Romancing the screen

Romancing the screen

Rajiv Vijayakar looks back on the life of Rajesh Khanna, whose cinematic life rose and fell in equal measure, but nevertheless left a distinct mark in the hearts of all those who remember him as India’s first superstar.

India’s first superstar is no more. As Rajesh Khanna’s life took an Anand-like turn, we can only be swamped by the poignant recall of how brilliantly he had acted in that film as the terminally ill patient who spread laughter and cheer.

This in turn catalyses memories of a slew of other terrific performances in an innings that took off with wonderful essays, even as a raw new actor in films like Aakhri Khat and Baharon Ke Sapne in 1967.

Aradhana, Ittefaq, Khamoshi, Sachaa Jhutha, Safar, Haathi Mere Saathi, Andaz, Amar Prem, Dushman, Daag, Roti, Aap Ki Kasam, Amar Deep, Red Rose, Dhanwan, Avtaar and Amrit were just the crème-de-la-crème of his acting oeuvre.

Rajesh Khanna, known as Kaka to friends, was the ultimate icon of romance in Hindi cinema. Which other star had women writing love letters in blood, planting kisses with lipstick marks on his car, getting married to his photographs or even swooning at the mere sight of him? It is said that when he announced his engagement and marriage to Dimple Kapadia, a few girls even slashed their wrists. Other heroes rode bikes, drove cars and wore glares, but no one quite managed to do it in the same way as Rajesh Khanna.

The men, of course, were also his fans for amusing reasons. They imitated his hairstyle, they learnt to crinkle their eyes and tilt their heads (exactly the way he did) to impress girls, and of course, Khanna’s guru-kurta and pyjamas became a fashion statement.

Everything about Rajesh Khanna was different from the beginning. Jatin was born on December 29, 1942 in Amritsar. It is said that he was orphaned as a kid and adopted by a wealthy couple who indulged him.

Out of gratitude, it is said that Jatin adopted their second name — Khanna. Khanna lived and studied in Mumbai’s middle-class Girgaum. He was a good friend of Ravi Kapoor, later known as Jeetendra.

Jeetendra was to do, among other films, two of Khanna’s home productions, Roti (in a cameo as himself, as a star signing autographs in Kashmir) and Jai Shiv Shankar, which never got a proper release.

When Khanna struggled, he would make the rounds of producers in his MG sports car — his wealthy parents made sure of that. When he got the screen name of Rajesh Khanna, it was given by an uncle, not by a mentor-producer. When he won the United Producers’ All-India Talent Contest in 1965, he signed films with G P Sippy (Raaz was his first release), Chetan Anand (Aakhri Khat) and Nasir Husain (Baharon Ke Sapne). In the latter two, he did two of his most offbeat roles.

Khanna also saw leading ladies recommend him early on — Nanda suggested his name for The Train and Waheeda Rehman for the offbeat Khamoshi. Khanna has the distinction of enacting two double roles in his first twelve films — Aradhana (his breakthrough alongside Do Raaste, Ittefaq and the family melodrama Doli in 1969), and Sachaa Jhutha in 1970, where he played his first negative role as the Jhutha.
It is Khanna’s unparalleled distinction that all his early dozen–plus films were with A-list filmmakers — S S Vasan of Gemini, Shakti Samanta, Raj Khosla, B R Chopra, Yash Chopra, Manmohan Desai, Asit Sen, J Om Prakash, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and H S Rawail were already on his list before he made blockbusters with debutants like Narendra Bedi (Bandhan), Devar (Haathi Mere Saathi) and Ramesh Sippy (Andaz).

Finally, Khanna died the maximum number of screen deaths during his peak innings, the most memorable ones being in Anand,  Andaz and Safar. And in Anand, he left the audience weeping and producers laughing all the way to the bank.

For the first time since Manoj Kumar came a hero who took a very keen interest in his music. It is said that Khanna would listen to a tune and approve it only if he recalled it four days after a single hearing. Though Khanna struck up a friendship with R D Burman from Baharon Ke Sapne, he would always be very business-like about his music.

In his first few years, he pitted Burman smartly against Laxmikant-Pyarelal and Kalyanji-Anandji (who had helped Khanna in his struggles) to get the best out of all! So even as he was doing many more films with R D Burman, he was part-financing films like Mehboob Ki Mehndi, Roti, Aashiq Hoon Baharon Ka and Chakravyuha with Laxmikant-Pyarelal’s music.

Kishore Kumar remained his main voice but Mohammed Rafi, Mukesh, Mahendra Kapoor and Manna Dey all had their share of hits with him, with younger singers like Suresh Wadkar, Amit Kumar and Mohammed Aziz (among others) coming in later.

The rise and fall

He also kept his earlier hit teams with Sharmila Tagore and Mumtaz on parallel tracks, getting Sharmila in the more intense dramas like Safar, Amar Prem and Daag and Mumtaz and Mumtaz in the more commercial films like Apna Desh, Dushman, Aap Ki Kasam and Roti. Later, he did multiple films with Hema Malini, Zeenat Aman, Shabana Azmi and Tina Munim.

At his peak, he told a confidante that he felt “near God” in his status, and soon, his ego and starry tantrums and manipulations cost him highly in personal relationships and professional associations.


But the ascent of Amitabh Bachchan, Rishi Kapoor and the multi-star trend (where heroes ganged up together against him, to co-star with each other), the cultivation acolytes and opportunists and the increasing alienation from friends and loyalists soon made him even question his faith in the almighty.

Unlike in the ‘70s, when his hit record included Bandhan, Aan Milo Sajna, Kati Patang, Maryada, Apna Desh, Namak Haraam, Ajnabee, Prem Nagar, Anurodh and Amar Deep, he could not adjust to emerging trends in the ‘80s.

While his assignments never reduced, his track record saw only intermittent success like Thodisi Bewafaii, Dhanwan, Dard, Ashanti, Maqsad and Amrit and two other hits — Souten, and his only blockbuster, Avtaar. His wife (they never formally divorced and became close companions in the last 12 years of his life) Dimple had resumed acting but Khanna had to graduate to character roles.

But, he never saw the kind of success as seen by the likes of Dilip Kumar or Amitabh Bachchan.

During this time, Khanna was unlucky in other ventures too, like his official production Alag Alag, his attempt at politics (the innings was long but undistinguished) and stint in television serials.

He came into his own at a public function, where he was awarded for his contribution to cinema. He admitted to the many mistakes he had made in his life. When daughters Twinkle and Rinke tried their luck in films, it was his way of doing prayaschit for forcing Dimple to quit films.


But though their careers never took off, he had the joy of watching both settle down well in matrimony — Twinkle married Akshay Kumar and also became a successful entrepreneur.

If the passage of years mellowed Rajesh Khanna, his colleagues and associates chose to remember only the best aspects of this man, actor and star, in the last years of his life. After all, a king is remembered only for his best work and qualities.
And Khanna was the monarch of mohabbat, a man who gave 24 silver jubilees in just five years and redefined romance, music, and even the careers of many co-stars, musicians, filmmakers, not to mention Kishore Kumar, with his magical charisma.
With Rajesh Khanna’s arrival, an era began. Now, as that era comes to an end, a legend is born.

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