The rise and fall of a superstar

once a phenomenon

famously infamous Rajesh Khanna

As many as eight (from among the estimated 10,000 applicants) hopeful young men are short-listed for the final round of the Filmfare-United Producers Talent Contest (the Combine consisted of such heavyweights as G P Sippy, B R Chopra, Nasir Husain, F C Mehra, Chetan Anand). Although the first film he signed was Chetan Anand’s Aakhri Khat, G P Sippy beat his illustrious colleague in the race to the box-office with the murder mystery, Raaz, and the ordinary-Gorkha looking 25-year-old, who had earlier worked on Mumbai stage, Jatin Khanna, screen-named Rajesh, had arrived, although not with the proverbial bang.

But it was not long thereafter that the party started with Baharon ke Sapne and Aurat in 1967. And once his looks and mannerisms won audience acceptance, Rajesh Khanna made it big with Aradhana (1969). An unsurpassed record of 15 consecutive hits followed in the short span of three years. Khamoshi, Safar, Anand, Kati Patang, Andaz, Amar Prem and Bawarchi to name a few. Then, not unexpectedly, some lukewarm successes in Namak Haram, Avishkar, Daag and Roti. He was surrounded by habitual hangers-on, or chamchas as they are called in Bollywood jargon, who nurtured his ego for narrow personal gains and self-confessedly he felt he was “next to God”. BBC made a documentary, Bombay Superstar, which was released in 1974. Women swooned over even his shadow. Young girls slashed their wrists, penned love letters dipped in blood, kissed his cars and the earth on which he walked.

And he was called a ‘phenomenon’, the first ‘superstar’ in the history of the entertainment industry; the synonyms are still revoked whenever those hurricane days are recalled. Success went into his head. The first sign of this was his walking out of his steady girlfriend of years, Anju Mahendroo, and hastily marrying the stunningly beautiful teenager, Dimple Kapadia, who had been making waves once Raj Kapoor signed her up as the heroine for the launch of his talented son Rishi, in Bobby. What followed is also history, and an unpleasant one at that. He began to misbehave and started troubling his producers by not reporting on  time, sometimes totally playing the disappearing act, thus upsetting shooting schedules, which resulted in heavy losses to many producers.

Being a victim of an inflated ego, he was an actor who drove around in a Mercedes even during his early days of struggle; it was made to believe he was infallible. The hangers-on did not allow him to stop and ponder, and maybe take remedial steps, when some of his big films did not work. The inevitable followed. Noticing the autumn in his career, and victims of his attitudinal problems, his producers started to desert him, just as they had wooed him, and started looking for alternatives, which they eventually found in another struggling actor. This actor, whose gesture of a handshake the reigning superstar had preferred to ignore was the towering figure of Amitabh Bachchan, before they worked together first in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anand and later in Prakash Mehra’s Namak Haram – probably his last big success.

It was also around this time that he too started looking for a career in the south Indian film industry. But almost all his starrers, with the possible exception of Chinnapa Devar’s Haathi Mera Saathi, tanked at the bo- office. Now there were no takers. Some relief came by way of serious character roles. His performances were mature and accomplished but despite the success of Avatar, none could work.

His personal life too was in a mess. Dimple Kapadia had walked out of his life. He found his soulmate in Tina Munim, but that too didn’t work out.  During this period, he even produced a film, a remake of a Pakistani hit, Alag Alag, which failed to recover its investment.

Years later, he launched an ambitious three-hero-three-heroine film, Jai Shiv Shankar into which Dimple, riding a massive wave of success, gate-crashed opposite him. It never got released. Then, in the ‘90s, he entered politics as the Congress candidate opposite the BJP heavyweight, L K Advani, from the New Delhi constituency, and lost narrowly. He again fought for the same seat against his ambitious Bollywood colleague Shatrughan Sinha, and won.

But here too his success and ego came in the way of any substantial gains and like earlier times, he gradually faded away from politics and public memory. Every now and then he makes tall claims of a comeback, claims to have signed eight new films, but the one-odd that did come his way made the poor producer run from pillar to post. With Rajesh Khanna, old sadistic habits never die, and the man rued the day he had signed Jaana...Let’s Fall in Love. So did his fans, who went to saw the faded ‘superstar’ in the company of Zeenat Aman and shed tears watching him helplessly making a fool of himself by repeating his once hailed mannerism.

Born on December 29, 1942, Rajesh Khanna has altogether worked in about 180 films and hasn’t hung his gloves, yet, time and again acclaiming a comeback that’s not to be. But, despite a short illustrious career, he was nominated for as many as 14 best actor Filmfare nominations, and carried the coveted trophy thrice, as also the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005.

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