I wish Rajesh Khanna was alive to see this day. To see that his fans remember him. To see and really believe in what he said, “Mere fans humesha mere rehenge.” It was for the last time that Rajesh Khanna faced the camera in what became a spot on television that really turned the spotlight on him like never before. A clever word play on the word ‘fan’ R Balki with this Havells advertisement brought out the ageing actor from his hiding. And the world woke up in horror to see the original superstar of the yesteryears weathered and beaten on their television. They say Devyani Chaubal, the then leading gossip girl and film journalist coined the word “Superstar” for Rajesh Khanna in Star & Style magazine.
His stardom however was not reached in a day. Born as Jatin Khanna on December 29, 1942 in Amritsar, young Jatin was brought up by foster parents. He debuted in the less known Chetan Anand 1966 film Aakhri Khat, but what really took the actor to superstardom almost overnight was the film Aradhana. The film really belonged to his co-actor Sharmila Tagore, for she as a young 23 year old took the challenge of playing an ageing woman, an act for which she won the best actress award at the Filmfare. The greatest take away however was to be the twinkle eyed, polished man who spoke with a slight drawl and his head bent to his side. Rajesh Khanna earned a nomination for best actor, and a fame that was to outdo his contemporaries by several miles. I remember interviewing Sharmila Tagore and asking her about the film. About Rajesh Khanna she said, “Aradhana more than me, did wonders to Rajesh Khanna. He became an overnight craze. Girls would swoon over him, chase his cars and mark it with their lipstick. I had never seen anything like that.”
Rajesh Khanna ruled for the next 16 films, all hits with him in the lead, a record that remains unbeaten even now. Sharmila Tagore, Mumtaz and Asha Parekh co-starred with him and belted out memorable films. The one thing that was a common was the music in his films. Like him, RD Burman and Kishore Kumar tasted super success. Dada Burman had fallen ill durig the making of Aradhana and that is how Pancham stepped in and completed the track, though he remained largely uncredited for the music. It is said that when Shakti Samanta told Kishore that he has going to launch a new actor in Aradhana, Kishore asked to meet him. The actor and the singer met for an hour where Rajesh Khanna kept talking about himself. Kishore apparently noted the finer nuances of the actor, the way he spoke, his pauses, the pace, intonation and the curious way in which he nodded his head. All of which came together in the songs that he sang for him through the actor’s work in cinema. Think of any Rajesh Khanna song and you cannot miss Kishore’s magic in it!
The stardom soared. Filmmakers cued up to sign him. He was the most bankable name in the industry. But he couldn’t handle it. The legend goes that Rajesh Khanna harboured certain cronies, film producers, writers and small time actors who fed him majestical stories about his popularity. Such was the heady feeling that Rajesh Khanna could not handle it. He parted ways with his then girlfriend of seven years Anju Mahendru and married in a hurry a teenaged Dimple Kapadia before the release of her first film Bobby. The marriage to Dimple crumpled too. The couple had two daughters, Twinkle in 1974 and Rinki in 1977 and seven years later parted ways for good.
The seventies were tumultuous times for the actor. He was to be dethroned and a new actor was to be raised to the pedestal of superstardom. In 1973, Prakash Mehra’s Zanjeer gave the industry a new actor – Amitabh Bachchan. The angry young man swept the industry with one move and soon the story lines were changing. The lovable, effortlessly romantic found an adversary almost overnight. It mattered little that a struggling Amitabh Bachchan in 1971 played a second fiddle to him in Anand. In two years however, the supportive Babumoshai was ready to overcome the King!
Like everything else, there are magnificent stories about Khanna’s intolerable jealousy. When Hrishikesh Mukherjee wanted to cast the two actors for a second time in Namak Haraam in 1973, Rajesh Khanna yielded his stardom to oust the actor from the film. The director refused and the two warred on screen as two friends on opposite sides of the fence. Later, during a film party in Sun-and-Sand hotel, the actor stormed out because fans leaving him to mob Amitabh Bachchan for autographs who had just entered. It was nothing less than a surprise to see Rajesh Khanna accept a lifetime achievement award from Amitabh Bachchan on the stage at IIFA. By now, years had rolled by, perhaps the bitterness too had faded away. And perhaps that is why in his swan song, he said, “Babumoshai mere fans mujhse koi nahi cheen sakta.” I wait to see what Big B tweets for his co-actor, knowing him I know it will be a tribute fit for the Gods.
Two years back, there was a rumour that Rajesh Khanna was all set to enter the Bigg Boss house for a stint at reality TV. Newspapers reported that he demanded to be allowed his daily dose of alcohol, without which he was known to spend no evening. The talks failed and son-in-law Akshay Kumar who was then an anchor on the same channel revealed that his father-in-law was not to be part of the reality show.
Rajesh Khanna’s life is indeed what would make for a brilliant film in itself. An actor who tasted unprecedented levels of popularity, to be sidelined and almost forgotten for more than a decade it is quite a thing to be suddenly remembered in death. Personally, I was never a big fan of his, I felt he overacted a bit too much for my liking. I watched him for the phenomena that he was. For the sheer magic. In hope that I touch a part of the aura that was called Rajesh Khanna.
I feel his fans were always his. They were never lost. They never deserted him. They also liked someone else in the meantime. Amidst all the make believe world that the Hindi film industry truly stands for, I hope I am right.Tom Alter says that he always wanted to be a Rajesh Khanna. Actor Imran Khan opines that Rajesh Khanna is the top romantic hero of all times and the romantic hero of the 90’s and early 2000’s, Shahrukh Khan says, “Rajesh Khanna, you cannot touch.”
I hope he believed that too. I hope he is watching from above. I hope he died a little happier than what he lived. I hope he finally finds peace and his true place in between the stars.
This post was written for India Wires.