July 21, 2012

On Wednesday, July 18, the day Rajesh Khanna died, the news meant nothing to me. It was just one more thing to think about — commission a piece, organise photographs, et cetera. I thought of the Havells fans advert (I had just seen an image; I couldn’t bear to watch the whole thing).

I chatted with friends about what a bad actor Rajesh Khanna was, and when a colleague asked me to write his obituary, I said, “I never cared for him, he was before my time; he couldn’t act — he was all mannerisms. There’s nothing to him apart from his songs.”
And then it hit me, 24 hours later. Not Rajesh Khanna’s death. That I knew was coming. The minute I had heard that he had been admitted to the hospital for the second time, I knew. Second visits are scary. I know that from experience — the death of a dear friend’s father recently and my own mother’s death. She had cancer, but died of cardiac arrest, I think. The details are hazy, not important.
For 24 hours, I had stayed away from the Rajesh Khanna deluge. I had not watched a single TV clip, had not listened to his songs, had not watched the TV coverage of his funeral. Yet, now, I was in full mourning. Why? Rajesh Khanna was never my hero; I was never his fan. His acting was funny — all ada and terribly corny lines.
“I hate tears, Pushpa.” Really?
I was mourning someone else’s death. A death I’ve mourned for years. When I was a teenager, I used to have a VHS tape of Anand. I hadn’t bought it. I just didn’t return it to the video parlour bhaiyya. On most days I would steer clear of it, averting my eyes. Seeing it, touching it meant I’d have to put it on, watch the whole film, howl, and then return to life knowing that all Anands will die. They always do. It’s a lie what Dr Bhaskar Banerjee says in the end: “Anand mara nahi. Anand marte nahi.” I had mourned Anand Sehgal’s death at least 70 times.
It’s strange how films speak to you when you are young. I didn’t watch Anand, I grew up with it. When my mother didn’t understand me, when my heart broke for the first time, when someone died, when I felt unloved, when I was low for no real reason, he was there. Always. If I have to die young, I would often think, it should be to lymphosarcoma of the intestine. I knew how to play that part. He had taught me.
For two years, 2005 and 2006, my husband lived on Mumbai’s Carter Road, very close to where Rajesh Khanna’s bungalow, Ashirwad, is. I never could walk past it. I would, almost unconsciously, cross the road and walk on the other side every time I knew I was close. I must have done so a 100 times, and I think I looked at the house maybe twice. In my head the house is white, the gate is always open and there are gulmohar trees. I couldn’t just walk past it, that open gate. Because it wasn’t Rajesh Khanna’s house. It was Anand’s house and he was dying.
I don’t know whether it was deference, or some irrational fear of what I’ll do if I see Anand. I had seen him in his loneliest moments, and he’d been with me in my darkest hours. We knew each other, Anand and I. But we couldn’t say hello. We couldn’t acknowledge each other in any other space except where he’s supposed to be, and where I’m supposed to be. That’s our bond; that’s our relationship.
I remember once having coffee early Sunday morning at the Barista past his house and thinking, what happens to an actor who finds glory in suffering. Does he recreate tragedy in real life, too? Does he think of the applause when he finally signs off? The loudest, last applause? So does he script it, then — his life and the climax?
I enjoyed watching some Rajesh Khanna movies. Khamoshi. Aradhana. Kati Patang. Amar Prem. Safar. There was something about Rajesh Khanna’s romance that I didn’t understand then, but can articulate now. It wasn’t about sex, it wasn’t about possession, it wasn’t about marriage. It was about intimacy. He could make you fall in love with the unlikeliest of women, and make the women he loved learn to love themselves. But that’s not who he was for me. I was drawn to his characters who teetered on depression. Those dark, bipolar creatures were the ones I loved. Their ambivalence towards life was liberating. They winked at both, life and death, smiled, tilted their heads just a bit and said, “Chal phir, ho jaye.”
What is acting? Or good acting, for that matter? Was Rajesh Khanna a good actor or was he like an emoticon — smiling, laughing, crying, making faces. We can watch his films frame by frame and analyse him. But what about those magical moments he creates? That disarming smile, the slightly long blink of his eyes, that free-form, dil se dancing. I laugh at him and yet I have a lifetime of feelings connected with him. What is that?

I hate labels. Tragic hero. Superstar. Recluse. I don’t know any tragic hero. Never met the superstar. Never tried to reach out to the recluse. And in any case, was he a recluse or did we banish him? I was always cold to those shrieking girls. I found their gestures silly. Kissing his car! For me he was Anand — the man I would meet briefly, care for deeply and weep when he died. For me he was the man walking towards a scary nothingness with balloons in hand, singing his goodbye.
Balloons. That’s another image that’s burnt in my memory since childhood. A man on a beach in a blue kurta, holding balloons. Balloons — those colourful, flighty, childish playthings that come to life when you breathe life into them and are gone for ever if pricked.
On Wednesday, someone picked the balloon. Anand Sehgal was now, finally, no more.
I can’t tweet my grief. When there’s a cacophony of TV shows, songs, Twitter, Facebook and everyone is mourning, I can’t participate in it. I need a moment alone. And so here’s what I did. I stayed at home, in bed, and watched Kati Patang, Amar Prem and Anand. As I came to Anand, I knew this would be my final mourning. I knew that the next time I am on Carter Road I needn’t cross over to the other side because Anand, he doesn’t live there any more.