Rajesh Khanna was an unfortunate man. He lived a lonely life the last few decades of his life and when he died, the media had either hyperbole - “the only superstar of the country” – or regular odes to his popularity – “women swooned over him”. And inevitably, an unfavourable mention or two was sneaked past the lavish lather of praise. That was fine. But, cutting across the labyrinth of print and broadcast tributes, what was unusual was a 2,000- word obit or an hour-long broadcast without so much as a single mention of his histrionic abilities. He lived in the halo of his stardom but died without being acknowledged as an actor.
When Rajesh Khanna was hitting the bull’s eye with his movies, I was a toddler. I am bred and sold on Amitabh Bachchan movies. Still, I found the coverage over the top or patently unfair. But what took the cake was the telecast of a ridiculous BBC documentary by Jack Pizzey on Headlines Today. The documentary had a single point agenda – caricature India, Hindi cinema and Rajesh Khanna. From the beginning till the end, Pizzey's projection was selective and biased to the point of being racist.
He was completely justified in broadcasting Khanna’s legendary notoriety for keeping the media waiting. He was also right in showing him up as an unprofessional actor who reported late for shoots. But what was not acceptable was his pitch. It was loudly anti-Khanna and anti-India. Pizzey’s camera edited out anything that was good about Indian cinema. It mocked our idea of music in films and showed actors looking silly miming songs on shoots. There were unflattering shots of a location shoot for a Hrishikesh Mukherjee film, bulls plunging into a stream or Khanna in awkward Pathani gear cavorting with Mumtaz in a Shakuntala age get-up, all of which would necessarily stand out at odds with the western idea of film-making and show up Indians to be drunk on their own backwardness.
A foreigner, unfamiliar with India or its films, would be most put off with the country and its idea of entertainment. In case the camera did not speak his language, Pizzey ensured he made his point loud and clear. It had Shashi Kapoor apologetically telling him how Indians didn’t see cinema as an art but as a means to escape their daily drudgery and therefore they needed it to be tacky and garish. That may be all true but that is obviously not the full story. There was no ring of balance to the show or any attempt to understand his subject either because of his pre-occupation with pre-conceived notions or because of sheer ineptitude.
A lot of tape was expended on Khanna’s tardiness in reporting to work, his stiffness before the camera and attitude. Pizzey took pains to show Khanna in a bad light as much as possible including the fact that he required 20 takes for one particular shot. There was not even a pretentious glimpse into how Khanna rode to success and fame unless you wish to count Pizzey’s detailed treatment of Khanna’s supposed brinkmanship before Daag was to be released. If scandal was his agenda, he didn’t get much of that properly either except long snatches of the late Devyani Chaubal blithely answering his bland questions which, by implication, were to be taken to be the truth.
This rather wishy-washy documentary, that looked down on everything the camera covered, seemed like Pizzey’s act of revenge for having been made to wait five times by Khanna for an interview, or he was a dyed-in-the-wool racist. After all, this is the BBC with a history of Indophobia.
The channel had refused to call the 26/11 perpetrators terrorists, but merely “gunmen”, making them sound like criminals on the rampage. On protest from M J Akbar and others, they took the moral high ground that their liberal (my interpretation, not his), editorial policies did not permit them to use a strong term like “terrorists.” Richard Porter, the head of BBC World news content, defended the use of the term “gunmen” as he believed that was non-judgmental. He didn’t quite get the implicit irony that he was already making a judgment by applying a misleading nomenclature for an event that has scandalised the world and changed the classic definition of terrorism, just the way 9/11 had.
At the same time, it did not bother the BBC that it could find it within the means of its editorial largeness of heart to define the London attacks as terrorism. But then, maybe the channel cannot help wanting to live in the heady glory of the past when India was a cherished colony.
What was more shocking than the BBC’s patrician outlook was the eagerness of an Indian television channel, Headlines Today, to broadcast this documentary on just the day Rajesh Khanna had died. Far from protesting its content, the channel publicised the docu through the day and unspooled the film with the slug, the 1973 documentary that made Rajesh Khanna “world-famous.” Really?
Had anyone at Headlines Today cared to watch the documentary once, it should not have found any place on national television. Or, do we still need a western mirror to take a look at ourselves? What BBC has done in the documentary is disgraceful. What Headlines Today has done is unforgiveable. Even if it were well-made and objective, this was one film that shouldn’t have made it to the screens on the day of Khanna’s death. But many news channels, perhaps blind to its total content, were actually broadcasting bits and parts from it for its exclusive footage of shoots and shots.
Dignity, or affording the dead theirs, is not one of television’s virtues. On NDTV, Nidhi Razdan was on a similar trip. She didn’t like the fact that Khanna had not reinvented himself the way Bachchan has and was egging on Shabana Azmi for an endorsement. Azmi, who had just given some indulgent soundbytes on Khanna, cut her to size by reminding her that this was not the time to be getting into needless comparisons or carping.
Cut to the chase, the media either overstates facts or presents the wrong ones. In the case of Khanna, a handful of pieces did pay a good tribute but I am still searching for a wholesome profile of the star.