Bharat Bhushan and Meena Kumari are just two of the many celebrities who died in debt. Many others from the glamorous world of Bollywood lived and died unsung and forgotten. Some of the big stars of the silent era like D Billimoria and Sulochana Senior survived as junior artists, top singers Rajkumari, Mubarak Begum, composers like Husanlal Bhagat Ram and Ravi, film makers like AR Kardar, BR Ishara and hundreds of other well-known names from Hindi cinema's glorious past have remained in the shadow of ignominy and indifference.
Living and dying in the penumbra of glamour. Sometimes mere blips in the minds of avid cinegoers and sometimes in nostalgic retelling of old stories by their erstwhile colleagues.
Show business is a cruel business. It picks up nobodies and catapults them to the stratosphere. Amidst stars, money, fame, adulation. Then for no reason it just takes it all away. Spits out the very icons it creates. Noted poet puts it aptly in a song in Guru Dutt 's classic Kaagaz Ke Phool, "Ek haath se deti hai duniya sau hathon se le let hai (What the world gives with one hand, it takes away with a hundred)."
People who have struggled to get their share of limelight or those who have savoured success for extended periods face the same dilemma of emptiness when their play is over. No more party invites, no more mahurats and premieres. No more call sheets. No more work.
In the last five decades, I have seen the marquee drop names with an alacrity that is ruthless. I have seen the tinsel lose its luster. Limelight turning a hazy yellow like ageing cellophane. Stars turned applause junkies writhing in the pain of withdrawal symptoms.
Meena Kumar died in penury.
Some fortunate ones change their trajectory and move to the small screen. Some who invested wisely wallow amidst nostalgia in relative comfort.
Irrelevance is the most hurtful truth, which afflicts 80 per cent of the film people in the twilight of their lives. Time just makes reining czars disappear in the dark void of failure and oblivion.
Heartthrobs and creative artists face heartbreak and manic depression.
These scene-stealers lie forgotten, sometimes dusted and brought out at obscure award functions and handed trophies as a token gesture. More often lying in the deep abyss of digital archives with their work sprouting sporadically on the vast TV channelscape or Google searches of an eager scholar.
Things have certainly changed for the better in this millennium. Today's media- and investment-savvy stars and other professionals are clever enough to save for their sunset years. Even the underpaid workers have much more security today with insurance and other benefits.
There is also a lot more work given the fact that we are making upwards of 100 feature films every year and not to forget about 1,00,000 hours of fiction programming. YouTube, Netflix, Amazon, Hotstar, Alt and other online platforms too are creating newer opportunities for forgotten artists.
Stage shows in small towns are another income generator for past-the-prime singers, musicians, dancers and others.
This change is welcome as it doesn't take away the loneliness of fallen stars and out-of-work professionals.
I have seen in the early '70s many a top star who had not only lost their fame but also money. Reckless investments gone awry and greedy family and hangers on left many stalwarts struggling for a meal. Living in a desolate derelict chawl. In one forgotten corner of Mumbai is an old structure built like a small gladiators' stadium where jobless extras (junior artists as they are referred to in political correct language) gather in the evenings waiting to be picked by agents for a day's work in "crowd scenes" of movies.
It is one of the most demeaning sights in Bollywood and in past visits I have found even one-time stars begging for work.
In the past, there were some do-gooders who helped their less fortunate colleagues and seniors. Guru Dutt, Dev Anand, BR Chopra, Manoj Kumar, Dharmendra, Sunil Dutt-Nargis, Gulshan Rai, Yash Chopra, Yash Johar and a few more who went out of their way to help people in distress.
Later on, Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan, Shahrukh Khan, Salman Khan, Javed Akhtar, Mahesh Bhatt and Manmohan Shetty and a few of the younger film makers like Rohit Shetty, Farhan Akhtar, Karan Johar and others have lent a helping hand.
In the South, there are much more organised efforts to help the forgotten lot.
Junior artists are entirely forgotten.
Things have slightly changed today. Various trade organisations both of producers and workers do contribute a small bit to help those brethren who have fallen on bad times. There is insurance and even a government-sponsored Cine Workers Welfare Fund.
The younger stars and filmmakers often chip in with help quietly. Yet the tenacity of change, the insatiable hunger of the audience for the new leaves thousands jobless in showbiz each year. Many of them do manage to live comfortable lives in middle-class homes, often surrounded by memorabilia from their pasts. A few continue their tenuous association with tinsel town through their progeny.
Yet, life after fade out is a grim, lonely walk down the Sunset Boulevard. I try and keep in touch with as many old timers as possible. Every meeting with these once acclaimed and applauded leaves me scalded with guilt. We are not fair to has-beens. These nowhere people long for company, someone to talk to and share half forgotten tales of successes, real and imaginary.
Dreams die first, memories much later. Regrets and life linger on. These phantoms of the opera of Bollywood await their curtain call. With trepidation.
Will they get an obit? Will there be a retrospective? Or at least a song on the FM? No one wants anonymity in death.