Sunday, July 29, 2012

Collective mourning in the internet age

[Did this somewhat slapdash piece for Business Standard’s “Eye Culture” space last week. Putting it here mainly because the BS website still looks as terrible as it did in 2003 when I first trolled it]

A few years ago I used to write a column called Neterati for this paper – basically, a round-up of what denizens of the Internet were saying about a newsy topic, along with slivers of tasteful (or so I hoped) commentary. The column has long been put to rest, but my fingers began itching something fierce last week when my Facebook timeline and every website I clicked on became jammed with eulogies to Rajesh Khanna. The dominant expression of sorrow was an “RIP Kaka” followed, in a few cases, by what I assume was a mistyped smiley face (it appeared to be winking and crying simultaneously) – but what do I know?

Whenever an old-time movie-star dies – even if it now happens every other week – “an era comes to an end”. This we have long known from obituaries in print and electronic media. In the cyber-age, though, the quantum of group-hugging – and the eagerness to share in a collective experience in real time – can be staggering. Much has already been written about how social networking gives us instant outlets for self-expression in times of joy and grief, but a couple of things about the reaction to Khanna’s death were particularly notable.

One was the nature of the nostalgia involved. Among the more self-aware comments I read came from someone who said he disliked Khanna as an actor, but that was beside the point. “My friends and I used to laugh at his mannerisms. Yet, when I heard the news I almost wept. There's so much history – years of watching his movies, talking about how he hammed a scene. He became a part of growing up and in a weird way, almost like a distant family member.” Still more interesting were the displays of yearning for a past that the yearner had never experienced firsthand, along with the Golden Ageist tendency to sentimentalise “a time when things were so much simpler” – it was common to see youngsters shedding virtual tears because Khanna had meant so much to their parents or grandparents, never mind that they weren’t much familiar with his work themselves. (This is easy to relate to: much of my personal interest in Hindi movie stars of the 1960s is tied to my mother’s memories of the time, and to fascinated speculation about what the world was like when my parents were young.)

One thing I heartily approved of was the widespread linking to videos of songs from such films as Amar Prem and Kati Patang; these are lovely tunes, we should use every chance we get to spread them around. But consider some of the accompanying commentary. On my news feed, a link to “Zindagi Kaisi Hai Paheli” carried the remark “Kaka knows his death from 1971 and this movie and song says it all.” (Or: how to retrospectively turn a star into a soothsayer.) Interesting discussions can be had – in other spaces – about how a popular movie star with a distinct personality might become the “co-author” of his roles (a post along those lines here), but some of the reactions to Khanna’s passing took this to a new level, giving him credit for the things he said in his films; dialogues and lyrics became meta-commentaries on his life. It was easy to predict that TV channels would endlessly replay the famous death scene from Anand, with its rich possibilities for subtextual analysis: the future superstar (Amitabh Bachchan as Dr Bhaskar) presiding over the passing of the current one (Khanna as Anand); the playing of a tape that reminds us that the dead man will always live on (in much the same way that Khanna’s best screen moments will continue to be accessible to us).

In our more composed moments, we can scoff at all this. But it tells us something important about that beast called superstardom, at whose scaly feet rationality must bow and scrape. The sort of popularity Khanna attained in the early 1970s involves a mysterious and immeasurable connect between viewer and screen persona – a bond that has fuelled commercial cinema since the days of Chaplin, Valentino and Lillian Gish. Such stardom is made up of some permutations of obsessive personal identification, wish-fulfilment, romantic love and platonic crushes (with all the talk about screaming college girls and marriage proposals written in blood, it gets forgotten that Khanna also had a huge base of fixated male fans). And a necessary by-product of this is the inability to separate the star from the roles.

And so, even as a non-fan, I’ll belatedly add to the sentimental chorus. So what if the man himself had been out of the public glare – and basically irrelevant – for most of the last three decades? So what if it’s unlikely that he was a lovable Anand in real life? All that matters now is the chord he struck with millions of people, the joy he spread for so long – and the fact that he had the good sense to shuffle off his mortal coil in the Facebook and YouTube age.

[A post from a few months ago: Zombie Rajesh in Shaitani Anand]


  1. I'm old enough to remember the superstar period and I THOUGHT I'm a non-fan.
    But his death hit me hard, and made me realise I'm a non-fan only of his romantic roles. He was more of an actor than our current image-obsessed stars

  2. This is a good article to read

  3. Jai: I wonder if you've watched the British documentary Bombay Superstar with RK as its subject in 1973...
    Here's the link to it.

    Slightly amateurish effort. But very insightful into the nature of stardom.

    It is in 9 parts. Gets better in the second half.

  4. Sudipta Bhattacharjee7:10 PM, July 30, 2012

    Yeah, gone are the times when a male actor could say to another male actor "maroge to meri bahon mein" without anyone in the audience giggling/looking for sexual subtexts. Don't know if that's good or bad :-)

    On a separate note, do you ever wonder if any of our current actors are capable of delivering florid dialogues without getting self-conscious? The likes of Khanna and Bacchhan seemed to be able to do it even in their sleep! Bacchhan blames this inability on lack of knowledge of Hindi/Urdu in the current generation.His first tip to a newcomer is to learn the language of the movies he/she wants to be a part of, internalize its cadences etc; unusual,isn't it? even though it makes sense.

  5. How do you get away with criticising BS's website publicly? Do tell.

  6. "The dominant expression of sorrow was an “RIP Kaka” followed, in a few cases, by what I assume was a mistyped smiley face..."

    Not "we know you hated tears, but..."? That was the dominant trend amongst my FB friends :)

  7. Sudipta: interesting thoughts there. In general, of course, it's certainly true that Hindi cinema has moved away from its roots in early 20th century Urdu theatre - which included a certain tradition of episodic melodrama (am using "melodrama" as a descriptor here, not as a demeaning term). The narrative structures of current films tends to be closer to that of western cinema. And yes, Hindi is not the first language for many of the more urbane young actors (notably the star-children).