THE MOVIE THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING: Rajesh Khanna with Sharmila Tagore in Aradhana
“Come home by 10.30, we’ll go to the studio together and talk on the way.”
It was the stock mise en scene for every interview conducted with Rajesh Khanna. It was also a given that you’d spend a minimum of two hours on the ground floor of Aashirwad, his sea-facing bungalow, downing cups of tea or lassi and chatting with Prashant, his errand-cum-office boy of many years who now does the same for Salman Khan’s family.
All the while Rajesh Khanna, or Kaka as all of us called him, would take his time getting ready for his shoot. Those were the nawabi days when stars fetched up at their workplace at their whim and had fawning darbars of yes-men accompanying them everywhere. In all this, Rajesh Khanna epitomised the superstar of the early 1970s, right down to his stylish ways.
My life’s first bottle of champagne came from Rajesh Khanna. He’d thrown a dinner party at his bungalow for a few people and had a few days earlier, asked me what I’d drink. A teenage-teetotaller, I’d recklessly said, champagne. He forgot all about it, I did too, but when he came to say “bye” at the gate, he suddenly remembered the champagne. He insisted that he’d asked for a bottle to be put on ice but had forgotten to serve it. While I blushed and made noises that it was okay, he’d have none of it. He despatched a domestic to bring the chilled bottle, wrapped it in a napkin and forced me to take it home. Being superstitious, he also asked me to give him one rupee for the napkin “so that we don’t end up fighting”.
Rajesh Khanna’s unstinted lavishness was a quality that all his women enjoyed, however short their tenure with him. After Dimple, the only woman he wed and had children with, left him for younger pastures, she once admitted that it took her a while to get used to the idea that he was no longer around to pick up her astounding bills. “Whenever I’d go abroad, wherever it was in the world, I’d automatically get booked into the best suite in the best hotel there,” she said. Once she had to foot her own bill, she realised just how extravagantly he had spent to keep her in style.
Another lovely looking co-star he lived with for a while before she left him to later become a rich industrialist’s wife couldn’t get over the way he spent lavishly on his staff. Those were the days when few people went abroad and “imported jeans” were flaunted as coveted fashion wear. This actress once told me that she’d have a minor heart attack every time he’d come back from a trip with brand new “imported jeans” for his loyal staff. Hand-me-downs for the staff were okay by her, but brand new “imported jeans” for them? It was unheard of but it came naturally to Rajesh Khanna to gift his people only the best.
And, to his eternal credit, one got to know about his flamboyant large-heartedness only when his women cribbed about it, never directly from him.
You didn’t have to be one of his women or a staffer to experience the generosity of Rajesh Khanna. If you were his guest, you deserved the best. Unlike celebrity hosts like Raj Kapoor who’d sit in a corner and expect guests to go up and speak to them, Rajesh Khanna was one superstar who circulated at his parties and personally ensured that every plate was filled with piping hot food. He had the Punjabi penchant for hot rotis and, irrespective of whether it was Dimple or any other partner, the woman by his side was expected to look after guests with equal attentiveness.
Once, while having dinner at his hotel suite, I was so busy talking that I didn’t notice that every time a fresh hot roti was brought in, Rajesh Khanna would quietly take the cold one from my plate and put it on his own, making sure that the garam rotis came to me. Honestly, I don’t know of any other superstar or even minor celebrity who could play host as wonderfully as Rajesh Khanna did.
Yes, he made you wait downstairs in his bungalow while he got ready. But once he came down to join you, he gave such good, quick copy that you never regretted going to interview him. It was during one such 15-minute interview while driving to the studio that he’d talked of his live-in arrangement with a beautiful co-star, topping it with the line, “We even share the same toothbrush.” That one line had gone completely viral.
Thin-skinned celebrities today who have layers of PR agents ensuring that not a single uncomplimentary word is written about them would have benefited knowing the way Rajesh Khanna handled the media. While going through an article I’d written on him, he remarked, “Idhar bahut maara,” “idhar bacha liya” and appreciated the fact that it was a balanced piece combining bouquets and brickbats in equal measure.
Once, after Dimple had made one of her many exits from Aashirwad (she regularly dumped him and returned to him all through their tempestuous marriage), she had come back to tell him that Manoj Kumar had approached her to work in his film. Rajesh Khanna had called me to Aashirwad and described his showdown with Manoj. “I was shaving in the morning when Dimpi was following me, trying to say something. I could see that she was hesitant, unsure of how to break it to me. And then it burst out from her that Manoj Kumar had offered her a film,” said Rajesh.
It had led to a classic clash between two Punjabi men, one of whom was determined that his wife would not work as an actress as long as she lived with him. Rajesh Khanna brooded over the offer to his wife and one night, after downing many pegs of his favourite whisky, he’d gone to Manoj Kumar’s bungalow, stood outside and hollered at the filmmaker, charging him with trying to break up his marriage.
He related the whole incident to me but before we could go into print, he called up to ask me not to carry the piece. Manoj Kumar and he had met and decided to call a truce. Rajesh Khanna never spoke about that incident again.
But he did it again when Rishi Kapoor went to Aashirwad to seek his permission just before doing Saagar with Dimple. Instead of giving him a green signal, Rajesh Khanna had ticked him off good and proper for helping to break up his marriage. This time Dimple chose Saagar and a comeback to films, leaving Aashirwad for the next two decades.
Truly, once Rajesh Khanna’s superstardom waned, dramatic colour, great copy and personalised celebration went out of the film industry. RIP Kaka.