It was Hindi cinema’s age of innocence. The leading men didn’t trade fisticuffs with dozens of baddies as a matter of habit, they said it all with a tilt of the head and the mischievous twinkle in the eye. They were vulnerable, prone to heartbreaks and used to losing the women they loved to closest friends. They loved and lost. You loved them because they were such graceful losers.
It was not the age of the angry superhero — he burst into the scene after Zanjeer. The leading men were not primed to wage private wars against the unjust system. They were supposed to be ordinary, well, sometimes maybe a little beyond ordinary. He was the guy you could relate to, identify yourself with. He did not overwhelm you, he just sought your undivided attention. Anger just did not suit him.
Rajesh Khanna was the last link between two different eras of cinema. And what an exquisite link he was! Forget the movies he did post 1973 — he was playing on alien turf then. Hindi cinema had discovered action, a new way of telling the story and shifted trajectory. The old school romance did not fit in here. Remember him for the three years between 1969 and 1972 instead. He was at his best then.
He defined romanticism the way Dev Anand did, the way Guru Dutt defined pathos and later on Amitabh Bachchan defined anger. It is pointless to discuss who romanced better, Dev Anand or Rajesh Khanna, since comparisons are a vacuous exercise of the ignorant, unappreciative. Both brought their own signature styles into what they did. The shy, harmless, endearing demeanour fit perfectly into the latter’s persona, as did that sly smile, the tilt of the head and his awkward, seemingly untrained, dance steps.
Superstar? It’s debatable. And it’s only an epithet. Probably there were far more accomplished actors around when he ruled the roost, delivering hits in amazing frequency and making women swoon all over the country. Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor were certainly far bigger when it was about acting. How can Rajesh Khanna be considered a superstar among them?
Probably that is what stardom is all about. His phenomenal appeal made him a star, a darling of adoring fans and more importantly, a bankable proposition. Stardom is after all a commercial proposition. No other contemporary had as much bankability as him. They were good but according to popular expectations not better than Rajesh Khanna. He set the benchmark for the succeeding generations. They simply had to be bigger and better. But stardom is also a trap. He realised it too late.
He does not leave the footprint as a brilliant actor. He won’t be recalled with the same respect as many of his contemporaries for his brilliance at histrionics. His contribution to cinema is limited too. But yes, when he burned bright he just outshone everyone around. He brought his own distinct charm to filmi romance, made himself bigger than his movies, a trend still not common in filmdom then. In simple words, he had the charisma, that unique property that separates the successful from the super successful.
How does one remember him? Well, let’s remember him not as the ‘star’. Let’s remember him by the old world, vulnerable, all-too-human characters he portrayed with such elan, as someone who represented Hindi cinema’s age of innocence with such vivacity.