Thursday, July 19, 2012

Rajesh Khanna - Superstar of the 1960s

Rajesh Khanna - 1960 & 1970s Superstar

Rajesh Khanna was the Indian superstar who had more girls swooning through much of the 1960s and early 1970s, than perhaps even Gregory Peck could manage in all his life.
From Cairo to Tashkent to Karachi to Hong Kong – `Kaka’ as he was called in Bollywood, had women in raptures over his boyish ,pimpled looks and men copying his hairstyle, his way of tilting his head to one side, his slow, intense speechmaking and his cheeky one-liners  like `Main marne se pehle marna nahi chahta hoon’ (I don’t want to die, before I actually die).
I was surprised to see Pakistan’s best selling Dawn running a contest for readers to remember their favourite Rajesh Khanna movies, songs and moments as a tribute to the man who wowed audiences  from the neighbouring nation which fought three wars with India. In some senses, it was a larger tribute for the Indian superstar, than the accolades, Indian newspapers ran for Khanna as first page leads from Chennai’s conservative Hindu to Mumbai’s Times of India.  
Khanna, born in 1942 in the Sikh Holy city of Amritsar, burst on to Bollywood screens in the 1960s – the decade when the whole of Asia was in turmoil. Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were war zones. India, Egypt, Pakistan faced student movements, protests, high prices and unemployment. Violent Communist movements were threatening large parts of the sub-continent. Flower children from the West were making their way with backpacks and their anti-war messages through Asia.  
Movie goers wanted to forget their everyday life – the hardships, the bitterness and for some, the `troubles’ which often meant family members missing or dead in one of the many movements that sprung up through that era. Khanna with co-stars like the pretty Mumtaz or the dazzling Sharmila Tagore, were the drug which allowed them a three-hour escape from harsh reality.  
Movie after movie, with Khanna in the lead, became a box office hit – Aradhana (Worship), Kati Patang (Kite without a string), Haathi Mera Saathi (My Elephant Comrade) , Safar (Journey), Amar Prem (Eternal Love), Bawarchi (The Chef), Dushman (The Enemy), Anand (Happiness) – to name but a few.  People thronged cinema halls to watch this short, slim young man deliver his dialogues, smile his droopy smile and woo his ladies in unashamed tear jerker, romantic cinema. In Aradhana, Khanna plays a rakishly handsome Air Force pilot who dies in a crash, in Amar Prem a man who falls in love witha prostitute, in Haathi Mera Saathi, a rich elephant trainer fallen on bad days and in Dushman, a truck driver who accidentally kills someone whose job as the sole bread winner in a farming household he has to perform against a suspended jail term  . The roles and story plots kept changing but all of them involved a boy-meets-girl romance - evoking an era of innocence, of gentle manners and one where Good triumphs over Bad.
 R.D.Burman with Kishore Kumar on a CD cover

The voice of Kishore Kumar, an untrained singer from Madhya Pradesh of Bengali parents, who is arguably Bollywood’s biggest singing sensation till date, helped sell his films with numbers like - Zindagi Ka Safar, Kora Kagaz Tha Ye Man Mera, Accha Tho Hum Chalte Hain, Chala Jaataa Hoon, Chingari Koi Bhadke - which had audiences, many of whom  hardly understood Hindi, jiving  . Much of the musical score for these movies was the handiwork of R.D.Burman, a scion of the royal family which used to rule the tiny state of Tripura, bordering Bangladesh, before it joined the Indian union.
Khanna with his co-actress Mumtaz in the film Aap ki Kasam

There were rumours of Khanna’s flings with co-stars which only went to feed the frenzy of his following among his female followers. Mumtaz or `Mumu’ as Indian cine-goer’s used to call her, was one of the first heart-throbs linked romantically with him by celebrity magazines. After Mumtaz went off to marry an Overseas Indian business tycoon (some say unhappy with Khanna never proposing to her),  he dazzled the media with an off-screen romance with Anju Mahendru, another starlet. Tina Ambani, wife of India’s second richest industrialist, was another actress who hit the headlines as his co-actor in gossip coloumns. Eventually, Khanna married Dimple Kapadia, a Bollywood actress, 14 years his junior, breaking many a heart across the Asian continent. News reports from that time have it that many co-eds slashed their wrists to protest his marriage!
In 1971, Hrishikesh Mukherjee made a movie – Anand (Happiness) – about a cancer patient waiting to die, living life to the full. Khanna played the role of the hero, the cancer patient. The Socialist  doctor, who befriended him and with whom he lived his last days with was an as yet unknown Bollywood actor, Amitabh Bachchan.  
Many said Bachchan with his short but fiery role as the stern doctor who loved his fun-loving cancer patient , overshadowed Khanna.  Two years later, Mukherjee again cast the two together in another blockbuster – Namak Haram (Traitor) where Khanna played a labour leader planted by his rich tycoon friend (Bachchan) to subvert the labour movement in his mill, but one who eventually starts sympathising with his co-workers - but by then the lover boy was losing his edge and Bachchan, dubbed the `Angry Young Man’ for his many strong roles in anti-establishment movies was gaining ground in the popularity sweepstakes.
Bachchan with Khanna in the movie Namak Haram

Audiences  had started tiring of romances. They wanted something more than opiate – perhaps they sought to protest against the system which was ruining their countries – the nexus between corrupt politicians, bureaucrats and mafia – and Bachchan gave them just that with his Hero and anti-Hero roles in new blockbusters like Zanzeer (Chain)  and Deewar (The Wall).
Khanna, the ageing romatic superstar faded out slowly fighting till the very end with movie after movie, some of which clicked, some of which he himself would have liked to forget. But his audiences across Asia still remained enthralled with his older hits and his dialogues - - ` Zindagi aur maut uparwale ke haath hai. Usse na aap badal sakte hain na main’(Life and death are in the hands of our maker, Neither you, nor I can change that).

Monday, July 9, 2012

Singh - Underachiever or just plain old Hamlet?

A lot of people are unhappy that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been described as an `Under-achiever’ by the Time magazine. Well, I think that is an understatement.

The only problem is that Time describes the hapless Prime Minister as an under-achiever because he has not done what the magazine and its backers would like him to do, such as clear  Wal-Mart’s proposal to tap into the $ 600 billion Indian retail market, give American and European banks the rights to buy up Indian banks.   

I believe the poor man is an under-achiever because he can’t make up his mind on most issues.

As long as Pranab Mukherjee was in his cabinet, he would outsource all the fire-fighting such as handling the Telengana mess* or wrestling with a global meltdown, to the older man, once his boss. While Singh took on larger, yet safer roles – talk peace with Pakistan, talk about global geo-strategy with Barack Obama.

Even there he would often backtrack after his ministers told him they could not go along with him. For instance, on Siachen*, Singh wanted a demilitarised peace park. That park went up in smoke, when his ministers and Generals warned him that Siachen was not just an Indo-Pak affair but had a China looking on. One wrong move, they warned, could see the People’s Liberation Army marching in, as the Indian Army pulled out of the strategic icy Himalayan wasteland, in his `misplaced’ enthusiasm to bring peace to the sub-continent.   

When Mukherjee, a man groomed by the Socialist era Premier Indira Gandhi moved on to try his luck as President of India, many expected Singh would come into his own. His aides suggested as much, talking about broad sweeping reforms he might bring.

Well, the problem with that has been that Singh hasn’t yet shown much stomach for hard nosed decision making.

One problem has been that “the Prime Minister and the government as a whole faces the dilemma of Caesar’s wife – everybody knows she is honest but she has to be seen as honest – that means no one wants to take tough decisions such as telecom pricing,” say top officials.

This, saw the government first appointing Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar as head of the Empowered Group of Ministers on telecom to fix the reserve price for an auction of 2G spectrum. However, the worthy recused himself post haste from the job. Though he claimed that he was excusing himself as allegations had surfaced of his links with telecom firms and he did not wish to give detractors an opportunity to drag him into another controversy, sources said that the Maratha strongman did not fancy being a “fall guy” in the spectrum pricing controversy.

Last week, the home minister has been given the job but asked not to take a final call on spectrum pricing, which will be decided by the full cabinet !

The issue here is that a decision in favour of high reserve prices, set in competition with each other by the department of telecom and Telecom regulator, could kill the `Golden Goose’ and scare off potential foreign investors in the telecom sector, leaving the business in the hands of existing players. While a decision to lower prices is sure to arouse cries of foul from Government auditors and opposition MPs.

The other problem is that the Government wants to address too many constituencies. Just like the man in Aesop's fables, who could not make up his mind whether to let the ass carry his load and be seen as insensitive or to be sensitive and carry the load himself.
 On the Vodafone tax case, the prime minister’s office seems to be signaling that  it is against retrospective taxation. Which should please corporates who are dead against this.

(The Union Budget’s finance bill this year, had a retrospective amendment which clarifies that the Income Tax laws of 1962 meant to tax any deal where the asset underlying the sale or purchase is in India, even if the deal is struck elsewhere.

This was done after Supreme Court had ruled this January, that the Government of India had no jurisdiction to tax the share sale done by a Hong Kong registered shell firm owned by Hutchison to Vodafone conducted in the tax haven of Cayman islands. The government was asked to return  Rs 11,000 crore in presumptive taxes with 4 per cent annual interest.)

However, no formal communication has been sent to North Block to withdraw the legislation or to not serve tax notices based on it, leaving many lawmakers and taxmen, who feel they have a legitimate case in seeking taxes which they feel have been deliberately not paid by using a veil of corporate shells, confused.

The advantage of course goes to the opposition in such a situation. BJP leader and former finance minister Yashwant Sinha took the opportunity to attack the Prime Minister directly, stating Singh was an overrated economist and underrated politician.

 "Manmohan Singh has always acted as a consultant to the government, being a Prime Minister for eight years and a Finance Minister for some years. Who brought this situation? It's absolutely wrong to say it is a global mess, it's a domestic mess created by the government," Sinha said.

Luckily for the ruling Congress Party, the opposition can’t really push home its advantage. Its shop is in such a desperate mess, with bitter in-fighting and trading of charges of corruption, that even Singh playing the role of Hamlet does not kindle much favour for them among Indian voters.

*Telangana mess - Section of people living in the backward Telegana region of the state of Andhra Pradesh have demanded a separate state carved out of Andhra, within the Union of India. A number of flip-flops on the issue of a separate state,by the ruling Congress Party , have alterternatively raised or dampened hopes for setting up of the state.

*Siachen - A glacier in Northern Kashmir, fortified by the Indian Army since the 1980s after Pakistan gave permission to several expeditions by British, Japanese and other mountaineers to  traverse the glacier in an apparent move to lay claim on the strategic Glacier. Siachen is surrounded on two sides by Pakistan-held Kashmir, Chinese-held Kashmir and on two more by India's Leh district of Jammu & Kashmir. Since 1984, when Pakistan launched its first attack on Indian posts in that icy glacier, dubbed the highest battleground in the world, the two neighbours have been at odds over the glacier and the Saltoro range of mountains, immediately to the west of the glaciers.