In 1980, Bharathi S Pradhan was a reporter with Star & Style, a film magazine famous for carrying Devyani Chaubal’s wildly popular gossip column, ‘Frankly Speaking’. Through a colleague from the Iyengar community, to which Hema Malini also belonged, Pradhan heard of a priest from Madras who claimed to have married a person called Dilawar Khan with Malini. She travelled to the city to track down the priest, armed with just his name. When he was eventually found, he was well disposed to spilling the beans. The actor, Dharmendra, who wore a lungi at the wedding, had converted to Islam to marry Malini without divorcing his first wife, with whom he had two children. Before she got married, Malini was being courted by two other actors, Jeetendra and Sanjeev Kumar. “They denied it for long, but the story had the impact of an earthquake,” says Pradhan, now an author, her days of film reporting well behind her. “Just like police work, you need a lucky break for a story like this. But those were times when stories were genuine, not planted by publicists,” she says.
Pradhan’s story was published at a time when film stars lived in extreme trepidation of journalists. The tradition goes back to Devyani Chaubal, the feisty and unsparing ‘Poison Pen’ credited for making the career of Rajesh Khanna, with whom she was supposedly in a liaison. When Chaubal stated out in the ’60s, film journalism was represented by Filmfare, known for carrying the blandest of cover stories — a photo feature with Waheeda Rehman, Sadhana and Nanda making sand castles at Juhu Beach being an example. Chaubal was the disruptor; she combined an acerbic wit with a dogged curiosity about the secret lives of movie stars.
By the time Stardust, edited by Shobhaa De, launched in 1971, the boudoir genre of film journalism had been established. The magazine’s first cover story was on Rajesh Khanna’s “secret marriage” with Anju Mahendroo, which was never confirmed. In the ’70s and the decades that followed, magazines would vie with each other for scoops and super scoops. “Film magazines of the time would go into the bedrooms of stars and expose them,” says veteran film journalist and former editor of Screen and Filmfare, Rauf Ahmed.
Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan’s various entanglements were laid out for constant consumption. Even a senior actor like Dilip Kumar found himself at the receiving end. In 1982, Dilip Kumar, then married to Saira Banu for 16 years, secretly married Asma Rehman, a woman from Hyderabad. Banu read of it in the tabloids and threatened to leave him, till he decided to divorce Rehman.
“It was a different age,” says Bhawana Somaaya, who worked with various magazines then. One of those was Super, a short-lived monthly started by author Namita Gokhale. “I remember we would hire a car once a month and visit one studio after another. We did not have to wait for a film to release to meet actors, the way it is now. We had access to everyone and that is how we found genuine stories.”
A selection of the choicest Stardust headlines gives an idea of those days. ‘Mithun-Yogita Marriage! Divorce Remarriage?’ (1979), ‘The Terrible Truths About The Thespian – How Dilip Kumar Hid Them Behind His ‘Legend’ For Thirty Years’ (1982), ‘Embittered Saira Exposes Dilip!’ (1982), ‘How Rajesh Khanna Tried to Molest A Newcomer?’ (1986). Even the names of gossip columns had a certain ring to them, a suggestion of flagrante delicto, ‘Hopper’s Hat’ in Movie Mirror, ‘Neeta’s Natter’ and ‘Rumours and Rejoinders’ in Stardust, ‘Deep Throat’ and ‘Grapevine’ in Super.
Did the stars of yesteryears love any differently? How is it that their heartbreaks and affairs and secret marriages back then were a lot more fascinating than the lives of current stars? Take the two most recent splits, Katrina Kaif and Ranbir Kapoor, and Anushka Sharma and Virat Kohli, which were serialised over a few weeks. Little nuggets were sent out by the publicists that the couple is on the brink of a break-up to prepare the ground for the final and official announcement. “What film journalism are we talking about? This is the age of PR handouts,” says Pradhan. As film magazines have given way to electronic, print and online media outlets, all flourishing on entertainment news, the publicity machinery around stars has become indispensable.
But then, dating, living in, extra-marital affairs and break-ups have also stopped being scandalous with changing times. As Nari Hira, the publisher of Stardust, pointed out in an interview in The South Asianist, a journal of South Asian Studies by the University of Edinburgh, “The standards of living were very different in those days. Parveen Babi staying with Kabir Bedi without marriage was a big thing — it was like they were living in sin!” Tabloids could go to town with it.
Now, the fact that Kaif and Kapoor were living together is not the news, but what makes headlines is that they will not marry. By the standard of the old days, even that has barely excited a murmur.