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Trisha Gupta
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Trisha Gupta is a Delhi-based writer and critic. Read more of her work on her blog Chhotahazri (trishagupta.blogspot.in)

Khanna’s heroines made him the king of heterosexual romance

A still from Aradhana

ike everyone else, I too have an aunt who was besotted with Rajesh Khanna in her adolescent years. The day before her Higher Secondary exams, the news came that he had married Dimple Kapadia. My masi remembers spending the day of her history exam weeping bitter tears with her girlfriends – had he married Anju Mahendroo who was more-or-less his age, their logic went, that would be one thing. But if he was going to marry a teenager, then oh god, why couldn't he pick one of them?

As a teenaged old-Hindi-movie buff myself, I never quite 'got' Rajesh Khanna. He always seemed to me a little like Dev Anand: entertaining enough, but so invested in the perfect rendition of his carefully cultivated style that no performance of his ever moved me. When he wasn't being maudlin or 'disturbed', there was a twinkle in the eye whose appeal I could see. But both Khanna and Anand seemed to me like some people's preening boyfriends: if pressed, I might grant their good looks, but really they just weren't my type.

When he died, the academic Susmita Dasgupta (author of Amitabh: The Making of a Superstar) wrote a wonderful Facebook 'note', in which she explained, among other things, why she had never been a Khanna fan, despite being surrounded by people who swooned over him and copied his looks: "Frankly, I remained out of all this. Khanna invoked femininity. I was not a pursuant of such sentiments. So when Bachchan came, I took to him like fish to water. I also revelled that he, and not Khanna, was the superstar."

What does it mean to say that a hero "invoked femininity"? In Gangs of Wasseypur II, Ramadhir Singh does a neat recounting of history-through-heroes, which features the same idea: "First men liked Dilip Kumar, and women liked Dev Anand. Then men liked Amitabh Bachchan, and women liked Rajesh Khanna." If one wants to take Ramadhir Singh's idea forward, I suppose we might agree that men like Salman and women like Shah Rukh.

Khanna invoked femininity. I was not a pursuant of such sentiments. So when Bachchan came, I took to him like fish to water...

erhaps there's something there. But what does such a binary make of all the women who loved Bachchan and all the men who modelled themselves on Khanna? Are they to be considered traitors to their gender: masculine women and effeminate men? Do they gesture to the possibility of many kinds of masculinity? Or is the greater identification by one gender something to do with the kinds of films in which they starred?

The more Dasgupta worked on Bachchan, the more uncomfortable she felt about not being able to analyse Khanna as a phenomenon. She eventually met the latter, and her post contains some fertile speculation about the real-life Jatin Khanna. But what is fascinating is her theory that his star persona, as first created by Aradhana and Kati Patang, was the outcome of director "Shakti Samanta's search of a lover for his young widowed mother". He was "a saviour who comes in to breathe life and loveliness into women, ignored and isolated". The tragic figure of the young widow is at the centre of both films. Samanta's father was in the air force, and died in the line of duty in 1947, like Arun Varma in Aradhana, who dies leaving a pregnant fiancé behind.

I watched Aradhana last week at a Rajesh Khanna Retrospective, and Dasgupta is certainly on to something. From scraps of childhood memory, I had imagined Aradhana to be a standard-issue romance, and I was quite surprised at how completely our experience is filtered through Sharmila Tagore's character, Vandana. The first Rajesh dies early on, having provided a few weeks of loving, the memory of which Sharmila must live off. The second appears 25 years later, as Vandana's grown-up son. The two Rajeshes get plenty of screen time, but it is always through Vandana's eyes that we see them: the perfect lover, the yearned-for husband and the adored son.

In contrast, think of the many Bachchan movies in which the mother-son relationship is absolutely crucial – even when the mother is the one who stays alive and ages through the film, the film's point of view is always that of the son. In Yash Chopra's Trishul, for instance, the narrative thrust comes, just as in Aradhana, from the figure of the unwed mother who decides to give birth to the child. But when the son is Bachchan, a mother figure as strong as Waheeda Rehman must die. She can be a symbol in whose name he can fight, but she cannot be the one whose battles we witness.

Whether you're male or female, you can only experience the tragedy of Trishul — or Deewar or Zanjeer ­— through Bachchan's eyes. In a Rajesh Khanna movie, in contrast, you always see him through the heroine's eyes. He is the ultimate hero of heterosexual romance: the man you can soothe, and even better, the man who soothes you.

 
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