Stardom Struggles

By Vinod Mirani

April 12, 2020

Mumbai: Struggle was not a very inspiring word for those who landed in Mumbai in thousands, year after year to try their luck in films. If you asked an aspirant what he was doing, the answer would be “trying in films”. Nobody said, “I am a struggler”.

Here are some struggle stories of a few stars who were contemporaries in the same era.

Struggle became a glorious word for the ones who attained stardom. One loved to thrive on talking about “those days”. While some took pride in talking about it to the point of romanticising it, others thought it amounted to indulging in self-pity and never opened up. From Amitabh Bachchan to Dharmendra and Jeetendra to Sanjeev Kumar, every actor had struggled. Passed through various phases of making the rounds of film production offices to not reaching beyond the office boy. At best, they were asked to leave their pictures so the producer sahab could see them as and when. Some ended up being exploited by petty staff (depicted aptly in director Hrishiksh Mukerjee’s film “Guddi” — check the Asrani-versus-Keshto Mukherjee scenes).

The ones who were emotional about their struggling days included Dharmendra and Sanjeev Kumar. If they could make it big, it was because of their determination and presence of mind. When a producer decided to give a break to a new actor, he made and exclusive contract with him/her for a certain number of films, to be made exclusively for his company. Dharmendra is said to have made the same exclusivity agreement with as many as three producers!

Sanjeev Kumar started with Gujarati plays and what was called B-grade costume dramas, which involved sword fights, in those days. But, his talent came out in two films, “Pati Patni Aur Woh” and “Sunghursh”. In “Sunghursh”, he had a brief role but he stood his ground against no less a star than Dilip Kumar. Yet, big time was far away, when he realised that the South-based veteran producer LV Prasad was looking to cast for his film “Khilona” where the actor needed to play a mentally-disturbed person.

Sanjeev grabbed the opportunity and arranged to show his Gujarati film, “Mare Javun Pele Paar”, in which he had played a similar role, to Prasad. The film launched him as the best performing actor of his time.

Rajesh Khanna and Jeetendra can be said to be lucky in their struggle. Not that things fell into their lap, they did the regular trying-for-work routine but were lucky because both at least had a home to go back to at the end of the day, since both hailed from Mumbai.

In the case of Khanna, he won the United Producers-Filmfare talent search contest and got signed up for a few films. But the films failed one after the other. An actor’s struggle continues till he gets his first hit. Khanna got a hint of success with his sixth film, “Bandhan”, followed by his first superhit, “Aradhana”. The success of “Aradhana” coincided with the end of his contract binding him to United Producers and he was free to do films of his choice with other makers.

After the success of “Aradhana”, Khanna’s career was on a rollercoaster trail. One hit followed another. His hits meant a silver or golden jubilee. The line-up went like this: “Aradhana” (1969), “Ittefaq”, “Do Raaste”, “The Train”, “Sachaa Jhutha”, “Aan Milo Sajana”, “Safar”, “Khamoshi”, “Kati Patang”, “Anand Andaaz”, “Haathi Mere Saathi”, “Dushman”, “Maryada”, “Amar Prem”, “Bawarchi”, “Apna Desh”, “Daag”, “Namak Haraam”, “Aap Ki Kasam”, “Prem Nagar”, “Aavishkar” and “Roti” (1974). He had about 22 hits back to back in five years with only a few hiccups. After this, the hits became intermittent.

In “Namak Haraam”, Rajesh Khanna starred with Amitabh Bachchan. Though the film was a hit, it was an indicator that Bachchan was set to take over the mantle from Khanna.

Jeetendra had a kind of indirect connection with film industry in that his family dealt in imitation jewellery, and Jeetendra would visit producers to show them the jewellery, which they used in films. On one such visit to veteran producer V. Shantaram’s studio, he got an assignment in the film “Navrang” and, later, a break as hero in same maker’s “Geet Gaya Pattharonne”, but no success yet. From “Navrang” in 1959 to, finally, “Farz” (1967), which became a blockbuster, if that was not struggle, nothing is.

Jeetendra was a huge star but stardom often loses out to changing trends. His Jumping Jack romance era came to an abrupt halt when the Rajesh Khanna-type romantic era took over. Jeetendra’s struggle began again as there was no films forthcoming. According to his own confession, the only time he put on makeup in over 18 months was when Manmohan Desai offered him a cameo in the Rajesh Khanna-starrer “Roti” (1974). Finally, he approached veteran South filmmaker, LV Prasad, for work. Prasad cast him in “Udhar Ka Sindoor” (1976). “Farz”, a South film launched Jeetendra into stardom, while another film from South, “Udhar Ka Sindoor”, gave him a new lease of life. It was makers from South who helped him retain his stardom over the years.

Jeetendra was back to his dancing hero form along with typical South Indian family social themes that were almost always remakes of hits in South languages. So much so that he had to stay in South for days on end and even invested in a posh bungalow in Hyderabad to reduce his commuting.

A line up of jubilee hits from the South followed in this phase with films like “Jyoti Bane Jwala”, “Takkar”, “Judaai”, “Ek Hi Bhool”, “Meri Aawaz Suno”, “Himmatwala”, “Justice Chaudhury”, “Mawaali”, “Sanjog”, “Maqsad”.

As the change in trend brought to the fore Rajesh Khanna, come mid-1970s romance was not so much in air as was disenchantment and simmering anger. Another struggling actor, Amitabh Bachchan, and a film he was assigned, “Zanjeer”, clicked. Bachchan had references from Delhi but that could only guarantee him a decent reception from filmmakers, not work.

Bachchan’s attempt to join All India Radio failed as his voice was found unsuitable for radio! What an irony, because his first connect with films was as a narrator in the much acclaimed “Bhuvan Shome”. Soon the baritone was also used in the film “Bawarchi” and hundreds of films and other programmes since. It was about 15 films, except for an odd “Anand” and “Namak Haraam”, that a line-up of failures continued.

Finally, a role came to him that was rejected by many top heroes with “Zanjeer”.

There was no looking back for Bachchan, till the point of diminishing returns started with his kind of films. The superhit record was soon turning into mediocre fare and films just passing muster by the late 1970s.

Films like “The Great Gambler”, “Jurmana”, “Kaala Paththar”, “Manzil”, “Immaan Dharam” did not meet with the expectations of Bachchan fans who lined up at 6am on the day of a new release. Just when his status was being relegated to being just another star, came the “Coolie” on-set accident, which broke the star-fan barrier and made Bachchan a legend.

But, his struggle was to start again. Achieving stardom is tough enough but maintaining it is even tougher. More flops than mediocre films followed, with “Gangaa Jamunaa Saraswathi”, “Toofan”, “Jaadugar”, “Main Azaad Hoon”, “Agneepath”, “Ajooba”, “Indrajeet”, “Akayla” — and the list went on. The Bachchan draw was over.

The misjudged decision to launch a company and encashing his brand equity backfired on Amitabh Bachchan. He was made to believe that he had a brand value that would be worth capitalising. A corporate entity, ABCL, was created that landed Bachchan at the doorsteps of bankruptcy.

Facing a phase of no films in the offing, Bachchan sought work from Yash Raj Films, which brought back him into reckoning. A lot of mediocre films followed but then came “Kaun Banega Crorepati” along with a horde of brand endorsing assignments — all making Amitabh Bachchan into a living legend.

There are many stories of struggles that inspired many more to land in Mumbai to try their luck in the tinsel town. But, there have been many who could not make and had no stories to tell.

There are many more struggle stories. How about the new generation of aspirants, do they have to go through the same struggle? It would be interesting to take a look.IANS