Rajesh Khanna: The Superstar who could not handle success
Sometime in March this year I was taking a Tamil aunt of mine around Mumbai. As we went around on the Carter Road in Bandra I showed her Rajesh Khanna’s bungalow, Aashirward. “My sister even named her son after him,” she told me. “Such was his craze”.
Rajesh Khanna died today after years of loneliness and a drinking habit he couldn’t overcome. Actors often enact death scenes in movies and Rajesh Khanna enacted a particularly powerful scene in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anand. In this scene Anand (the character played by Khanna is dying) is dying due to the lymphosarcoma of the intestine and there is tape playing in the background which has Babumoshai (played by Amitabh Bachchan, someone who would become Bollywood’s next superstar) speaking the following lines:
Maut tu ek kavita hai ..
mujhse ek kavita ka vaadaa hai milegi mujhko…
(Death you are a poem..
a poem has made pact with me that I shall meet her .. )
Death and Khanna finally came together today on a rainy afternoon in Mumbai.
Khanna’s first movie was Chetan Anand’s Aakhri Khat, a movie which everyone has forgotten by now except for the rather soulful number “baharon mera jeevan bhi sawaron” sung by Lata Mangeshkar and set to tune by Khaiyyam.
The movie which set Khanna on his superstardom was Shakti Samanta’s Aradhana. There was no looking back after this as Khanna delivered one hit after another. Such was his craze among women that they would wait for hours to have a glimpse of him, marry his photographs and even name their sons after him (as was the case with my aunt’s sister).
As Sharmila Tagore said in interview to Indian Express, “Women came out in droves to see Kaka (Khanna). They would stand in queues outside the studios to catch a glimpse, they would marry his photographs,they would pull at his clothes. Delhi girls were crazier for him than Mumbai girls. He needed police protection when he was in public. I have never seen anything like this before and since.”
But unlike Amitabh Bachchan who followed him or Dilip Kumar who preceeded him Khanna’s movies hardly had any great dialogue. As Avijit Ghosh writes in Bollywood’s Top 20: Superstars of Indian Cinema “Rajesh Khanna became an actor without his best lines.” The only dialogue that people probably remember till date is a line from Amar Prem: “Pushpa I hate tears”. And that after mimicry artists have used it over and over again over the years. Other than this his dialogues from Anand are well remembered till date.
The movies of Rajesh Khanna’s may not have had the best of the lines but they had brilliant music composed by Laxmikant-Pyarelal (LP) and RD Burman. This was a huge reason for his success. The music for his first big hit Aradhana was officially composed by SD Burman, but since the senior Burman was taken ill, the music was composed by his son RD Burman, though he wasn’t credited for it.
The story goes that Khanna used to clear a tune only if he remembered it a few days after the composition had first been presented to him. Also he made LP and RD Burman compete for his films, getting the best out of both in the process.
The lyric writer Anand Bakshi wrote some of his best lines for Rajesh Khanna. Even bad films like Aap ki Kasam had great songs like zindagi ke safar main guzar jaate hain jo makaam wo phir nahi aate.
His superstardom also revived the singing career of Kishore Kumar and together they formed a hit pair. Some of the most soulful numbers of Kishore Kumar from chingari to ye lal rang kab mujhe chodega to my all time favourite Kishore number jab dard nahi tha seene main tab khak mazza tha jeene main were filmed on Khanna.
Such was the Rajesh Khanna craze that he had 15 consecutive solo super-hits between 1969 to 1971, a record which the biggest superstar of Hindi cinema Amitabh Bachchan also could not break. And like most of the batting records set by Sachin Tendulkar it is likely to remain unbroken, the Khan superstars of this day and age notwithstanding.
But superstardom was something that Khanna could not handle. ““At one point, Rajesh Khanna was a god, but the trouble with him is that he started thinking he was one,” Ali Peter John, a film journalist, told the Open magazine around a month back. Jack Pizzey, who made a documentary titled Bombay Superstar on Khanna described him as an actor who had the “charisma of Rudolph Valentino and the arrogance of Napoleon”.
Success got into his head. And the first victim of this was his girlfriend of seven years Anju Mahendru. After the breakup Khanna married Dimple Kapadia before the release of her first movie Bobby, on the rebound. The story goes that he got his baraat to go in front of Mahendru’s bungalow (which was actually Khanna’s bungalow). They did not speak for nearly 17 years after his marriage.
With success came a group of hangers on, who kept reminding Khanna that he was the superstar. “Although those were the days when Khanna was ‘friends’ with nearly all his colleagues, the regular darbar that he held at Aashirwad had only small-timers in attendance. Among those he hung out with were the producers Mohan Kumar and Johnny Bakshi, writer VK Sharma and villain Roopesh Kumar (claimed to be a cousin of Mumtaz). Do these names ring a bell?” wrote Shaikh Ayaz in the Open sometime back.
In 1973, four years into Khanna’s success everything changed. The year saw the release of Prakash Mehra’s Zanjeer. A script written by Salim-Javed and which was rejected by seven different actors (including Dev Anand) before Amitabh Bachchan finally took it on. The movie was a smash hit and saw the birth of the angry young man. Before Zanjeer the maar-dhad films were not a part of the mainstream of Hindi cinema and were referred to as stunt films, which had the likes of Dara Singh in the lead role.
Zanjeer changed all that. And Khanna was anything but the angry young man. He was the boy next door. Thus started the decline of Rajesh Khanna. He made several attempts at a comeback and had occasional hits like Souten in which he was paired opposite Tina Munim.
When Bachchan was on his way up Khanna tried to brush his success aside. As Ayaz points out in the Open magazine “Aise attan button aate jaate rahenge, lekin Rajesh Khanna ko koi chhoo bhi nahi sakta. Main kya aise aire gaire logon se darr jaaunga?” But with the rise of Amitabh Bachchan, Salim-Javed and the angry young man, Khanna’s superstardom had well and truly ended.
Khanna briefly moved onto politics representing the New Delhi constituency for the Congress party between 1992 and 1996. The comebacks also continued in the meanwhile. The most embarrassing of them all being the 2008 movie Wafaa: A Deadly Love Story in which he starred opposite the now supposedly dead Laila Khan. The story goes he also almost entered the Big Boss house and his son-in-law Akshay Kumar got the deal scuttled.
Rajesh Khanna’s life closely resembled the life of the lead character in the 1950 Hollywood film The Sunset Boulevard. Norma Desmond is a long forgotten lonely film star of the silent movie era in the movie. She still can’t get over the fact that her days of superstardom are over. And she is trying to make this one last comeback. Things go wrong and in the end she shoots her paramour Joe. In the classic last scene of the movie news cameras have arrived at her house. Norma is hallucinating by then and thinks that the news cameras are actually film cameras. She descends the grand staircase of her house and says the famous last lines of the movie.
“I can't go on with the scene. I'm too happy. Do you mind, Mr DeMille (a famous film director in Hollywood during those days), if I say a few words? Thank you. I just want to tell you how happy I am to be back in the studio making a picture again.You don't know how much I've missed all of you. And I promise you I'll never desert you again, because after "Salome" we'll make another picture, and another and another. You see, this is my life. It always will be. There's nothing else — just us and the cameras and those wonderful people out there in the dark... All right, Mr DeMille, I'm ready for my closeup.”
Rajesh Khanna rest in peace.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)