Everyone loved Rajesh Khanna. But what trace will he leave? Sunaina Kumar assesses the Phenomenon’s legacy
THE YEAR was 1973. Rajesh Khanna by then had delivered 15 hits in a row. The best of times were behind him and the worst were just beginning. His last four films had flopped. In an inspired moment of prescience, BBC reporter Jack Pizzey noted in his documentary Bombay Superstar that the “superstar may not be quite so super anymore”. The film ends eerily with Khanna looking out of the window at the hordes of fans outside his bungalow on Carter Road in Bandra. Soon the fans would stop coming.
On 18 July, Rajesh Khanna, dubbed “the Phenomenon”, died, having just been discharged from hospital the previous day. Outside his bungalow, Aashirwad, the frenzy was reminiscent of the early 1970s. Despite the pouring rain, people from the city came in droves and simply stood there, waiting, till all traffic was cordoned off. The man they call India’s first superstar would have found vindication in their support. In a TV commercial for Havells released two months ago, which has turned out to be his last appearance in front of camera, Khanna said, “Hawa badal sakti hai, lekin fans hamesha mere rahenge.” The ad seemed ironic at the time: to see the old, gaunt man in a suit, a shell of the star he once was, speak with such confidence. Turns out he knew what he was talking about. The fans, who hadn’t thought of him for the past 40 years, were suddenly overwhelmed. Mahesh Bhatt said on Twitter, “When we lose a loved one, something within us dies. Our generation loved Rajesh Khanna. Today a bit of us dies with this enigmatic star.”
The legacy of great actors is measured in their acting. Rajesh Khanna’s greatest legacy is not his acting, but the manner in which he inhabited the role of a star. There are those roles for which he will always be remembered, in Aradhana, Ittefaq, Khamoshi, Safar, Anand, Amar Prem. But what we talk about when we talk about Rajesh Khanna is the star persona, the overpowering charisma. For five years, from 1968 to 1973, his stardom eclipsed everything that came before and everything that has since followed.
Stories of his fame, familiar as folk tales, have been handed down to us, and it happened without the Internet, social media and satellite television. We lapped up stories of women slashing their wrists and writing letters in blood, marrying his photographs, and covering his car with lipstick. Hrishikesh Mukherjee loved to repeat the anecdote of a female fan so enraged by his marriage that she got herself a puppy, called her Dimple and beat her every day. The dog was rescued and the girl was jailed. Some fans committed suicide in disappointment. “It was an innocent age,” says film journalist Sidharth Bhatia, “stardom today is stage-managed. This was organic and spontaneous with no artificial support. He began the cult of fandom.”
The last of the romantics, Khanna saw through the end of one era and the beginning of another. After the realist social dramas of the 1950s, Hindi cinema decided to sing and dance the ’60s away and so began the decade of romance, preceding the anti-establishment cinema of the ’70s. By the mid-’60s the power of romantic heroes Shammi Kapoor and Dev Anand was waning. Rajesh Khanna with his good-boy looks and stylied mannerism was anointed their successor. “He gave us a crash course in romance and introduced us to a special twinkle in the eye that made us feel good about ourselves,” tweets Anupam Kher.
Sharmila Tagore, with whom he worked in so many hit films, adds, “He was the best romantic actor of that time. He was the first one to charm people of all ages from nine to 90. He was the beginning of magical cinema. I was an established actor and he was a newcomer, but he drew the crowds. People came to worship him. So many of my young friends called and cried to me today. It is as if I am the closest they could come to remember him. They are now mothers of two or three kids, and that is the kind of respect they have for him.”
‘I made mistakes. But you can’t blame me. I thought the kind of success I enjoyed can never end,’ Khanna told film journalist Rauf Ahmed
Through those years, an informal Rajesh Khanna camp formed with director Shakti Samanta, singer Kishore Kumar and music composer RD Burman. Together they churned out hit movies with songs that have lost nothing to time and changing tastes. But it was Hrishikesh Mukherjee who, in Anand, Bawarchi and Namak Haraam, extracted some of Khanna’s best performances.
The poet Dilip Chitre, in 1971, wrote a defining essay, ‘The Charisma of Rajesh Khanna’, in the magazine Quest. In the piece, later prescribed in the Bombay University curriculum, Chitre wrote: “Millions of Indians queue up for long hours to see him break into his smile, get drunk, become furious, whisper love-words or burst forth into a husky, vibrant played-back song. If there is one person in India today who surpasses the Prime Minister’s charisma, he is Rajesh Khanna.” He wrote of Khanna’s peculiar talent for death scenes: “Rajesh’s screen deaths have some novelty: he is a warm, ebullient, vivacious, blithe young man. Even if he is destined to die, it seems unfair and too early. One has seen teenage girls sob witnessing him die.”
Bharathi Pradhan, editor, The Film Street Journal, says Khanna “will be remembered for his charm and charisma, rather than his acting range. There was not much versatility there.” She adds, “He rubbed a lot of producers the wrong way: holding up shoots, arriving late and being surrounded by a coterie of sycophanticchamchas.” Filmmakers like Manmohan Desai, with whom Khanna worked on the underrated classic Roti, and Yash Chopra began to prefer to cast Amitabh Bachchan, who with his measured professionalism represented the opposite of Khanna. Veteran journalist Rauf Ahmed has an illustrative (and poignant) anecdote: “He [Khanna] once told me, ‘I didn’t have the reference point. Today Amitabh has me as the reference point. There was never a star before me. I admit that I made mistakes. But you can’t blame me. I thought that the kind of success I enjoyed could never ever end.”’
Director Tigmanshu Dhulia, a self-confessed Khanna fan who has seen 1971’s Haathi Mere Saathi over 30 times, says that Khanna represented the middle class hero. “In all his movies, he played a good, middle-class boy, unlike Dev Anand who had an elitist upper class following. Rajesh Khanna was the boy who sang the best songs and got the best girls.” He adds, “For any actor to be a star, style is the all-important ingredient. He oozed style and that helped him connect with the audience.”
Jatin Khanna was born of middle class stock in Amritsar in 1942 and raised in Mumbai by foster parents. But ‘Rajesh Khanna’ was born to be king. Once, Ahmed recalls, before granting an interview, Khanna insisted on writing the headline of the piece: ‘Rajesh Khanna: A King in Exile’. But if Khanna had left the movies, the movies never really left him. Amitabh Bachchan tweeted that Khanna’s last words, with an actor’s timing, were “time up ho gaya — pack up!”
With inputs from Janani Ganesan
Sunaina Kumar is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.
Janani Ganesan is a Correspondent with Tehelka.