Like many in those days I came of age seeing Rajesh Khanna’s films. He was for us the King of Hindi Cinema, its first superstar. In fact, the term was coined for him, because there is no such a term for Hollywood actors, where there are stars but no superstars. Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, and Marilyn Monroe were stars at best, but not superstars. Aradhana, Aap Ki Kasam, Kati Patang, Anand, were some of the iconic films of those years that defined our youthful aspirations. We were carried into an ersatz world by their sweet sentimentality. They were of a type that not even Hollywood with its mushy tearjerkers could match. What was a Roman Holiday, or, To Kill a Mockingbird compared to Anand and Aap Ki Kasam? We were high on Bollywood elixir in those times, we sang the songs, even imitated his mannerism as he crinkled his eyes and smiled, playfully lifting his hands to the skies. We spoke his dialogues imitating his unique delivery. Upcoming actors, would-be directors, anyone, would act like Rajesh Khanna. There was even a Rakesh Khanna, a one-film wonder, who flopped miserably. Nobody in Bollywood could match his ability to get his fans rooting for him in the confines of the dark theatre, he was such a phenomenon.
Many of us wanted to be nothing but Rajesh Khanna when we grew up. His dark personality and offline shenanigans be damned! So, we imitated his hairstyle, his mannerism and wore his guru shirt with some sort of pride combined with hero worship. Umakant, the neighbour, went on to neglect studies, went to theatres instead of school and ended up a duffer, and ruined his family because he was the elder son, and there was too much riding on his success. His son later became a gangster. Ravi another neighbour entered into an affair with a girl in our building which was doomed from the very beginning and spoilt his father’s aim of making him a doctor. So on and so forth.
It was nice to read about Khanna in some detail from Gautam Chintamani’s book Rajesh Khanna – The Dark Star. I finished reading the book, and thought of writing this, not as a review of the said tome, but as a review of the era.
We were so much in awe of him that we spoke of nothing else but his movies in those internet-less and mobile-less years. We would wait with bated breaths for his songs to play on Binaca Geet Mala, on Ceylon radio, on Wednesdays. Remember Binaca? Remember Ceylon? When we would hangout after the day’s cricket was played, we would discuss his latest film. We thought he would go on like that, for ever, and, quite vainly, believed we would never age and grow old. Time stood still for us in those days and we were repetitively assured of its stationary nature by his films in which there was love, heartbreak, and courage, from which we drew inspiration. Not only us, but even adults couldn’t talk of anything else in those days. He was for us, mentor, guardian, and teacher.
Yes, Khanna was dark, he was an enigma. I lapped up all stories that Devyani Chaubal wrote about him in Star and Style, a film magazine of those days. There was a magazine boom thence and every magazine wrote about his various exploits, with his women, with his friends. Devyani’s description of his wedding was detailed, and informed us that he fed all those who had come to ogle at him, and when the food wasn’t enough, he ordered more. He was known to enjoy his drink and his food, and made sure that all his friends also enjoyed their food and drink with him.
There are many stories and legends associated with him. Some are good, some are bad. It is said that he used to lock up his wife in their room preventing her from going anywhere, to stop her from seeing anyone. He was having affairs and he didn’t want his wife to have one. He was jealous and protective of his wife and children. We knew of his weaknesses, but we wanted him to continue, and go on giving us his fantastically idealistic films. Those films gave us fun, music, songs, romance, and our mistaken idealism. They were written and directed by left-leaning idealistic Bengali writers, and directed by intellectually-oriented Bengali directors, genius music directors and singers like RD Burman and Kishore Kumar, who were on steroids, or, so, we now suppose. They worked as a team to deliver a hit and their films never disappointed.
But the star’s shine waned in the dark world where new stars emerged in the galaxy. His rival Amitabh, his co-star in many movies took over the mantle from him. Talk was that he had invited Amitabh, out of kindness, to a party at Prakash Mehra’s house where the director gave him the offer for his first big hit Zanjeer. Khanna was offered Zanjeer, but it didn’t gel with him, maybe, his asking price was too high and, moreover, Mehra was new to the industry. Amitabh went on to do very well, challenging the superstardom of Khanna.
Khanna couldn’t make the transition Amitabh made from lead characters to just grown-up, but, still, strong characters. I read about how he was nearly beaten up for teasing a girl by a man who didn’t know who he was. His films began flopping with shocking regularity. His last years were spent in isolation gazing out of his balcony at his home Ashirwad, probably reminiscing his song in Anand, sung on a beach, “Zindagi Kaisi Yeh Paheli, Hai; Kabhi Yeh Hasaye, Kabhi Yeh Rulaye.” (Roughly: Life is so strange; one moment it makes you smile and then it makes you weep.) The industry that had idolised him, now shunned him. He was not given the recognition and awards he deserved, and had to sit in the second row of a Filmfare award function. Maybe, he made wrong choices, maybe, he was not as self-assured as he was when he did Aradhana.
And, that, dear readers, is why I wept for Rajesh Khanna when he died. The book is a good attempt at capturing the filmography of this super enigmatic actor, analysing his films in great detail, but, somehow, doesn’t shed light on the person who he really was, what turmoil he might have gone through in his declining years. That said, considering the lack of material in our hush-hush Hindi film industry, it’s a commendable work of writing.