Jai Arjun Singh: Collective mourning in the Facebook Age

Last Updated: Fri, Jul 27, 2012 18:40 hrs

In the cyber age, the eagerness to share in a collective experience in real time is staggering

A few years ago I used to write a column called Neterati for this paper — basically, a round-up of what denizens of the Internet were saying about a newsy topic, along with slivers of tasteful (or so I hoped) commentary. The column has long been put to rest, but my fingers began itching something fierce last week when my Facebook timeline and every website I clicked on became jammed with eulogies to Rajesh Khanna. The dominant expression of sorrow was an “RIP Kaka” followed, in a few cases, by what I assume was a mistyped smiley face (it appeared to be winking and crying simultaneously) — but what do I know?

Whenever an old-time movie-star dies — even if it now happens every other week — “an era comes to an end”. This we have long known from obituaries in print and electronic media. In the cyber-age, though, the amount of group-hugging — and the eagerness to share in a collective experience in real time — can be staggering. Much has already been written about how social networking gives us instant outlets for self-expression in times of joy and grief, but a couple of things about the reaction to Khanna’s death were particularly notable.

One was the nature of the nostalgia involved. Among the more self-aware comments I read came from someone who said he disliked Khanna as an actor, but that was beside the point: “My friends and I used to laugh at his mannerisms. Yet, when I heard the news I almost wept. There’s so much history — years of watching his movies, talking about how he hammed a scene. He became a part of growing up and in a weird way, almost like a distant family member.”

Still more interesting were the displays of yearning for a past that the yearner had never experienced firsthand, along with the Golden Ageist tendency to sentimentalise “a time when things were so much simpler”— it was common to see youngsters shedding virtual tears because Khanna had meant so much to their parents or grandparents, never mind that they weren’t much familiar with his work themselves. (This is easy to relate to: much of my personal interest in Hindi movie stars of the 1960s is tied to fascinated speculation about what the world was like when my parents were young.)

One thing I heartily approved of was the widespread linking to videos of songs from such films as Amar Prem and Kati Patang; these are lovely tunes, we should use every chance we get to spread them around. But consider some of the accompanying commentary. On my news feed, a link to “Zindagi Kaisi Hai Paheli” carried the remark “Kaka knows his death from 1971 and this movie and song says it all.” (Or: how to retrospectively turn a star into a soothsayer.) Many interesting discussions can be had — in another space — about how a very popular movie star becomes the “co-author” of his roles, but some of the reactions to Khanna’s passing took this to new extremes, giving him sole credit for the things he said or sang (rather, lip-synched to) in his films. Dialogues, scenes and lyrics became meta-commentaries on his life. It was easy to predict that TV channels would endlessly replay the famous death scene from Anand, with its rich possibilities for subtextual analysis: the future superstar (Amitabh Bachchan as Dr Bhaskar) presiding over the passing of the current one (Khanna as Anand); the playing of a tape that reminds us that the dead man will always live on (in much the same way that Khanna’s best screen moments will continue to be accessible to us).

In our more sensible moments, we can scoff at all this. But it tells us something important about that beast called superstardom, at whose scaly feet rationality must bow and scrape. The sort of popularity Khanna attained in the early 1970s involves a mysterious and immeasurable connect between viewer and screen persona — a bond that has fuelled commercial cinema since the days of Chaplin, Valentino and Lillian Gish. Such stardom is made up of permutations of obsessive personal identification, wish-fulfilment, romantic love and platonic crushes (with all the talk about screaming college girls and marriage proposals written in blood, it gets forgotten that Khanna also had a huge base of fixated male fans). And a necessary by-product of this is the inability to separate the star from the roles.

And so, even as a non-fan, I’ll belatedly add to the sentimental chorus. So what if the man himself had been out of the public glare — and basically irrelevant — for most of the last three decades? So what if it’s unlikely that he was a lovable Anand in real life? All that matters now is the chord he struck with millions of people, the joy he spread for so long — and the fact that he had the grace to shuffle off his mortal coil in the Facebook and YouTube age.

Every week, Eye Culture features writers with an entertaining critical take on art, music, dance, film and sport

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