The Midnight Cowboy

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Feroz Khan was synonymous with fast cars, beautiful women and the good life. Manjula Narayan remembers the man and his flashy persona

Feroz Khan
Feroz Khan (1939 – 2009)

WHAT IS star quality? After all these years, you can’t define it, you can’t weigh it or measure it, you can’t even describe it. But you know it exists and you can instantly pick out the worthies who have it: Dilip Kumar will always have it; SRK, Aamir and Akshay Kumar have it; Anil Kapoor and Jackie Shroff sort of had it… sort of; Rajnikanth has it in a mad ‘Madrasi’ way; Dharmendra, who has bag loads of it in an equally mad Jat way, has never taken it too seriously; Rajesh Khanna was ruined by his excessive awareness of it; Amitabh Bachchan has so much, he should be giving some of it away… And Feroz Khan? He too had so much, it jumped off the screen even in his last appearance in Welcome where he did his grotesquely comic turn as crazy don Ranbir Dhanraj Xata (RDX!).

‘Who’s that?’ your 11- year-old had asked supremely awestruck. You realised then that the indefinable ‘X’ factor is something human beings are hardwired to recognise and also that it’s ageless. A man could be gaunt, wrinkled and bald; he could be playing a character worlds away from his early role as the handsome rake who refuses to marry his pregnant girlfriend in Oonche Log; he could be nothing like the hairy-chested dude tapping his nose suggestively as Zeenat Aman singsAap Jaisa Koi Meri Zindagi Mein Aaye in Qurbani; he could have less of that old testosterone that dictated that women had to be sex objects and men so masculine, they were, well, almost apes… but he would still have that shimmering star quality.

Feroz Khan or his persona, at least, was synonymous with fast cars, beautiful women and the good things in life. Cowboy hats look ridiculous on everybody but the Marlboro Man; cigars seem like a noxious affectation unless you are Bill Clinton and know how to put them to creative use. On Feroz Khan, however, both these props looked supremely cool. The man had style, though there were times when his films, the epitome of old Bollywood in the sense of having a large canvas, impossible locales, great stunts, and an air of unreality, made you cringe. Perhaps gender has some role to play in this. Hema Malini impressed with how she cast aside her saccharine south Indianness to look glamorous in Dharmatma; Zeenat Aman in Qurbani, one of the defining commercial films of the 1980s, came across as a sexually empowered woman, but Madhuri Dixit, who was subjected insufferably to the male gaze in Naayakan, made you plain uncomfortable. But then perhaps that’s because, like innumerable obituaries have said, Feroz Khan was “a man’s man”.

And he would have continued to be a quasi-fictional figure like most of the pre-24/7 television Hindi film stars of his generation, the subject of fond recollection at parties many decades later. The essence of his character would have remained unknowable and unknown.

But things changed during that infamous episode when his son Fardeen Khan was arrested while attempting to buy cocaine. Suddenly, the flash star with the reputation of being the original chick magnet was revealed to be like everyone else — a worried parent desperate to do the best for his son.

A test of a true man still is how well he looks after his children. You never knew Feroz Khan beyond his films, but that episode confirmed that he was truly macho. A man’s man… and a woman’s man too.

manjula@tehelka.com

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