• Jul 21,2012
  • In Review
  • By Abundant Art

Superstar Nonpareil

I first saw Rajesh Khanna on the big screen as Anand when my Mother took me to the theatre to watch the bitter sweet tale of a man who spread love and laughter in the face of imminent death. Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s film brought out the real talent in Khanna as opposed to the mainstream commercial hero who had already created his signature smile, tilt of the head and sweep of the hand. By then the man was already a star with Aradhana and he delivered fifteen hits in a row- a record yet unbroken in Bollywood.  Venturing into smaller films like Anand, Safar, Khamoshi demonstrated his commitment to his craft and as we review these films now, truly displayed his strength for small, intense drama. In his heydays he worked in two shifts every day, inhabiting two characters, and then also divided time between big Bollywood fare and the arthouse films. This gave him that double edged shizoid persona which any true artist displays. Add to that the unprecedented adulation- woman marrying his photographs, writing letters in blood, some taking their lives when he married the starlet Dimple Kapadia. Years later when I knew him in Bombay and he had time for candid conversations, he recalled how “Stardom came overnight. Before the premiere of Aradhana no one acknowledged me, but after the screening everyone was looking for me. When I got into my car I saw women throwing themselves at the windows and smearing the glass with their lipstick.” Even Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan concede that this popularity was never to be matched.

A good actor with an extraordinary magical charisma, he spiralled to dizzying heights and was termed the Indian superstar, that too before the days of PR and marketing, satellite, promos, internet and the gizmo which operates now in the industry.  He could be the boy next door and he could be the aloof star. As he delivered one silver jubilee (25 weeks run) after another, the films included Aradhana, Do Raastey, Bandhan, Kati Patang, Anand, Bawarchi, Safar,Dushman, Amar Prem, Apna Desh.  Followed exorbitant fees, new cars and bungalows and a bunch of sycophants who kept him away from reality.  He did not handle all this well though and soon came the downward turn. Caught in his mannerisms he was repeating himself and the audience drift was turning with the times. ” When I walked out of the screening of Namakharaam ( a film where he was pitted against Amitabh Bacchan) I knew the tables had turned” he confessed. Indeed it was time for the angry young man Bachchan to ascend to his own heights.  Such are the laws of stardom.

The fact remains that no one has seen such spectacular success and enjoyed such ardent fanhood as Khanna in his heydays. For the 70’s children, he symbolised a naive love and romance, a vulnerable masculinity, a soft spoken charm before the action hero stormed onto the scene. In addition to good stories and directors it was the music in his films which made them so memorable. Kishore Kumar sang his songs and the singer and actor flowed into each other’s persona. ” I was the body, he was the soul. People would think we are the same person, which we are only I couldn’t sing. In fact I ofen struggled to remember song lines” he recalled smilingly. The BBC documentary Rajesh Khanna Superstar by James Clarke (recently shown on NDTV) revealed how he had to do twenty takes to jump up on a stone, get a small phrase and beat right in a song. After which he smilingly conceded it was all worth the effort because his audience would now be pleased. Equal credit goes to his most paired heroines, Sharmila Tagore and Mumtaz, with whom he shared great screen chemistry. For me the sombre song sequence from Amar Prem, “Chingari koi bharkey” which Khanna sings to Sharmila on a boat under Howrah Bridge, dressed immaculately in his dhoti-kurta, will remain iconic. As will the giddying song “Jai Jai Shiv Shnakar” from Aap ki Kasam, where both Khanna and Mumtaz do a fun, mad, dopey number.

By the late seventies I had turned into a Hindi film buff  because I had to see all his films and buy all his music. In trademark fan style I wrote letters to the famous address of his suburban bungalow (Ashirwaad, Carter Road, Bandra, Bombay) and received autographed photographs. In those days Junior Statesman carried blow up posters every week end, and all four of the star (including a three part live size one) decorated the walls of my teenage room. Many years later, when I moved to Bombay I knew Rajesh Khanna as a charming, generous friend and a candid conversationalist. Sitting on the terrace of Ashirwaad, Khanna had many stories to tell of his magical starlit years, as the sun would slowly sink into the Arabian sea behind him.

With Rajesh Khanna goes one of the strongest links to our childhood, to our understanding of love, romance, adulation, fanhood, Hindi films. Today from a distance one concludes that the star’s meteoric  ascent and painful descent is the stuff of tragic narratives. He lived like a tragic hero, like Anand smiling till death. The star has left the building but not the hearts of fans and devotees. He would have been happy to see the grieving thousands who thronged the streets of Bombay on a rainy afternoon to catch a last glimpse of the King who had not lost his kingdom.

As I watched the flower decked cortege pass by on television yesterday, the skies crying, the streets lined with silent, tearful fans-  the last line from his best known film reverberated:

“Anand mara nahin, Anand martey nahin.”  ( Anand has not died, Anand can never die.)

Rest in peace and thank you for the movies.

Sangeeta Datta is Director of Baithak, UK, Filmmaker( LIfe Goes On) and Cultural Commentator

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