Remembering The Phenomenon

The Phenomenon.
That was how Devi (Devyani Chaubal) used to refer to Rajesh Khanna in Star and Style.
That he was.

The first super star of Bollywood, they are calling him today.
In those days, he was simply The Super Star.
Not the first. The ONLY.

By 1971, wherever Hindi films played, wherever Hindi film songs were heard, Rajesh Khanna was loved, admired, and adored.

He was THE star of my generation. My familiarity with Hindi films and Hindi film music began just about the time he was bursting forth on the Indian screen blazing unprecedented trails.

I became a fan of Rajesh Khanna about 25 seconds into the song kOraa kaagaz thaa yE man mEraa (Aradhana). Right after the initial yodeling, right at the time he sings the first phrase of the song. Nattily attired in a blue blazer over a red turtleneck, he turns around to face the camera, tilts his head and shakes it as only he did with his eyes twinkling and glittering and a radiant smile spreading across his face lighting up the theater while he extends his arm out front. Right then. I remember being wowed by that moment. I was sixteen, at a matinee (I and a friend skipped classes), in a theater in Tenali. A frame frozen forever in memory. There were many other memorable moments in that film, especially the famous opening song (mere sapnon ki raani…) and the incredible, roop tEra mastaanaa, the whole song filmed, amazingly, in a long single take. But, it is that moment from kOraa kaagaz thaa that comes to my mind whenever people talk about the charm of Rajesh Khanna.

It was not the first time I have seen him on screen. The first film I saw of him was in 1970 – Do Raaste, the Raj Khosla film, about a family rendered asunder by a sister-in-law of a different class. It was Balraj Sahni that I remember more from that film than Rajesh Khanna sporting a stubble intermittently. I was studying PreUniversity Course at Andhra Loyola College in Vijayawada. Aradhana and Ittefaq were released to great success and acclaim already, but I didn’t get to see them yet. Many in my college were already becoming fans of him.

What a run he had during those years! What magic he wove! Aradhana, Ittefaq, Do Raaste, Dushman, Saccha Jhuta, Khaamoshi, Anand, Kati Patang, Aan Milo Sajna, The Train, Choti Bahu, Haathi Mere Saathi, Safar, Amar Prem, Apna Desh, Bawarchi, Joroo Ka Gulaam…. Fifteen Silver Jubilee hits in a row in three short years! In between them, that short electrifying cameo in Andaz, joyously singing about living for the moment (zindagi ek safar hai suhaanaa…), a rakish hat perched carelessly on his head, cool shades dangling a little low on his nose, sweeping an adoring and adoringly beautiful Hemamalini off her feet. Many remember Andaz for that song and for that pair; very few are even aware that poor Shammi Kapoor was the hero of that film.

It was not just the success of the films that held the people in thrall. It was the amazing variety of roles that he assayed in those movies; each very different from the other: the mischievous pilot in Aradhana, the intense cuckolded artist now accused of his wife’s murder in Ittefaq, the dutiful younger brother in Do Raaste, the tormented driver seeking forgiveness from the family of his victim in a fatal accident in Dushman, the naïve village bhayya and his look-alike, the sophisticated jewel thief in Saccha Jhuta, the sensitive poet that cracked when deceived by his lover in Khamoshi, the hapless husband who seeks solace from a tawaif in Amar Prem, the dashing, dancing detective in The Train, the sensitive husband in Choti Bahu, the inimitable Anand Saigal of Anand trying to cheer up those that were crying over his lymphosarcoma of the intestines… His persona was different in each of these movies. And, he carried them all with an élan and intensity that endeared him to his audience increasingly movie after movie. He could not be put in a slot like the big three before him. He was playful, charming, rakish, sincere and intense. He was the ultimate lover, son, brother, boy next door, and the friend that you could always depend up on.

True, he had great directors of the period working with him in those films with incredible scripts. Sakti Samanta brought out his potential in full in three very different roles in Aradhana, Kati Patang and Amar Prem. Manmohan Desai had two big commercial hits in Saccha Jhuta and Roti. Hrishikesh Mukherjee had him doing entirely different things in Anand, Bawarchi and Namak Haram. Yash Chopra exploited his intensity in Ittefaq and romantic charm in Daag. Asit Sen made him a tragic figure in Khamoshi and Safar and Basu Bhattacharya, an eveyday husband in Aavishkar. KS Prakasarao busted the box office in Premnagar and Chinnappa Dewar made the biggest hit in Hindi films at that time with his Haathi Mere Saathi. That most of his films of those three years stand the test of time and can be appreciated even after four decades is a testament not only to him but the filmmakers that supported him.

And, then there was the golden voice of Kishore Kumar. Aradhana gave his singing career a glorious second innings. His became the voice of the new star and the new generation. The combination doled out one soulful song after the other from woh shaam kuch ajeeb thee thru diye jalte hain  to merE naina sawan bhadon, when they weren’t busy wooing girls with playful ditties like aaiyE aapkO main or being incredibly romantic like merE dil me aaj kyaa hain…. I cannot think of the music of my youth without Kishore Kumar singing for Rajesh Khanna.

Of course, there was the famous Rajesh Khanna style. The head tilted a little low, shaking in an arc, the wide open mouthed bright smile, the unique movements of the arms and the torso and the walk. The guru shirt, the long hair that flowed over the back of the neck. He would be widely aped by college boys across the country and in my medical school.

The pace he was working at that time was remarkable. 17 films with Rajesh Khanna as the lead were released in the three year span of 1969-1971. Perhaps, it was that frenzy of work that resulted in him announcing, in 1972 that he was going to quit films in a couple of years. It caused pandemonium among the fans and the film folks. He did not, of course, carry out his threat (some say, unfortunately, as he could have gone out blazing in unprecedented glory). His surprise and sudden marriage to the then unknown Dimple Kapadia crushed the hearts of his female fans. The media was agog with the news of his marriage for days on end.

Inevitably, the super success did not last. Some of the later films were mere successes. Some actually flopped. The golden aura began to get tarnished; quite quickly. Mean stories about him began to appear. Of late night parties, of boozing, of being late to his sets, of trying to undermine his costars, of being mean to other stars (e.g. the story about slapping Sanjeev Kumar real hard for a scene in Aap Ki Kasam and then getting the scene changed when the script called for Sanjeev Kumar to return the favor in a later scene) and other unflattering things. There was the time in mid-70s, when the Screen weekly, on the eve of his birthday, had a mutli-page splashy advertisement announcing a home production, Majnu,  featuring him, Dilip Kumar, Raakhi and several other big stars of the day and to be directed by Kamla amrohi. Next week, there was a quarter page ad in the name of Dilip Kumar’s secretary that Dilip Kumar has made no such commitment. The film never got made. A BBC documentary, Bombay Superstar, paints a not so pretty picture of him in this phase (the charm of Rudolph Valentino and the arrogance of Napolean…, the reporter remarks). Our hero was  becoming an object of ridicule.

Still, the hits kept coming. Prem Kahani, Aap Ki Kasam, Prem Nagar, Amar Deep etc. The southern producers seemed to make a bee line for him. By the time I left India in 1980, he was having a decent career, but he has changed physically. He put on weight, his hair grew even longer and the face got rounder. While his brilliance shone through occasionally in the hands of good directors, there were times when he seemed to be a parody of his former self, a cruel, bitter waste of his talent.
The last film I have seen him in a film was more than a decade ago, in Rishi Kapoor’s Aa Ab Laut Chalen, in a character role. He was playing father to Akshaye Khanna. The movie is memorable only for an young and stunning Aishwarya Rai.

It was sad to read about his passing away today and to see pictures of his recent emaciated self. But, wasn’t he the one that once famously chided in Amar Prem, “Pushpa, I hate tears!” His last words reportedly were, “It’s time. Pack up!”

Will I miss him? Probably not any more than I have been missing him for the past three decades.

Actually, I will not miss him. The memories of the good times I had with his films are very strong and lasting. I recall many details regarding his films and performances; the friends that accompanied me to those films, the theaters I saw them in, the pleasure I had in watching him, the giddiness. the laughs and the inevitable choking in the throat. I can vividly reconstruct Rajesh Khanna calling out baabu moshaai after we have seen him take his last breath in Anand; Rajesh Khanna telling an emotional Raakhee, “O meree biwi hain” in Daag; Rajesh Khanna wistfully enquiring Sharmila Tagore if she can make him poorie, aaloo kE sabjee and halwa in Amar Prem; Rajesh Khanna and Tanuja listening to the thanDi hawaa swinging in hammocks in Haathi Mere Saathi, Rajesh Khanna the sensitive dreamer in Baharon Ke Sapne, Rajesh Khanna the bhaiya hoping to play the baajaa at his pyaaree bahaniya’s wedding in Saccha Jhuta, Rajesh Khanna cooking his way into the hearts of the Hangal family in Bawarchi, Rajesh Khanna singing main shaayar badnaam in Namak Haram… The list goes on.

It would be impossible for me to miss him. May be when I lose memories of my youth would be when I would forget him.

So, here it is, Mr. Khanna, for all the good times that you gave me and the many millions.

Rest in Peace!