It was Rajesh Khanna who introduced many of us to the exhilaration of fandom. His superstardom lasted not even a decade but within that short span he took the industry and its enormous following by storm. Making his debut with Akhri Khat (1966) Rajesh Khanna rose to the pinnacle of fame in the next five years. Between the magic years of 1969 and 1972, he delivered 15 consecutive hits, which included Aradhana (1969), Bandhan (1969), Do Raaste (1969), Khamoshi (1970), Sachcha Jhuta (1970), Safar (1970), Kati Patang (1971), Anand (1971), Aan Milo Sajna (1971), Andaz (1971), Haathi Mere Saathi (1971), Mehboob Ki Mehendi (1971), Dushman (1972), Amar Prem (1972) and Apna Desh (1972). This record is yet to be broken.
Aradhana, the superhit directed by Shakti Samanta was the turning point. The film won three Filmfare awards, none of which went to Khanna. But its commercial success sent him spiralling to superstardom. The mass adulation that Rajesh Khanna generated at the brief height of his success exceeds anything that his successors enjoyed even though their careers were longer and more successful.
In an age before the internet, satellite television, professional PR services or Page 3, Khanna stirred mob hysteria wherever he went, received love letters written in blood and had women marrying his photographs! His fans cut across class, language and gender. While some desired him, others desired to be like him. Where I grew up in Calcutta, the local boys were trying to re-style their hair after Khanna and almost everyone was wearing the high-collared 'guru-shirt'. Even The Statesman, a serious-minded newspaper, could not ignore the Rajesh mania: it carried a colour supplement on the new phenomenon of the "G-shirt". Khanna was a fashion icon and since the pre-90s did not define fashion through exorbitant brands and designer tags, larger numbers of people could afford to dress like the objects of their adoration.
So what made Rajesh Khanna the phenomenon he was? Stardom is never easy to explain. He was a competent actor who embellished his performance with a set of mannerisms that soon became his trademark style. He combined ordinariness and good looks to embody a vulnerable masculinity that would go out of fashion in the mid-70s. Recently, I had the privilege of watching Aradhana on the big screen with Sharmila Tagore, who remarked how well Khanna was able to animate a scene with his reactions even when he did not have a line to speak. According to Tagore, Rajesh Khanna's acting strength lay in his "intimate sense of drama".
Music and song sequences contributed significantly to Khanna's stardom. RD Burman's music and Kishore Kumar's playback singing were integral to his success just as his stardom elevated their popularity. Khanna famously said that he was the body while Kishore Kumar was his soul. A BBC documentary titled 'Rajesh Khanna Superstar' (1975, James K Clarke) has a telling sequence in which the actor gives innumerable takes for just one line of a song during the shooting of Aap Ki Kasam. He has to jump upon a rock, lip-sync to a particular line and look into the camera with the right expression. The interviewer asks whether the endless retakes were tedious for him. A smiling Khanna says that on the contrary, he had enjoyed the entire exercise of getting just the right beat.
The role that heroines play in the success of a hero is frequently undervalued. Rajesh Khanna's superstardom during those magic years owed a great deal to the popularity and commercial viability of actresses like Tagore, Mumtaz, Asha Parekh and Tanuja. Some of his best films (Khamoshi, Safar, Aradhana, Amar Prem, Kati Patang) had strong heroine-oriented plots. He enjoyed a sparkling screen rapport with Mumtaz and Tagore. So strong was his on-screen chemistry with Tagore that she got away with the gamble of playing his mother in the second half of Aradhana. In the two buddy melodramas Anand (1970) and Namak Haraam (1973), directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Khanna was paired with the emerging 70s superstar Amitabh Bachchan. Both films occupy a significant place in the repertoire of the two actors. Due to the intensity of male-bonding, the two films also enjoy a cult status in queer subcultures. Bachchan's entry signalled the emergence of a newer, more aggressive masculinity lending Khanna's screen deaths in both films an added poignancy.
The decline of Rajesh Khanna's superstardom happened as quickly as his rise. By the late 70s and 80s the superstar was mutating into a caricature of himself. His acting skills had whittled down to a set of hackneyed mannerisms. Stories of his unprofessional behaviour, alcoholism and obsessive narcissism started appearing in the press. It was heard that when Bachchan became a rage after Namak Haraam, Khanna locked himself up and drank. When he failed to get a nomination for the Filmfare awards, he threw a party to clash with the awards. His hasty marriage to teenage sensation Dimple Kapadia was rocky. The couple separated in 1984 but remained friends till the end. His superstardom never returned but he continued to act and experiment with a diversity of roles. Like the protagonist of a Greek tragedy, Rajesh Khanna's fall was as spectacular as his rise. The eponymous Anand rationalises his impending death with the lines, "Babumoshai, zindagi jo hain na, lambi nahin, badi honi chahiye." This may well be true of Rajesh Khanna's own life.
Shohini Ghosh is Sajjad Zaheer Professor at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia
The views expressed by the author are personal