Monday, November 30, 2015

Rajesh Khanna - The Untold Story of India's First Superstar by Yasser Usman

The generation we grew up in, Amitabh Bachchan was the reference point for everything, and so, to believe that there was a star bigger than him sounded nonsensical. I had heard in passing legends about Rajesh Khanna, and his rapid ascent to such dizzying heights of success that he was called the first SUPERSTAR of Indian cinema. Even those who have flippantly followed the history of Indian films must have had their imagination inundated with female fans swooning everywhere Rajesh Khanna went. All these legends, and many more came alive when I picked up Yasser Usman's book, titled Rajesh Khanna - The Untold Story of India's First Superstar

I met Yasser during the Kumaon Literary Festival, where he was a panelist along with Gautam Chintamani, in a session dedicated to Rajesh Khanna, moderated by Sathya Saran. Owing to an absolute inability to rise early, especially after having willingly succumbed to comforts of a warm quilt in mountain cold, I missed the session. Missing the book was not going to be an option, I decided then. 

Here are my thoughts on it. 

The book begins on a masala note. This is not your routine linear tale beginning in childhood and maturing along with the character. The prologue piques your interest by depicting a scene which could've easily been picked out of a Bollywood flick. As a reader, you know you are not in the arms of research and regurgitation; but inside a story which will give you much information, and a lot more spice to chew on. So, while the book delineates the spectacle that RK's film career was, it spends a lot more time investigating the habits, inclinations and scandals surrounding the superstar's life. 

The session on Rajesh Khanna at Kumaon Literary Festival.

The book is divided into neat years of RK's life, yet one wouldn't call it linear. While the career progression is easy to follow and feel sympathy and awe on, the cake is taken by the way details of his personal life are strewn along the book, as a parallel narrative. While RK is indubitably the star, Anju Mahendroo, Dimple Kapadia and Tina Munim also find sufficient space and mention. Without them, the narrative would lose its edge. Good stories carry hints which a reader learns to locate and discern as he dives deeper into it. Which is to say that the author can take the reader along. Since RK's story was full of  ups and downs, I could guess in the latter half of the book which swing his destiny would take. A little too predictable, but the drama value kept me hooked on. 

The very premise of this biography was prophetic - Superstardom to Super-Loneliness - the pages were nearly screaming this out. We literature students are used to going inter-textual wherever an opportunity arrives - and I kept thinking of Sisyphus as more of RK's life was revealed. And that is the point at which I realised that even highly personalised experiences become universal because in parts, we associate with them. I did too. If someone else's story can make you question the scripting of your own, that is a job well done. 

And then I debated - while writing a biography, does an author lose his agency? Which is to say, an author cannot merely be a chronicler - he has to be a creative thinker and writer as well. That is a slightly weaker aspect here. The commentary on RK came exclusively through people who knew him. The role of the author became apparent in a few interrogatives, as an interviewer and chronicler, and that was all. 

A man, any man, is a product of his time and circumstances, and hence the contextualization is important. The building up of characters surrounding the central character is necessary - so it is easy to gauge and understand the dynamics of relationships and situations. Anju and Dimple's character were comprehensible, but I probably wanted to understand more people he regularly interacted with. Sub-plots, wherever introduced (like in the case of Amitabh's ascent etc) were fun to read and relate.

I also wanted to see how RK's career and personal emotions were affected when his chaiji passed away, or when Twinkle got married. They would probably have added to the persona and shed some enigma off him. Details pertaining to his family are rather conspicuous by their absence. 

It was ironical, incredible, and even kind of cool to see how filmy was the real life of a person who was living and drinking films day in-day out. This is a story told well, simplistically recalled. I had virtually zero idea of who Rajesh Khanna is, beyond Bawarchi, Anand and Amar Prem, but now I will know him for so much more. The generation we grew up in, like I said in the first line, had Amitabh Bachchan as the reference point for everything filmi, and so, to believe that there was a star bigger than him sounded nonsensical - but I know better now.

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Yasser Usman is an award winning senior journalist and film critic. Want your weekend dollop of everything Bollywood? Connect with him on Twitter - @yasser_aks.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Winter Nostalgia - The Tutor and the Taught

My Universe has become nocturnal of late. The thing with being nocturnal is that nostalgia and goofy smiles start assaulting you with more force than is good for sanity. Memories demand peace to hit you - and what is more peaceful than sitting alone at night with the only sounds in the background being Jagjit Singh ji's ghazals, the whirring of the fan above, and the gentle and endearing snores emanating from the next room (or the next house).

So, yes - this nocturnal memory gazing sent me sometime back in time. And that is when it struck me that the recent past was made up with many beautiful experiences and moments which deserved mention but got snowed under the volume of work and commitments.

These recountable moments fall under many categories, but the first emotions which hit are those which relate to my teaching experiences. Many of you might know that I have been visiting a lot of colleges and schools to talk to them about poetry, and by extension, about life. Among 20 odd such visits, I have taught little, and learnt much. This post is not about recalling those learnings, but sharing some instances, which left me both, warm and stunned. Here goes -

1. Tears of Poetry

Gargi College is the only institution which has gracefully tolerated two of my talks on poetry. This time, when I went over to discuss 'unshackling of the rainbow within' using poetry as a tool of choice, I had no idea that I'd end up unshackling some crazy emotions. Mahika Chaturvedi is a beautiful girl I met there, who got emotional during the talk because the passion for writing we carry on our sleeves became overwhelming for her.

And this repeated in my talk at DTU, when another girl ended up crying, not because I said anything sentimental in the speech, but because I expressed a clear, intense love for the world of words. Last I heard, she was telling her friends about me, "She is quite awesome. She makes people cry in her lectures." Ahem. I will choose to be happy with that statement

2. Twitter Honor

This is by far my favourite tweet of the year. This is so, because, firstly, it comes from the poet I respect most. And secondly, because of the humility inherent in the tweet where a man who has been a legendary teacher for over three decades, recognises me as one. #Win

3. Lawyered

I usually don't lose my cool. But in one session, I did. This was at Symbiosis Law School, where an unfortunate conversation over a futile detail of a sentence I uttered set me simmering. The end-product of that was a lecture on poetry transforming into a lesson on learning. I knew by the end of the speech that I had managed to make some strong bonds with the students of the college, but how well they received my rant became apparent in this late night message from one of the organisers.

4. Discussing Digital Creativity

Taking a break from poetry, I took on the onus of discussing the nuances of digital writing with the students of Shiv Nadar School. We discussed concepts of content creation, curation and aggregation, in the midst of really invigorating comments and questions from the supremely bright students of the school. In a response published on here - - the students had this to say about the session -

"We love Saumya ma'am and her sessions. It is so fantastic to have something new to learn from her each time. Having a session with her on last Thursday was simply amazing. The great connect she has with the students is undefinable. We long for Saumya ma'am to come to our school and to spread bonhomie and information among the members of our Shiv Nadar School family." (-Drishti Mangar)

5. Broken Words, Full Sentiments

The last session I conducted was with school students inside Ramjas College, during a sanitation awareness drive. We did what we do - we wrote poems and discussed poetry, in as basic a manner as possible. Among the many activities, one was to write non-stop for two minutes with whatever comes to the mind, and here is what this girl (whose name I cannot remember) scribbled. I just wish she had not assumed on herself a condition to write in English.

So, those were the top five moments I spent teaching little, and learning much more.

The biggest moment, however, greeted me post my lecture at IIIT Delhi. A late evening lecture, on poetry and poetic traditions across languages, which I delivered in a sleepy stupor, earnt me an opportunity to teach an elective course in the winter semester at the same college. This, I am elated to share, will not be a one time interaction, but a longer commitment to poetry and imagination, into the organized educational sphere. It is one of those challenges I am most eager to take on, since I have the liberty to design my own course and testing methodologies.

To end this post, here is one among my favourite quotations from the world of learning and teaching.

Monday, November 2, 2015

A Heady Brew - Love Cracks You Open

Love cracks you open.

This dawned in a dilapidated nook of SDA market, where I sat with a listener and seeker, a few weeks ago. Silent nooks fascinate me. I look out for deserted and underutilised spaces, which allow themselves to be owned. Habitation and laughter are fond companions, for those who can afford them, including inanimate spaces. And who is to say that the lifeless do not dream of life and laughter? I mean, what if the same nook now dreamt of being in the company of some lively youngsters each day, who hug like its their last meeting, and who laugh like they are the rulers of the world? Dreams, alas, are creatures of discomfort and desires. I don't plan  on going back to the nook anytime soon.


But I do plan on going back to the 'cracking' phenomenon of love, rather hastily. You see, this post is one of the more oxymoronic and moronic in general, the way it is forming inside my head. Like a heady brew, if ever any was fermented in my mind. I love taking risks which are emotional in nature, but at a detached distance. Is it even possible, you ask. Well, in a strange, convoluted way, it is. I am not entirely capable of explaining this, but this whole life is going to be a series of trial and error episodes. Let this one be no different.

Safety is inconsequential and antithetical to love. I believe. Love is the greatest of risks, most potent of shocks and the ghastliest of desires. Initially, of course. As you grow in love, and as love grows inside you, you keep getting fragile - ready to act, react, respond, retract on the expectations of who you deem the centre of your Universe. The problem, my dear, is that there can only be one centre of the Universe - either you, or him/her. Yes, there are instances of two stars revolving around each other - but the gravity of one is always greater than the other.

We have no yet evolved to become such stars who have learnt to revolve around themselves. So, when love makes you fragile, and when hurts caused in love crack you open, you suddenly are lost and livid, and you have no idea what to do, except to curse the notion of love in full and plenty. And some more. As love ebbs in your system, because other, antithetical emotions are brewing stronger, you become constrained and passive, and you assume that to be a permanent state. Because you do not want to crack anymore. Because you think that any further cracks are going to be the death of you. Because you assume you are that brittle.

Only, my dear, you are not.

I am not.

I hate saying these confident sentences out loud, because somehow, the Universe always assumes that I am challenging it. It them employs rose-tinted trickeries to crack me a little more, but now, I am beyond the point of fear. Yes, when I will love too much, I will fear enough to be on the verge of breaking apart - but hey, has there been devised any other way to love intensely than to be attached to the point of mayhem? Can you truly be in love without walking long enough to forget the road which brings you home? And will you not give any and everything for even shreds of those dream sequences which bind your ordinary life to almost surreal heights of pleasure?

The point is, simply put, that love cracks you open. And while doing that, it brings you the closest to yourself. When it has to, let love enter you from all crevices, because, let me tell you, it won't last. This intensity which makes you ride to the point of brittleness, it won't last. The memory and nostalgia of it will - and that will kill you. Try and forbid that from happening, and you are good to go. You possess love, even when you don't possess the object of your love.

I reiterate.

You possess love, even when you do not posses your beloved.

Well, then, enjoy the cracking up!

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