by Gautam Chintamani
If there were ever an actor who’d be remembered more for the songs that were associated with him than anything else, it would be Rajesh Khanna. Those who didn’t know Hindi cinema better wouldn’t believe that sometimes it is the songs associated with an actor that make him truly everlasting. And Rajesh Khanna had more classics to his name than any other star.
In his death, everyone will come up with the most memorable Rajesh Khanna songs – and they have plenty to choose from gems from films such as Aradhana, Safar, Anand, Amar Prem, Kati Patang. There will be, ironically, many songs with zindagi in them – Zindagi Ka Safar Hai Yeh Kaisa Safar or Zindagi Kaisi Hai Paheli Hai or Zindagi Ek Safar Hai Suhana. But nothing can tell the story of Rajesh Khanna as well as a single song from Aap Ki Kasam (1974).
Zindagi ke safar mein guzar jaate hai jo makaam (watch it here) might not make it to the top-five lists of Rajesh Khanna melodies, but that one song is nothing less than his life story. Released at a time when the Amitabh Bachchan juggernaut was gaining momentum Aap Ki Kasam is one of the last great Rajesh Khanna hits. The song comes at the end of the film about a man whose life is destroyed because of his inability to look beyond his brittle ego. Kamal (Rajesh Khanna) is convinced that his wife Sunita (Mumtaz) and his friend Mohan (Sanjeev Kumar) are having an affair and doesn’t stop till he is consumed by it.
If you look closer at the words penned by Anand Bakshi, the song is eerily like Rajesh Khanna finally understanding the wrongs he committed. And it foretells the story of the lonely superstar he would become. Khanna’s meteoric rise to stardom was so sudden that no one, least of all him, knew how to handle the superstar status. There are many tales of how he treated people like day-old newspapers, convinced that his fame was invincible.
Bakshi was almost echoing that when he wrote Waqt chalta hi rahta hai rukta nahi, Ek pal mein ye aage nikal jaata hai (Time marches on, it does not pause, in one moment it races ahead). When he sings the line Ek baar chale jaate hein jo din raat subah sham, Woh woh phir nahi aate, (Once they pass away, days and nights never come back), it is a rumination on the transient nature of fame. His inability to accept people who spoke their mind in front of him are echoed in the lyrics Kuchh log ek roz jo bichhad jaate hain, vo hazaron ke aane se milte nahin (Hundreds tomorrow won’t be able to fill the space left empty by a few who left you that one day).
Legend has it that Khanna was so disturbed by Amitabh Bachchan, the new kid on the block, that he repeatedly ill-treated him on the sets of Bawarchi (1972) when Bachchan used to visit to meet Jaya Bahaduri. In its course, the song seems to suggest Khanna’s reluctant acceptance of Bachchan – Aadmi theek se yeh dekh paata nahi, Aur parde pe manzar badal jaata hai (One barely sees what’s in front of him and the whole stage changes). There are many people that Khanna ill-treated when the going was good and most of them never forgot that. Later he tried to make amends but Bollywood is very good at remembering the bad – Umra bhar chahe koi pukaara kare unka naam Woh phir nahi aate, woh phir nahi aate (You spend a lifetime crying out their names, but those who deserted you never return).
There are superstars and then there is Rajesh Khanna. Sharmila Tagore once said that she hasn’t seen fame like she had seen Khanna’s ever before or ever since. For the while that he was at the top, Rajesh Khanna was nothing less than an emperor and this is what made him banish people from his durbar rather than simply breaking away from those who didn’t agree with him. He had the habit of surrounding himself with yes-men and believed whatever they said to inflate his ego.
This song even uncannily sums up his relationship with his wife, Dimple Kapadia – Kal tadapna pade yaad mein jinki, Rok lo ruth kar unko jaane na do. Baad mein pyaar ke chahe bhejo hazaaro salaam, Woh phir nahi aate, woh phir nahi aate…(Tomorrow you may regret remembering those who may leave you today… stop them from giving up on you… For later, even if you tried to call out, those who forsake you never come back).
This song might predate many of the events that unfolded in Rajesh Khanna’s life, but looking back, it is unnerving just how closely it mirrors the star’s life. The manner in which the song was filmed, Kamal’s realisation that his suspicion has killed their marriage forever, sees him wander aimlessly, regretting his actions for the rest of his life. That is sadly how the screen legend’s real life turned out. A better part of his life, post his glory days, was relegated to being in almost social exile; it’s only in his last few months that Khanna was surrounded by the people he learnt to value the most.
In his death, Rajesh Khanna finally gets a second chance that life never really gave him. The tragedy is that he did not take the lyrics of his own song to heart before they came true.