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When The Legends Fall

Legends  don’t die.  But they sometimes fade away.  And that’s worse than death especially when they’ve known the kind of super-stardom that Rajesh Khanna experienced   between  1969 and 1974. Between  Aradhana and  Aap Ki Kasam.

 I should know. During my school and college days   I was  a  major Khanna fan….watched every  film of his at least thrice…loved Sharmila  Tagore and Mumtaz only because  RK seemed  to jell so well with him.I was first-hand witness to  his stardom. And trust me, in all my years as a  film person  I’ve never seen such hysteria for  anyone.

  There was  a  time in the early 1970s when virtually every theatre  in  town screened   Rajesh Khanna  films. I even remember their names: Kati Patang, AnandDo Raaste and Haathi Mere Saathi….all jubilee hits, all playing side by side …

And then it was all gone. Mr Khanna  lost it all.  Super-stardom, family, friends,  selfconfidence….Today  he lives in abject isolation. 

       There’s nothing more heart-breaking than  to  see your idol with defeat  of  clay. What do you do with the  legends when they are in oblivion?

“The  best way to avoid that almost-inevitable heartbreak of  disenchantment  is  to  not   come face-to-face with  your idols. You nurture a  certain image of them.  And  the reality is bound to be far removed from your image.  This is why I’ve chosen not to meet my absolutely  idol Lata Mangeshkarji. I’d rather connect with her singing than  to meet the person behind  the voice,” said   my friend Sanjay Bhansali until I dragged  him out of his apprehensions and took him to meet her.

    Do your idols always disappoint you?  Not necessarily!   As a  teenager   I was completely besotted with Shabana Azmi …still continue to be! When I met her for  the first time  in  1986 she was at  the peak of her career.

   I still remember how generous  and warm she was, and how tolerant  of my nervous volubility. 

    “Aap mujhe bhi kuch bolne denge?” she had chided me with  her Mona Lisa smile when   I   insisted on  jabbering incessantly.

     Would   my  idol have fallen off her pedestal   if she had  been  patronizing and arrogant?   I’ve been singularly lucky with the legends. They have invariably  turned out to be   every bit an embodiment  of  their mythical  image.

 I thought I’d never meet  Lata Mangeshkar.  I  thought she could never possibly  live up to the reputation and talent that I had grown up with.

   I remember  my first call to her  with trembling hands . Fumbling over my words,  disbelieving  that I  was actually speaking  to  the single-most talented woman  God had every created, I  spoke  to  the Nightingale…and never looked back. Over  the years I’ve discovered her  to be  simple unspoilt and  great  fun to be with….In our first meeting  she had me in  splits when she described a  vain  and self-absorbed actor as an ‘I Specialist’.

    “Never stop to  think about your success. Never get carried away and  never take yourself seriously,” that’s the formulaic  mantra  of Lataji’s  uninterrupted superstardom  for   sixty years.

         Lataji shares  this   trait  with  that  other legend  the late  Dev Anand.

 You can  laugh  about his failed attempts at filmmaking  in  recent times. You can sneer at him for continuing  to make films long after his prime.  But you can’t take away  from Dev Saab’s unique ability to connect with people.

Every time I spoke  to  the legendary Dev Anand he made me  feel ten feet tall with his generous  comments. To be   able to look beyond your own startling success and to reach out  to people as fellow-human-beings rather than a  swarm  of deifying fans…that’s what makes  a  legend stay  that way.

Look at Amitabh Bachchan.  Having known him  from fairly close quarters I can vouch for  this living legend’s utter disregard for vanity and self-promotion. He  hates flatterers and  generally keeps away from people who keep reminding  him  of how great a celebrity he  owns.

     “I don’t take appellations  like ‘superstar’ and ‘icon’ seriously at all. I’ve gone through  a  lean phase( late 1990s) when producers had stopped knocking on my door. I know  I can lose it all in  one minute. And I’m prepared  for the downslide,” says  the  amazing AB.

 I  think that’s where Rajesh Khanna  went wrong.  Constantly surrounded by sycophants  and  yes-men  Mr Khanna began believing in his own myth.  He  took his success so seriously that he  forgot  it was as temporary as  you make it out to be. He was surrounded  by people  who flattered him out of all objective assessment  of his success.

    The downslide was sudden swift and irreversible.  No  one wanted to give Rajesh Khanna  a second chance,  not even Rajesh Khanna.

  I   didn’t want to  meet this idol from  my adolescence who played such  a  large hand in  being a   friend and companion  in  my formative years when I was confused lonely and disoriented.

  That’s what  legends do. They jump out of their pedestals and fill your hearts with sunshine. 

 Only did  I get the    opportunity to  connect with  Rajesh Khanna when his publicist called and asked me if I wanted to speak to him. Since the  former icon  was sitting close to the caller I couldn’t say no.

  I  reluctantly spoke  to  my one-time idol. “Sir I’m a big fan of yours,” I blurted out   to  the mega-star who rocked Bollywood even before the terms mega-star  and Bollywood were invented.

  And then, confused and embarrassed I quickly hung up.

  Legends are what they are not because of who they are but what they do. Sooner or latter the karmic cycle catches  up with the best of  them. It takes a  Lata Mangeshkar or Amitabh Bachchan to defy  the cycle of success and failure.

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