Naseeruddin  Shah has been known to be candid in his observations on different aspects of Indian cinema, but quite often it has drawn him into more controversy than he would have expected. After having excelled in films by Shyam Benegal, Saeed Mirza, Govind Nihalani and Ketan Mehta, he was said to have become, at one point, disillusioned by what came to be known as the “parallel cinema” probably because he, as protagonist, didn’t get matching rewards from films that got the attention they deserved.

His contention may have been that his contribution to the final outcome of films like Nishant, Mirch Masala, Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai, Ardh Satya, Khandahar and Bhavni Bhavai had not been adequately recognised. The national awards that went to him were for Sparsh, Paar and Iqbal that are less talked about than the others. If that led to a degree of disenchantment with the “parallel cinema”, it may not have been the only reason for being associated with mainstream productions like Hero Hiralal, Tridev, Ghulami and Mohra (where he played the villain).

He must have been delighted with the success of The Dirty Picture in which he played an ageing star who has an affair with a much younger Silk Smitha on whose life the screenplay was developed. Earlier compulsions must have brought him down to Kolkata to appear in a Bengali film, Pratidan, with no illusions about the audience for which it was meant. Was the decision to get involved in mainstream cinema after the reputation he had earned consciously made? Or are some decisions made on the basis of a yearning to reach out to a larger audience with films one can afford to forget?

Professional actors — even the best in the business — often have limited options. It is in this context that one finds it difficult to justify Naseeruddin Shah&’s outburst against Rajesh Khanna. In a recent interview, the star of the parallel cinema — as he may well have been called — went out of his way to describe the Bollywood idol of the early 1970s as a “mediocre” actor.

Obviously there are realities that Naseeruddin must have chosen to ignore. The question that arises is what option did an actor like Rajesh Khanna have after shooting to stardom with films like Aradhana. This was a Shakti Samanta blockbuster that not only made box office history but projected Rajesh Khanna with all the mannerisms that left audiences screaming for more. It resulted in an explosion of entertainers with Khanna as the darling of the masses. Could he have been expected to deviate from popular mannerisms after notching up a series of phenomenal hits?

Critics and discerning filmgoers then may have frowned on the stereotypes that he played – much like Naseeruddin Shah has done four decades later. That couldn’t have been any reason for the idol to look for alternatives as long as success kept following him.

It was even under those circumstances that he stepped out of the formula to play the dying man in Anand. Hrishikesh Mukherjee was one of the leading lights of the “middle” cinema who could persuade Rajesh Khanna to shed the familiar gestures and do the best he could with some of the gripping lines that an actor could wish for. In doing so, he proved that there was something more to him than the formula-bound hero. There was a song-less psychological thriller like Ittefaq that the BR Chopra banner could experiment with because Rajesh Khanna was the central figure. He also figured in a serious exploration of marital discord in Basu Bhattacharya&’s Avishkar that was an indication of the potential if more films with social content rather than escapist attractions had come his way.

Whether or not he was filling a vacuum left by the fading attraction of the Raj Kapoor-Dilip Kumar-Dev Anand trio, the record speaks for itself and it couldn’t have been achieved without the screen personality that he demonstrated despite all the limitations that his critics may have detected in his acting style.

An actor is as good as the films he/she is able to work for. There are rare examples of the star lending more inputs to the character than the director had expected. There are also examples of the star compensating for the mediocrity of the director or the screenplay. In Rajesh Khanna&’s case, it was

clearly the star being compelled to play the stereotypes without which the films would never been made in the first place. This is much the case with an actor like Soumitra Chatterjee, who has done 14 films with Satyajit Ray, a few more with Tapan Sinha and Mrinal Sen and a rare performance in Kony but, in a career spanning 55 years, has been compelled (or persuaded) to do hundreds of other films for purely professional reasons that he himself would like to forget. Would an enlightened contemporary or critic hold that against him?

Rajesh Khanna, who fell from his majestic pedestal when the tide turned, had no reason to have any regrets. Quite clearly, Naseeruddin&’s outburst is mistimed, misplaced — and forgettable.