‘Anand mon amour’
The man had a flat nose, nor were his eyes wide and staring — but there was a remarkably wicked twinkle in his eyes. Which gradually became his hallmark. And for a hero of those times, Rajesh Khanna was not all that tall either. But the shadow of his charisma grew to such lengths that it fell across the entire nation, something that even now strikes me as remarkable.
It is probably true that in the middle of all those ‘tall, fair, handsome’ heroes, this very ordinary man acquired such status that his combination of ordinary looks and extraordinary charisma opened doors for several other unconventional-looking Hindi film heroes.
That Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan would be inspired by his unique example was something that possibly Rajesh Khanna himself could not have predicted.
As an actor, Rajesh Khanna may have been extremely limited and thank God, he was. The Indian screen had seen many great actors before him, but never a superstar. It was his talent for converting passion into nostalgia, rather than his limited acting skills, which set him apart. And, despite an absence of the signs that mark a Hindi film hero, he became India’s first superstar. It can be said that in the troubled years between 1969 and 1976, the way he swept the nation with his flamboyance was due to some kind of unprecedented magic. A magic which cannot be defined by the usual rules of performing arts.
One reason can perhaps be suggested. The ’70s began with the India-Pakistan War, followed by the Naxalite movement which swept the lives of young people. But for ordinary people it seemed to be a violent, unhappy time. Those participating in the Naxalbari movement were perhaps a subset of society. The greater mass of people was untouched by their anxieties and aspirations; they peeped through Bengal’s shutters and glimpsed the bullets flying and heard the detonation of bombs.
To this was added Bangladesh’s struggle to be free. Nights darkened by black-out curtains and a booming voice on the radio describing the events that were taking place. In this loveless time, Rajesh Khanna was probably the prime source of romance.
Because of his ordinariness he did not go against any of the social norms of the time. So those who were his fans were not forced to go against their social priorities or make any kind of disturbing value choices.
In my opinion, Rajesh Khanna had two important films despite a long string of hits that had his fans flocking to cinema halls. Aradhana’s pilot Arun dying in a crash seemed to symbolise all those martyrs of war-time India. And in Anand, as he succumbed to a fatal disease, Rajesh Khanna, through the very ordinariness of his character and the role he played, summed up the entire nation’s belief in ‘joy of life’ at that time. That film earned him the tribute of a nation’s grief.
Between 1969 and 1975, Rajesh Khanna acted in exactly the same way in every film. There was hardly any evolution in his acting. He presented the same façade to his audiences, a cultural constant defined by romance and desire.
Despite this, Rajesh Khanna redefined the basic tenets of participation of Indian audience.
Before him no hero had brought the women out on the street. For the first time, India witnessed the equivalent of Elvis’s lipstick-smeared Cadillac. Women of their own free will came forward and expressed the erotic desire to connect with them. He, perhaps, was the only hero who could move them to flights of mass swayamvar.
On screen, Rajesh Khanna’s romance was not with any of his leading ladies, whether Sharmila Tagore or Mumtaz. Or, even as it seemed, in that remarkable sequence from Namak Haraam (Diye jalte hain) with Amitabh Bachchan. This man’s flirtation with the camera reached across genders. Which is why, all of us at some time or the other, secretly longed to change places with those acting opposite him to be the object of his passionate romances.
It was his sheer innocence and defencelessness that moved an entire nation and society with love and erotic fervour. An innocent all-encompassing fervour that no senior or father figure could possibly stand up and condemn.
For an entire country, Rajesh Khanna’s romanticism is summed up in Roop tera mastana’s sublime erotica. He died tragically in almost all his films; only to be reincarnated in yet another blockbuster.
Somehow, we fans cannot help hoping that he will typically rise again to win our hearts in the way which we have come to expect.
‘A STAR TWINKLES’
I first discovered Rajesh Khanna when, as a young child, my mother took me to see Anand. The story of a terminally ill patient bravely facing death stirred me deeply and the twinkle-eyed, melancholic, instantly lovable actor gripped my heart and grew on it. The Rajesh Khanna phenomenon was spectacular and in a few years the star had turned me into a Hindi film buff. Amar Prem resonated with its music and melodrama and Chingari koi bhadke remains my favourite song in the Khanna/Kishore Kumar repertoire.
Those were pre-television days and our principal channels were the big screen cinema in suburban Asansol, the hit songs on Binaca Geetmala and the occasional film glossies when we could get our hands on them in neighbours’ homes. The weekly Junior Statesman offered a blow-up poster every week and all four Rajesh Khanna pin-ups decorated the walls of my teenage room. In true fan mode I wrote to his Bombay address: Ashirwaad, Carter Road, Bandra, Bombay-50 and in due course came the letters and signed photographs.
The ’70s were our golden age and fertile soil when Rajesh Khanna/Rahul Dev Burman and Kishore Kumar offered an incredible cycle of hit songs and films — the star delivered 15 silver jubilees in a row. The songs and the voice of the actor spoke to each other magically. Later in Calcutta, we often bunked college to catch the first day release of Khanna’s films. Front-benchers threw coins at the screen, women wrote love letters with blood, marry his photograph, indeed with one toss of the head and one sweep of the hand India’s heart-throb had stolen millions of hearts.
The romantic hero got trapped in his image and mannerisms, and even loyalists like us saw he was getting repetitive. An angry young man burst on the scene and the audience drift turned. By the time I left Calcutta to live in Bombay, Khanna’s meteoric rise was over. His wife had left him as had the sycophantic crowd who blinded his view of reality.
Our house was on Pali Hill, just behind Carter Road, and as I walked on to the seaface with my three-year-old son, I saw him standing alone on the terrace of Ashirwaad in a white kurta. Soon we were having tea and a conversation on that terrace while my son ran around endlessly in the background. My meeting with my childhood hero was as simple and inevitable as that! Khanna was charming, lonely, reflective, occasionally humorous and self-reflexive, and very candid in his conversation. We met several times after that both in his home and his office, in the studios and I also met Dimple and Anju Mahendroo as they worked on the home project Jai Shiv Shankar.
No one in India had seen instant fame and adulation like Rajesh Khanna had. “My audience loved me, my fans adored me, I got so much love from them,” he would say repeatedly. He had not handled it well and he knew it. Casting away the star persona, I saw a man trying to make terms with his present. The world talked about a moody, devious star. I think I knew a warm, approachable, generous man who loved having ice cream and sweets with my son (whom he called “the brat”). His sweet tooth was legendary.
He talked often of Hrishida (Hrishikesh Mukherjee). “His films brought me down to reality and put my feet on the ground.” He was distraught when Kishore Kumar died. They were like alter egos. “He was the soul and I the body, what are my films without his songs?” he said. Perhaps his best work was with the Bengali directors and he would discuss the roles and his craft with Shakti Samanta (the epic Aradhana, Amar Prem which he watched 20 times and acknowledged Uttam Kumar), Hrishikesh Mukherjee (his favourite Anand, Bawarchi, Namak Haraam), Asit Sen (another favourite, Safar) and Basu Bhattacharya (a special project: Aavishkar). He recalled with some irony, “I worked on my instincts most of the time but sometimes made errors in judging people.” And how “after coming out of the screening of Namak Haraam, I knew that I had lost ground”.
Over the next few years he moved to Delhi and the orbit of politics. Whenever we did meet, he would smile disarmingly and say “Where have you been? I’m seeing you after a hundred years.” Once I had taken some of my childhood friends and ardent fans to meet him and as we were leaving, he turned his hand and did a take on the famous Anand line saying “Ato bhalobasha bhalo!”
Last December I heard he was in hospital with cancer and over the last few months he had been battling his illness. Today the battle is over and something inside me has died. Not just me but for those children of the ’70s to whom he was the strongest bond that connected us to childhood, to innocent youth, to our love of Hindi cinema and the irrationality of it all, the meteoric rise and the inevitable fall. Playing the real-life Anand, his doctor says he was cheerful till the end. Echoing “Zindagi aur maut ooparwaley ke haath hai jahanpana”, his last words were “Time is over, pack up!”
On Tuesday evening, a bunch of yellow balloons flew onto my porch and I instantly thought of the iconic scene: Anand walking on Juhu beach singing Zindagi kaisi hai paheli hai, little knowing that the next day that scene would be spooling endlessly on every TV channel.
Tonight the star that once shone so bright in our world will twinkle somewhere in the skies. That is what Rajesh Khanna said when asked about his charisma, “I am a star and I believe a star twinkles.”
Asha Parekh on her Kati Patang co-star
I first met him when Nasir Hussainsaab requested that I do a movie with him. He was completely a newcomer and I had no clue who he was. I remember he came to my house to meet me. After that one meeting, I told Nasirsaab that I’d do the film. It was his second film, Baharon Ke Sapne. The film didn’t do very well but he was such a fine actor. I didn’t really get to know him because he was very quiet and shy. He kept to himself through the whole shoot.
By the time we got together to shoot our next film Kati Patang, Aradhana had already happened and he had become The Rajesh Khanna. By then, thanks to his stardom, he had become a lot more open. I remember we used to chat all the time. I think I really got to know him during that film.
The hysteria he generated among fans was unheard of. Girls would run after him, tear his clothes and beg him to marry them! It used to be very entertaining and I used to tease him. When we were shooting for the song Jis gali mein tera ghar from Kati Patang at the lake in Nainital, we had to call the police for security because he was getting mobbed by fans.
Kaka loved sweets, especially after his meals. If by chance there wasn’t anything available, he would throw a fit. Considering the amount of time we spent together shooting, I picked up the habit from him.
By the time we shot Aan Milo Sajna, Kaka was at the peak of success. Everything around him had changed. The confidence he showed in Kati Patang was a lot more visible by the time we did Aan Milo. It also showed in his acting.
Though he had become such a huge star in such a short period, Kaka had a lot of patience. When we had to shoot the Achha toh hum chalte hain song for the film, Mukul Dutt, the director, wanted to film the last stanza in one shot at sunset. Everyone was on the edge because it was such a technical shoot. We were so nervous that either he or I would mess up the shoot. It took us two evenings to complete it. We last worked together in Dharm Aur Kanoon in 1984. Unfortunately, both of us got busy with our lives after that and didn’t really keep in touch.