Ranjona Banerji: How TV and print covered Rajesh Khanna

20 Jul,2012

By Ranjona Banerji


The death of superstar actor Rajesh Khanna was felt very deeply by the Indian media. Although Khanna had been largely forgotten in the PR driven-celebrity obsessed circus that we now live in – except for his foray into an ad which many found offensive – his death brought out a tidal wave of nostalgia. Everyone tried to look back on their Rajesh Khanna moments and several actually found them.


On Wednesday, TV followed its normal procedures, which in the current climate is outrage at various discriminatory procedures heaped on hapless citizens by ourselves or others. But once news of Khanna’s death came in, everything else came to a standstill.


Is there scope for criticism here? There can be no doubt that Khanna was an enormous star and in his heyday, he was so high as to be untouchable. He was also a bit unfathomable, which made him all the more appealing. Many TV anchors – notably Nidhi Razdan of NDTV and Rajdeep Sardesai of CNN-IBN – found it hard to believe that Khanna did not “reinvent” himself in his later years. Their bewilderment is understandable. In a world where everyone endlessly (apparently) craves for fame, this man retreated once the world moved on. Of course, in Rajesh Khanna’s case this is not really true. He did try a few times to come back but it just didn’t work. Then, he retreated. But facts are often difficult to muster when you don’t have personal knowledge and everyone around you is 11 years old.


Arnab Goswami jumped into the Times Now studio much before the appointed time but he was clearly clueless about Rajesh Khanna’s days in the sun. Most news channels therefore pulled out the guests they could – Shobhaa De, since the rise of Stardust coincided with the rise of Khanna, Shabana Azmi who acted with him later, Mahesh Bhatt who made his name a little later and Javed Akhtar, who wrote some of his films with Salim Khan (who is almost never acknowledged by the media although he is very much around). Sharmila Tagore was interviewed – she was the star with whom he had his biggest hit Aradhana.


The biggest confusion was between Khanna the actor and the songs in his films. Few TV journalists seemed familiar with playback singing and the fact that Khanna did not sing anything and the songs in the movies had nothing to do with him. Endearing journalistic naivete or the need for a few more celebrity news anchors from Mumbai?


However, at the end of Wednesday, one might conjecture that there was no need for TV panel discussions on why Rajesh Khanna was so popular. It’s not the sort of subject that needs to be debated the day a man dies. It’s not even a subject for debate really.




The newspapers the next day obviously did a more comprehensive job, especially the Times of India since it has better archival resources and institutional memory. It is at times like this that the youth tilt in the media at the moment becomes a liability. Wikipedia cannot give you everything you need to know. Also lack of journalistic imagination is a hindrance – although it seems to be very common – and this was evident in both Hindustan Times and DNA.


Mumbai Mirror carried an informed and incisive piece by De, best qualified to do so. Mid-Day’s front page headline told us that Jatin Khanna is dead while Rajesh Khanna lives on, a play on the transience of life but the permanence of memory. Indian Express treated it like one more news story.




Since Khanna’s funeral procession saw unexpected crowds, his death practically overshadowed Rahul Gandhi’s ascension to who-knows-what in the Congress party on Friday morning.




Outlook’s latest cover is on Barack Obama, headlined “The Underachiever”, mimicking the recent Time magazine cover on Manmohan Singh. It may seem funny at first glance – I thought it was a joke, actually – but it is surely a tad childish. Why should an Indian newsmagazine take up cudgels for the prime minister? Time has a right to its opinion and is not Obama’s mouthpiece. Why should Outlook want to look like the PM’s mouthpiece?


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