Gulzar wrote “Meri awaaz hi pehchan hai.” Lata sang those words in Kinara.
That film did not star Rajesh Khanna but those words were definitely true of him.
Look at the facts: he had talent, and some kind of looks: nice eyes, an expressive face. But despite the backing of the magazine which had “discovered” him, choosing him over many others, Rajesh Khanna did not make serious waves at first. Akhri Khat his launch film did not mark him out as a star, definitely not one who would streak across the filmi sky leaving a trail of swooning fans gasping for breath. Other films followed, Do Raaste, Baharon Ke Sapne… with similar results.
Even in Aradhana, the film that put stardom within his grasp, he still looked rather callow, his expressions somewhat masked by makeup. But the magic of the film, the locales, the music, the romance that seemed to sizzle between Sharmila and him, and the double role did their bit. Besides, Rajesh Khanna died half way through the film, and any actor’s on screen death makes the Indian audience teary-eyed. The women wept with Sharmila over her beloved’s death and the ‘sinful’ state she was in, but quickly dried their tears when the unborn child presented himself as his dead father’s spitting image. Hearts were won, sighs of relief went through the hall, more songs, and an icon was born.
Like his idol Dilip Kumar, Rajesh Khanna made a fine art out of dying on screen. Anand, Safar, Andaz…he would die in them all, and in other films like Aap Ki Kasam, Roti, Amar Prem, Avatar, he would suffer for long cinematic years, singing songs that wrenched the heart. Yet there were films when he laughed and made others laugh, Anand being one of them, as was Bawarchi, or even Haathi Mere Saathi. Or he could be righteously angry as in Namak Haram and take the audience with him.
What made that magic happen?
Coldly speaking, Sanjeev Kumar, with whom he acted with in Aap Ki Kasam was a better actor. Amitabh Bachchan, in his first cameo in Anand, had more screen presence. Maybe only Feroz Khan who was his co-star in Safar failed to equal or surpass him as a co-star in a film. Yet Aap Ki Kasam is remembered for Rajesh Khanna. Not for the ebullient Mumtaz, nor the quietly underplayed role by Sanjeev Kumar. Even in Andaz, in the brief cameo, Rajesh Khanna managed to overshadow the redoubtable Shammi Kapoor.
The magic was in the voice.
Rajesh Khanna, as he grew into stardom and the confidence it brings with it, developed a style of speaking all his own. The roles were gentle, romantic, or fun filled, but there was an element of caring in them all. And in a mileu fast changing to where it was each man for himself, where there was little time to care and share, a character who could caress with his voice, with his words, and the way he spoke them could not but win!
The films he starred in were not dialogue heavy, but the roles he played demanded and got songs that he would mouth. Verily, he got some of the best songs of the seventies. From Anand to Safar, to Aap Ki Kasam to Aradhana, and Dushman…the list is endless.
Which brings us to his singing voice: Kishore Kumar.
Kishore Kumar’s rise coincided with Rajesh Khanna’s popularity graph. Mainly because, mimic that he was, taking a cue from the actor’s delivery style, the singer too brought in a warmth, a tenderness that made his enunciation and tone almost indistinguishable from the actor’s style. They layered their skills to create a symphony of sound that moved from speech to song and back to speech. Rajesh Khanna’s titled teasing glance, and his lovelorn eyes did the rest.
The combination was box office gold. Dress designers togged up Rajesh Khanna in ridiculous clothes, he has sported fur caps, and turquoise blue safari suits as he cavorted about with his heroines, but the song on his lips, in Kishore Kumar’s voice won the moment for him.
“Kishore Kumar is my soul, I am his body”, Rajesh Khanna said in an interview. He did not realise it then, but generations to come would separate the soul from body. And while they would hardly know the man who charmed an entire generation of fans, the voice that sang his songs would be identified with him.
But that does a disservice to the speaking voice. If the endless replaying of his Anand death scene on TV screens is any indication, it is his speeches, delivered as only he could deliver them, that have made them among the best remembered in cinema. Ask the love struck women of his heyday and they would come up with a string of such one liners from the Babumoshai line in Anand to “I hate tears” in Amar Prem.
Who knows how bright and long the star would have shone in cinema if he had not nurtured in himself the tragic qualities of a meteor? Perhaps he would have tided the angry phase or adjusted himself to it? Would the charm of his voice have held in such a case?
Hard to guess. It is enough to note that almost forty years after he blazed out, when Rajesh Khanna made his only appearance on screen for an ad, he was almost unrecognisable.
Only the voice when it sent out its caress, made some hearts miss a beat…meri awaz hi pehchan hai…
I rest my case.