoots, we’d go for an after-dinner walk from the hotel to the lake in Mahabaleshwar and chat all the way. Vinod Khanna liked a walk and after-dinner company when he shot for Suryaa (1989) in a palace turned into a hotel somewhere in Rajasthan. Amitabh Bachchan and Vinod K would take us for a drive or out for dinner when they shot for Zameer (1975) in Bangalore (these were pre-Bengaluru times). Chintu (Rishi Kapoor) was a true gentleman who’d take you out for lunch, compliment you on how you look, open the door and pull out a chair for you.
This is not a name-dropping exercise but a true picture of how journalists bonded with the people they wrote about. If there was an occasional fight (as veteran columnist Devyani Chaubal once had with Dharmendra after she write about a liaison he had with Hema Malini), it was like a tiff in the family.
When a journalist from a popular monthly had house guests who wanted to meet Dharmendra and she called him up to arrange a meeting, the actor, who was still a big name to reckon with, asked her for her address. He said he was going towards South Mumbai for some work, so he’d drop in and meet them at her place in Bandra.
Rekha’s closest friend was a female journalist in whom she regularly confided. Between the two of them, they came up with headlines like, “It’s by sheer fluke that I haven’t got pregnant”. These were shocking stories in the prudish 1970s, but kept the actress in the news and sent the sales of the magazines soaring.
The coveted ‘bedroom telephone number’
We did regular studio beats where everybody was happy to have you on their sets and write about their films. The only time one was stonewalled was when you called up a film star and the domestic staff would answer, “Saab naha rahe hai.” You got around it by getting the coveted “bedroom number” of the star, which meant that he or she would personally answer the phone and wouldn’t be eternally bathing.
Life was simpler when there were less than half-a-dozen film magazines in English and the actors knew everybody personally. Non-film publications were uppity about film-related stories. It was considered déclassé for a daily newspaper or political magazine to feature an actor. Film stars reciprocated by looking at non-film publications with awe. If an occasional piece appeared in the erstwhile magazine Illustrated Weekly Of India or later on in India Today, actors celebrated like they had been picked for a special honour.
Everything changed with the media growing into a monster. With every newspaper hankering for film news, and every website and satellite channel desperate for a celebrity bite, the cosy equation between film stars and a handful of film scribes couldn’t possibly survive. How can any celebrity get to personally know 500 people with recorders and mikes?
Film magazines became extinct. Agents, managers and public relations officials became a wall between celebrities and the media. The distance works well for celebrities in several ways. While book shops are replete with tell-all biographies of pre-millennium actors, it would be impossible for a journalist to write an inside story on any celebrity today. Scribes can’t get up close and personal with or be the shoulder on which a star would lean on.
Some lovely, warm friendships have died in the bargain. Worse, with only PR-vetted news passing off as stories, journalism too has died.
Bharathi S Pradhan is a columnist, critic and author, most recently of Anything But Khamosh The Shatrughan Sinha Biography (Om Books International).