The year was 1981, the first year of my teens. Growing up in Calcutta, addicted to Lunch Time Variety (on AIR) every Sunday, I, like most other boys and girls my age, was kind of hooked to Donna Summer, Duran Duran, Billy Joel and Sting. And then one summer afternoon, while on vacation, fiddling with the knobs of our old National Panasonic transistor, I heard a full-throated song being belted out by Kishore Kumar. It was Yeh jo mohabbat hai, the RD Burman chartbuster from Kati Patang.
It wasn’t the first time I had heard the song — it would blare on loudspeakers at puja pandals and even found mention in a Feluda novel (Sonar Kella) — but there was something about the music that held me transfixed. It was very different, it was so very modern, even though it was a decade old.
I started rummaging through our collection of Vinyl LP records — the Hindi albums had long been cast aside and the pride of place was taken by discs like Dark Side of the Moon, Eric Clapton’s 461 Ocean Boulevard and The Doors. Sure enough, I stumbled on a worn-out Original Sound Track recording of Kati Patang, the record scratched from over-use, most likely at the multiple pandals that had borrowed the LP. Rajesh Khanna stared at me from the multi-coloured jacket, designed in the form of a kite.
My love affair with arguably the most melodious troika in Hindi cinema had begun: without Kishore, I daresay there would have been no Kaka and only Pancham could have churned out music like that.
Rajesh Khanna’s star had been on the decline since the late ’70s, when Amitabh Bachchan reigned. Kaka had the occasional hit in Thodisi Bewafai, or an Avtaar or a bit role in Mithunda’s Disco Dancer. But he wasn’t quite the superstar we had heard he was in the ’70s. For us, Amitabh was the king.
But the music acted as a glue. While going to school in Moulali (Calcutta Boys’) from my home near Triangular Park, I would scan the film posters to see if a Kaka film was playing in any of the theatres. Back then, even re-runs of old hits would draw a sizeable crowd (Sholay’s rerun tickets at Gem cinema would be sold in black). Sure thing, somewhere or the other, in some hall, a Rajesh Khanna film would be on.
And while the Amitabh craze raged, it was clear that Rajesh Khanna still commanded an audience. Namak Haraam, Roti, Chalta Purza, Dushman — if a Kaka film was on, I would go and catch it. I remember the audience throwing coins at the screen as Rajesh Khanna sang Vaada tera vaada from Dushman — I can’t think of any other actor whose rerun attracted that kind of response.
Amid the Bachchan wave, Kaka’s films continued to release — Dard, Fifty-Fifty, Jaanwar — most of which were box-office duds. I felt sorry for the man but it was Maqsad, a southern production in which Kaka tried to do a Jeetendra, which was the last nail.
But the songs wouldn’t leave me. With Kishore and RD, Kaka formed a combination unmatched in Hindi cinema. Even when his film bombed, the music would be outstanding — Humshakal, Bhola Bhala, Mehbooba, Bundalbaaz, Red Rose, Phir Wohi Raat had songs that remain for me among the finest composed.
Over the years, as life went ahead with its pressing demands, Rajesh Khanna didn’t find much space. Amitabh re-invented himself and lingered on — through quiz shows, commercials and playing Daddy roles. It was only through FM channels that one recalled Kaka — most retro programmes would feature songs from his films. My car CD collection was mostly RD-Kishore, almost invariably featuring a Rajesh Khanna number.
One heard stories that he had become a recluse, that he refused to give interviews, that he was almost afraid how people would react to his ageing.
It was the Havells ad, on air during IPL V, that again reminded the nation of its first great Superstar. Many of us felt revolted by the commercial — we thought Kaka deserved better.
In hindsight, he got his moment of glory — it was almost an echo of the line uttered by Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard: “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small.”
His death saddened me, it was almost as if a part of my growing-up years had gone.
Most of India felt that way, but don’t cry for him. He hated tears.
Moon Moon Sen
We were very close friends. I met him for the first time around 1987 when I did Woh Phir Aayegi with him. He was still what you call a real good-looker and the ultimate in charm. He had very crinkly laughing eyes and a beautiful smile. If he wanted to make you feel special, he would make you eat and serve you drinks but if he did not like you, he knew exactly how to let you know that.
He had a great sense of humour… always laughing and pulling people’s leg. I did three films where he was there and we had a lovely relation where I could go and tell him ‘See, I have no money, I need money, what to do?’
I didn’t know him as a superstar but as a friend. I’d call him ‘Sir’ and we’d laugh and cackle together like friends but the respect for him as an older member of the industry was always there. He was already undergoing medication when I met him and he would ask me to come and chat with him and make him laugh.
Madhavrao Scindia had once invited Habi (husband) and me over to a charity match in Gwalior. Rajesh Khanna was there, Sunil Gavaskar, Imran Khan.... That one evening we spent chatting late into the night was magical. Every one of us was happy.
He had some great friends and lovely dinner parties in his office and terrace. Very informal. He’d be dressed well and want others to be dressed well. He wouldn’t go out too much and liked people coming over to his place and entertaining his friends.
I remember he would tell me ‘When I die, you must be next to me’. I’d call up Anju (Mahendroo) and inquire ‘How’s my handsome?’ but I haven’t been able to be in touch with him too much in the last few years. I am sad that he is gone and sad that I’m in Calcutta today.
Ashim Samanta (son of Shakti Samanta)
Rajesh Khanna was much more to us than simply the leading man of my father’s films. I feel that a member of my family is gone today. I am completely frozen… I just can’t react. I feel the same way I did when my father passed away three years ago. Rajesh Khanna may have been the biggest superstar of his time, but to the Samantas, he was one of our own. He looked at my father as his own brother. There are thousands of memories of time spent with him ever since we first met in 1968 to just a few days ago when I spoke to him last.
I vividly remember the first day I met him. He had come to meet my father at home for Aradhana and I can’t forget how stylish he looked getting out of that Chevrolet car. I could see why women the world over were so crazy about him. That smile… that all-too familiar way of nodding his head to one side… the colourful kurtas he wore with the belt on top… a man with a distinct personality and style.
His association with my father was special. Look at the magic they created together… Aradhana to Amar Prem, Kati Patang to Mehbooba.
When I told him recently that I was toying with the idea of remaking Aradhana, he was extremely enthusiastic. He volunteered to help me with the screenplay and dialogues and we excitedly discussed the project.
I was planning to meet him again and take things further after he got better, but it was not meant to be. However, I am firm in my resolve to remake Aradhana as a tribute to my father and Rajesh Khanna.