By Piyush Roy
An old Bollywood box-office lore on Kamal Amrohi’s iconic courtesan classic, Pakeezah goes thus… At the time of its release (February 1972), after 15 years in the making, coupled with the downhill looks and career spiral of its alcohol addicted heroine Meena Kumari, the film had opened to modest footfalls and lukewarm critical acclaim. The golden era of the tragedy queen and epic tragedies had given way to breezy romances of the swinging 1960s and slice-of-life contemporary tales of the early 1970s led by a bevy of vivacious young actresses like Mumtaz, Sharmila Tagore, Zeenat Aman, Jaya Bhaduri and Hema Malini. The classic courtesan romance with its languorous pacing, grandiose dialogues in chaste Urdu and authentic old world settings seemed a misfit for the time of its release.
And then, just weeks after the release of Pakeezah, Meena Kumari succumbed to cirrhosis of liver, four months before her fortieth birthday on March 31, 1972. The relatives of one of India’s greatest stars did not even claim her body as they feared being attached by creditors to pay the debt-ridden actress’ unpaid bills. The doctor who treated her, paid for her last rites. Meanwhile, her last released film, Pakeezah, went on to become one of the biggest blockbusters of the year running for 30 plus weeks, as audiences crowded the theatres to pay tribute at the celluloid tomb of one of India’s most adored stars.
Sushant Singh Rajput’s last film to release, Dil Bechara, similarly opened to a record 10/10 audience rating on the IMDB on July 24, to become the highest ever rated Indian film on one of world cinema’s most popular and authoritative sites on movie content and review. The critics and their reviews, once again, became irrelevant.
Amidst rising speculative debates on the nature of Sushant’s sudden demise; his career’s victimhood at the hands of Bollywood’s nepotistic film making clans and cliques and the untimely closure of a promising young life – the audience raised a clarion reminder – they will not let his going be forgotten as yet another RIP miss.
Sushant’s death at a busy, bright and youthful 33, had come as much a national shocker as that of Madhubala’s going at 36, though the latter had a history of physical suffering before. Sushant’s illness, we are told was mental and psychological.
Yet, as the endearing, Immanuel Rajkumar Junior aka Manny in Dil Bechara, he reaffirmed everything that we wished him to be and hoped he would continue to be. On a mazaar of tributes spreading and spanning across the Global Net, Dil Bechara is like that lasting bouquet of multi-hued memoirs, from someone most intimate.
The film’s merits, misses, music and mirth – everything becomes secondary to the melancholy of the knowledge that precedes our any viewing of the film. Every time we see its ‘smiling-in-the-face-of-cancer’, protagonist, his extra zest in living only adds to the extreme poignance in our memories of its playing actor, gone-too-soon! When Manny sits through the readings of his own epitaph, in one of the film’s unusual scenes bordering on macabre narcissism, where his onscreen friends read out their obituaries for him, our doubters around a mind prone to self-harm as perhaps another experimental dare both blur and break. It’s almost as if his soul, detached and non-interfering, was looking at the tirade of TV debates, the reams of valuable press and lines of online articulations his exit has unleashed – a sudden burst of glory that had eluded him in the last few months of his life and career.
As a tragic romance, Dil Bechara, is not the Ek Duje Ke Liye or Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak of our times. It is more in the space of moist, lingeringtales of loss like Rajesh Khanna’s Anand, Waheeda Rehman’s Khamoshi, or more recently The Sky is Pink, where the presence of a much cared-for protagonist fades away gradually, frame by frame… Not as a flash in the end!
Dil Becharahas some moving moments of living with lingering death, articulated by Saswata Chatterjee and Swastika Mukherjee, two inspiring actors from modern Bengali cinema in valuable support roles as the parents of its narrator, Kizie. Sanjana Sanghi as Manny’s cancer battling girlfriend, Kizie, does leave an impact, though the same cannot be said about Saif Ali Khan’s disturbing cameo.
But in the end, the film is Sushant Singh Rajput’s swan song, his Pakeezah, all through. He is naughty in a charming way, loving and dependable, contemporary boy-next-door with an infectious smile and an uncommon dream almost unfolds like an alter ego of the actor. The carefully observant can in Dil Bechara, see bits and parts of his memorable onscreen acts from the iconoclastic Raghu in Shuddh Desi Romance (2013) to the dreamy Ishaan in Kai Po Che (2013) or the infectiously lovable Sarfaraz from PK (2014) to the unconditionally loving Mansoor in Kedarnath (2018). Glimpses of the talented small town boy with eyes on big town success, assiduously striving towards his goal, diligently to double effort – not gate crashing into fame as the entitled or to the manor born! The film’s atmospheric Jamshedpur setting couldn’t have been more metaphorical, yet ironical, for the Patna bred actor.
Among the many outsider comings with small and big successes in Bollywood since the breaking of another television star to global stardom, none has had the magic to recreate the Shah Rukh Khan potential in the latter’s signature genre of making – romance – like Sushant Singh Rajput. Sushant’s appeal lay not in his hailing from the ordinary but because of his continuing connect with his roots, in choice of roles, and in life.
Among Sushant’s peers who have made a mark in the romantic genre in recent times – Ranbir Kapoor brings to his performances a seething honest intensity that though alluring also makes him distant, while the boisterousness of Ranveer Singh can be too loud and upsetting to middle-class manners. Shahid Kapoor, post Udta Punjab and Kabir Singh has become a desire that could also be dangerous, while Ayushmann Khurrana’s forever experimentations with the grey, the peripheral or the uncommon lend to his parts, gaps that may not always comfortably bridge generational moralities.
Sushant Singh Rajput, in the choice of his parts and the nature of his acts, was that well-meaning good boy we see in towns and mini-metros, full of wannabe engineers, doctors or management professionals, albeit with ample potential for radically different careers. For the non-technically minded young talents out there, Sushant’s success, was a possible road map they could introduce their parents to, for consideration with a relatable connect to care.
The community anger spilling forth over the alleged denial of opportunities to Sushant is a manifestation of an assault on that aspiration. Dreams are not, and should never be ransom to privilege, class, economics, region, religion or access in a fair world. Sushant’s brief go at his mouthful of sky was the only assurance and insurance for many embarking on that long road from a small town to a big dream,they could offer to their doubters, and most importantly their own self in these increasingly friendzone ka maara times, for those daring to dream ‘dil bechara’!
The writer is a national film award winning critic and former editor of Stardust.