The last time I met Rajesh Khanna was at an event in Kolkata. I was late and the dignitaries were already assembled on the stage. As I hurried to join them, a khadi-clad man with longish hair stood up and extended me an elaborate greeting. With my focus on the audience, I put him down as a politician. And then I heard him say 'Hi' and saw him smile.
With a shock I realized that this was Kaka. He was very thin but his eyes twinkled and his smile hadn't lost any of that old Rajesh Khanna magic. For someone who had been a close witness to his stardom, it was heartbreaking to see him so frail. It was on the sets of Aradhana that I first met Rajesh Khanna. He had just been discovered by the United Producers Combine of which Shakti Samanta was a member. Samanta was planning a big film with Shammi Kapoor but since he didn't have his dates, he thought of making a small film with me and his new find.
Aradhana turned out to be a colossal hit, and for Rajesh Khanna there was no looking back. Those were the days of star pair craze and Sharmila Tagore-Rajesh Khanna became the newest addition. It was arguably the most popular on-screen partnership of the era, and one of the most successful partnerships in Hindi cinema ever.
Rajesh Khanna is remembered primarily as a romantic actor. He had a vulnerable, lost air about him that made women of all ages feel very protective. As a friend used to say, he made the old feel young and the young, frantic.
I remember there were these long queues of women from nine to ninety outside the studios where we worked. Some garlanded his car, some married his photograph, and others sent letters written in blood. The hysteria was unprecedented.
Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore in Aavishkar (1974) (Photos: HT Archives; Harper Collins)
In films like Safar and Anand, he went beyond his romantic image. His sensitive portrayal of a man struggling against an unrelenting destiny with enduring humour and courage, will always be counted as amongst the finest. Although there have been better actors in India and in Hindi cinema than Rajesh Khanna, somehow these roles seemed custom-made for him and one felt nobody could have done them better.
There is nothing more difficult in Hindi cinema than 'acting' in a song, and film students can learn a lot by observing him lip-sync 'Chingari koi bhadke' in Amar Prem, a full six minutes in the confined space of a boat on the River Hooghly. How beautifully understated he is and how effectively he communicates the turmoil and the contradictions of his situation.
He probably didn't have the attributes that are normally associated with a hero; what he had was a disarming smile, youthful energy, an innate sense of drama and a well-modulated voice which he used to his fullest advantage.
Dialogues such as 'I hate tears, Pushpa' (Amar Prem), 'Zindagi badi honi chahiye, lambi nahin, Babumoshai' (Anand), 'Main marne se pehle marna nahin chahta' (Safar) have been absorbed in our everyday spoken language.
Head slightly tilted, nodding on cue, and a voice guaranteed to wreak havoc in a female heart, he delivered some of the most cherished lines ever in Hindi cinema. He starred in fifteen consecutive hits, a record that still stands. The 'guru' shirt, his unbranded fashion statement, became a rage across class and gender. Undoubtedly, he was everyone's hero - and he was a phenomenon. But all this adulation came to an abrupt halt.
Also read: The 1 a.m. call from Rajesh Khanna
The tidal wave of the Rajesh Khanna craze receded as suddenly as it had begun. And like any elemental disaster, it left a scarred Kaka in its wake. One minute everyone was swooning over him, and another moment they had turned away. This too was a phenomenon. How could it happen?
Rajesh Khanna with Asrani and Nirupa Roy in Anurodh (Photos: HT Archives; Harper Collins)
Perhaps the question is best left to film scholars to answer rather than a friend. Rajesh Khanna was a man of contradictions and complexities. I have seen him being very generous with his friends and colleagues, showering them with expensive gifts. Sometimes he even bought them a house. But, in return, he expected far too much which ended up putting a strain on the relationship.
But what affected me personally was his habit of coming late to work. I went to the studios at 8 a.m. and wanted to be back with my family by 8 p.m. But this was impossible since Kaka never arrived before 12 for a 9 a.m. shift. And we could never finish on time. As a result, the entire unit would pressurise me to work overtime and complete the schedule.
This became the norm and since I had many films with Kaka, I found myself in a quandary. So, I opted to work with other actors more and more despite the fact that our pairing had been so successful. Probably even Kaka felt it was not such a good idea to have so many films with one actress- one runs the risk of becoming stale. Whatever it was, we found ourselves working together in less and less films. And I must confess it was a huge relief.
Like his friendships, Kaka didn't nurture his stardom and allowed it to slip from his grasp. He failed to notice that the audience was changing, and that the roles he had been doing were becoming less and less relevant. Kaka either couldn't or didn't reinvent himself to remain contemporary, so much so that he became almost a caricature of himself and people began to mock him.
I am glad that at last there is a book on Rajesh Khanna. If ever a Hindi cinema star deserved a book, it is surely he. It is one of life's ironies that while other contemporaries of Kaka, Amitabh Bachchan in particular, continued to go from strength to strength, Kaka was rendered inconsequential.
Over the last decade or so, songs from his films have been immensely popular on radio and TV channels which thrive on the music of that era. However, the rediscovery of these songs, while connecting R.D. Burman and Kishore Kumar to a new generation, somehow failed to do the same for Kaka. I am happy Gautam Chintamani corrects this aberration. It is refreshing that he concentrates on the cinema of Rajesh Khanna and does not delve into personal issues which seem to be the rage these days.
Rajesh Khanna presenting the Filmfare award to producer Gulshan Rai (Photos: HT Archives; Harper Collins)
In the process, the reader discovers the romance of the time and what it meant to be Rajesh Khanna. I am sure this book would have made Kaka happy and I wish he was here to enjoy it. It is infinitely sad that it took that final advertisement of Havells fans and his subsequent death to reinstate him in popular discourse.
It is apt what Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri says in his book Icons from Bollywood (Penguin Books India): unlike bigger icons and stars, 'Rajesh Khanna's claim to greatness basically lies in his achievements over a period of barely three years. There have been actors in the limelight for longer durations, more talented artistes who have shaped opinion and have continued to be talked about across generations. None of these hold true for Rajesh Khanna … But on the strength of those three years, 1969 to 1972, he will always find a place in any discussion on Hindi cinema. For, in those years, he was Hindi mainstream cinema.'
I don't think there's another actor who can make the same claim on posterity. More than four decades after Aradhana, and over thirty years after his last hit, the consensus is that there has never been and never will be anything to remotely match the appeal of this man at his peak. It is only right that now we have a book which celebrates Rajesh Khanna, India's first-ever superstar.