A romantic who worshipped beauty

The passing away of actor Rajesh Khanna marks the death of a star who has left a constellation of performances that would glitter white-hot in the galaxy of Indian cinematic history for light years to come.

Though the star’s popularity had imploded years ago, Rajesh Khanna’s smile and squint never lost it’s charm nor did his languid dialogue delivery. His dramaturgy of films range was vast and the repertoire comprised thrillers, romance and existential-angst theme soaked stories.

Rajesh Khanna entered films at a time when the country was undergoing severe economic crisis in late sixties. It was the uncertain times of post-independent India; and one of his first films -’Bahaaron Ke Sapne,’ was based on unemployment and the aspiration to join middle-class ranks amongst workers.

Khanna during his entire roller-coaster ride in seventies personified youth and vitality on the screen, which no other actor had been able to emulate even in recent times. It was at this juncture the era of “Eastman Colour,” splashing the screen with improbable variations of bright hues also snaked in. Khanna had hit the right note at the right time.

The languid smile, crinkled squint coupled with a soft dimple laced with temptation spilling out rivulets of joy entranced women of the times; for the elders he was the old bitter-sweet sad memory of a never-going-to-comeback youth.

This was the period when he gave films like Aradhana, Doli, Mehboob Ki Mehendi, Kati Patang. During this period his characters in almost every film breezed through iridescent lights of nature, singing exceptional music in harmony with the winds on the rolling greens and shadowy glades.

But Khanna, highly-eclectic in taste, both in terms of content as well as music, soon hopped on to playing characters who were rebels with hardly anything to lose; the characters were always moving restlessly with other fallen angels lounging morosely in a house or sauntering in a maudlin air of cobalt-coloured lanes of slums.

Reel and real

The period saw him playing the roles of a deranged lover in Khamoshi, an epicurean introvert living on the edge of death in Anand, a ‘Trojan horse’ turned trade unionist in Namak Haram, and a seeker of peace and harmony in daily lives of people riven with fears and insecurities in Bawarchi.

Though always called the ultimate ‘Hindi film hero of romance’, Khanna’s romanticism was more akin to the ‘romantics’ of 18th century poets and not to Mills and Boon type ‘romance heroes.’ His characters worshipped death and were always in search of platonic ‘ideals,’ be it in human life or in women.

Probably the reel and real somewhere intersected and in his life he was never able to have a stable relationship with women. After having a live-in relationship for nearly a decade with the then fashion designer and actress Anju Mahendru, he announced his marriage to the ‘Bobby’ film fame actor Dimple Kapadia only to separate from her without divorcing. Though, recently, after being diagnosed with cancer they buried their differences, the actor prior to this had a string of unhappy relationships.

This insatiable desire for ‘ideals’ drove him to play characters seeking intensity in their day-to-day lives. For Khanna, late film director Hrishikesh Mukherjee whose films sub-textured with existential and political themes, provided perfect chariots to explore his own sub-conscious quest.

While in the cult-classic ‘Anand,’ Khanna easily slipped into the role of a man diagnosed with terminal cancer glorifying the nature of ‘time,’ by intensely living every moment, in Bawarchi, the character points out the hidden nuggets of joy in everyday mundane moments of life to people trapped in trivialities.

High-octane intensity

It is the same exploration for intense Dostoevskian moments that made him take up a quasi-negative character in ‘Namak Haram’ (NH). Khanna who had started his film career with anti-trade union activities film ‘Bahaaron Ke Sapne,’ (BKS), in NH played a diametrically opposite role. While in BKS, the protagonist aspires to join middle-class ranks, in NH the character finds existential meaning in the world frequented by naked ghosts, orphaned children and people living in leaking huts and sleeping on the pavement outside empty stores.

And it is the same quest for the unknowable ideals of beauty, time and life found in his other memorable films like Safar, Kudrat, Mehbooba, Red Rose or Amar Prem. And it is probably this search for ‘intense moments’ that also drove him to alcohol, and possibly amplified his alienation and loneliness in an ephemeral transitory world of show business which had given him a 'high-octane intensity,' once upon a time.

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