Women kissed the bonnet of his car leaving lipstick mark, and when they got a chance, they left it on his collar.
There was time in Bollywood when music made stars out of mere men. Bollywood actor Rajesh Khanna, who died in Mumbai on Wednesday, was, in an important way, a product of melody. As The Hollywood Reporter rightly argued “what Beatlemania was to the West, Rajeshmania was to India”, the commonality being music of course.
The men who literally moulded Khanna into India’s undoubtedly first ever superstar were composers RD Burman and Laxmikant-Pyarelal and playback singer Kishore Kumar. Kumar’s career was diving dangerously down when Aradhana came in 1969, and with Khanna lisping “Meri Sapno Ki Rani” and riding in a Jeep on the Himalayan highways with Sharmila Tagore travelling in a toy train along the road, history was created.
Aradhana actually made Khanna into a real hero, and songs in the movies that followed brightened the halo around him. Numbers like “Zindagi Kaise Hai Paheli” in Anand, “Zindagi Ka Safar” in Safar, “Yeh Sham Mastani” in Kati Patang and “Karvate Badalte Rahe” in “Aap Ki Kasam” helped Khanna to turn sorrow and even death into mesmeric romance. And got hearts beating wildly.
Women kissed the bonnet of his car leaving lipstick mark, and when they got a chance, they left it on his collar. They wrote passionate letters to him in blood that they drew from themselves. They married his photograph. And wept when he fell ill.
What made Khanna so irresistible apart from melody was the alluring way he fashioned himself. His hairstyle, his famous “Guru” kurta (that became a raging style statement in the 1970s), the playful tilt of his head and the mischievous smile that emerged from his eyes were all part of a carefully cultivated persona which went on to create the Rajesh Khanna magic.
He was very unlike the heroes of his time. He was not the lovable Chaplinisque tramp which Raj Kapoor played. Khanna did not immerse himself in tragedy like Dilip Kumar, and even in Anand where Khanna portrayed a man with terminal illness, he sang, spoke with a sparkle, smiled seductively and spread joy. He was no macho guy like Dharmendra, neither did Khanna have shades of grey which Dev Anand sometimes essayed.
Khanna was the man down the street with a face that often had pimples, but he was one who laughed easily and who could charm with his lines, driving women to distraction. He used his eyes, his lips and his hands to enslave his audiences.
Born in Amritsar in 1942, Rajesh Khanna was named Jatin, and he grew up in a Mumbai suburb, adopted by a couple who were relatives of his biological parents. He went to school and college with Ravi Kapoor, who was to later become Bollywood actor Jeetendra. Khanna dabbled in theatre at college, and debuted in Chetan Anand’s Aakhri Khat in the mid-1960s. Under contract with United Producers, he acted in several films till Aradhana (a remake of Hollywood’s 1946 To Each His Own) came in 1969, which pushed him to superstardom.
Aradhana, where Khanna was paired with Sharmila Tagore, actually endeared him to viewers in no small way. In a dual role – both as Air Force officers – Khanna played the romantic hero as he did the more serious tragic character. This was the beginning of a very lucrative on-screen relationship with Tagore, and they were paired in works like Safar and Amar Prem.
Though he portrayed a range of characters – a cancer-stricken man in Anand (where perhaps one noticed Bachchan for the first time as a worried friend and doctor helplessly watching his best pal die), a comic, canny chef in Bawarchi, an unhappy husband in Amar Prem (in love with a courtesan) and a psychiatric patient in Khamoshi – it is very difficult to label him a great performer. He may have donned many avatars, but he firmly remained Mr Khanna on the screen. There was no way anybody could take away that image from him.
Khanna was also hero to heroines like Mumtaz, who was perhaps secretly in love with him, even sharing his neighbourhood space till she understood that he would never be hers. I still remember their Dushman for its novel plot, where the judge sentences Khanna’s Surjit Singh, a truck driver, to serve the family of the man he kills. The lead pair’s on-screen chemistry was magnetic and which did convey a certain attraction between them away from the sets. Khanna was also good with Asha Parekh (in Kati Patang with its haunting story and songs) and Hema Malini (Andaz, whose success was attributed to Rajesh’s brief appearance coming as the movie did during the actor’s big time). Rajesh was indeed part of some great cinema.
He acted in about 160 films, and there was a time in the 1970s when 15 of his movies were consecutive box-office hits. Sadly, his fall came as quickly as his rise, and just months after his cinema had been playing to packed houses came terrible B grade films like Wafaa and Gora!
Rishi Kapoor eclipsed him as the new lover boy.
Kapoor must have felt that this was indeed poetic justice. Kapoor and Dimple Kapadia had fallen in love on the set of Bobby, and had even got engaged, when one night, Mr Khanna came along, took the girl to a seashore and wooed her to such an unimaginable high that she even allowed him to take off the ring and throw it into waves!
The two married. She was merely 16, and Khanna was 30. After many years and two daughters (actress Twinkle is one and she is married to actor Akshay Kumar), they split, though they never formally divorced. During his last months – when he suffered from a liver ailment brought on, by as he himself admitted, by excessive drinking – Dimple nursed him.
Khanna’s life was Bohemian all right. Early in his career, he scandalised the cinema fraternity by living with Anju Mahendru. They were together for seven years. And Khanna was involved with many other women.
When he grew tired of them, he dabbled in politics in the early 1990s and was part of the Congress. But it was under the arc-lamps and with grease-paint on his face that Rajesh Khanna excelled. Not quiet on the floor of Parliament. He was not meant to be a neta or leader but a lover boy who got women swooning.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai-India based author, columnist and film critic, and can be contacted at [email protected] He is an FMT columnist.