“Star star stuff pondering star”: this is how Carl Sagan described the human race. But a boy from the back alleys of Amritsar would rise to disagree. And that boy from the city of heritage was Rajesh Khanna, who did not seek the stars, not even superstars. He decided that he himself was one whom others should seek.
And such was the pull he exerted on the minds of men and women of his generation that he was never disobeyed. He had perhaps understood that down the ages, men have always felt an invisible but compelling pull towards the stars. And that this human weakness for the stars was something he could exploit to emerge first as a superhuman and then as a superstar. He succeeded in both.
And yet Rajesh Khanna seems to have demanded yet spurned stardom at the same time. He decided that starry tantrums, a display of visible dislike for those who pretended to possess the power to make a star shine brighter, was part of his super-stardom kit. Hence, the repeated cold-shouldering of the highbrow BBC. Many of Rajesh’s contemporaries, including some of the biggest names in the industry, would have gone down on their knees to beg the BBC to slot a programme on them. Not the superstar. Through a deft overpricing of his time and pricing, Rajesh virtually made the BBC appear like begging at his door for an interview. In the process, he became India’s first cinematic idol to dictate terms to the international media.
Rajesh’ drop-dead good looks, his superb histrionic skills, mesmerising voice, dramatic sense of timing and an uncanny penchant for ‘theatre’ in small gestures and expressions new all combined to make him what he was: charisma walking in human form.
But alongside these natural artistic gifts, Rajesh also knew that ‘superstardom’ is not just about talent, that it went far beyond the sphere of acting skills and good looks. It was about ‘aura’, and Rajesh believed that ‘aura’ was something that one was born with and something which one had to invest in. And he made heavy investments into cultivating that aura, helped by his handsome and intense look.
Some would say he was a divine blessing to a dispirited Indian nation, a charmer in an age of disillusionment, an actor who outshone the star in him (Safar, Khamoshi, Baharon Ke Sapne, Anand, Namak Haraam, Aavishkar). But others would insist Rajesh was not a true actor but a superstar, a phenomenon, a craze – and that the blinding glitter of his superstardom effectively covered the fact that he was just an average good actor.
But Rajesh ensured that those who would question his acting talents would always be feeling guilty, for even in films which became super hits merely because of his “phenomenal stardom” – Sachaa Jhutha, Do Raaste, Aap Ki Kasam, Aradhana, Kati Patang and Amar Prem – Rajesh silenced the critics of his “limited” and highly stylised acting prowess.
Thus, India’s original and only superstar (so far) will continue to interest posterity as much for what he was as for who he was. But there is one issue which he put beyond the realm of all debate: that there was only one Rajesh Khanna and there will never be another like him. Indian cinema will see greater actors than it has seen so far. But it will never see anything like what it saw in the Rajesh wave – a wave defined by two words: phenomenon and superstardom. Rajesh seems to have earned a copyright to those two words, but his mystique was much more than these two words convey. He was the first icon from Indian cinema to seek and spurn stardom at the same time.
Every new year, as we remember him on his third death anniversary today, will reveal a new layer of the man from Amritsar.
The writer is a Chandigarh-based freelancer
Rajesh Khanna’s third death anniversary falls on July 18