Book excerpt: The truth behind Rajesh Khanna and the Havells ad that shocked the world

Image is everything when to comes to filmstars. By the time the world saw Rajesh Khanna in the Havells television commercial it had almost forgotten what he looked like in real life. For the legions of his die-hard fans he was still Anand or Bawarchi’s Raghu or Amar Prem’s Anand babu and had ceased to exist beyond his celebrated roles. Off screen he was the superstar who illuminated the brightest and then fell into unimaginable darkness. The moment the world saw him as the feeble, faded star left with electrical appliances for fans in a advertisement, the enduring image of the iconic star changed forever. This is an excerpt from the book Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna by Gautam Chintamani published by Harper Collins India.

 Book excerpt: The truth behind Rajesh Khanna and the Havells ad that shocked the world

Rajesh Khanna on the sets with ad filmmaker and Hindi film director R Balki. Image credit: Balki.

Rajesh Khanna knew that the Havells commercial was likely to be the very last time he would ever face a camera. His lifelong passion to perform had kept a glimmer of hope alive regarding his prospects. There were some rumours of him being offered a wild-card entry during the third season of the popular reality show Bigg Boss but Khanna refused to be a part of it.

Unmindful of his failing health, Khanna’s heart was set on making his upcoming outing with the camera as memorable as possible and even a minor accident that restricted his movements couldn’t dampen his spirits. A few days before he was to fly to Bangalore for the shoot, Khanna slipped in the bathroom and fractured his ankle. Although it resulted in just a hairline fracture, the fall caused protein drainage that led to a massive swelling in his ankle which, due to his failing health, aggravated the situation. Khanna didn’t want to miss the shoot and decided to check into a hospital to help reduce the persistent swelling. ‘He wanted it to come down to a level where he could slip into his shoes,’ recalls Raseen, who had accompanied Khanna to the shoot. The medical attention made the pain somewhat bearable for Khanna as he drove straight from the hospital to the airport on the eve of the shoot.

Only the night before the shoot did Balki realize how bad Khanna’s condition was. It had been just a month since he had met Khanna, but a lot had changed in the interim. ‘I didn’t expect him to be so frail and offered to postpone the shoot,’ recalls Balki, recounting how, even in a frail state with a drip dangling from his arm, Khanna was raring to go.

The next morning, Khanna reached the location, an indoor stadium, on time – what a delicious irony in Khanna being on time for his last shoot – and reported on the floor in full makeup and costume, ready to take on the long day of hard work that lay in front of him. He was feeling breathless while manoeuvring his mark. The swelling in his ankle made it difficult for him to stand for more than half a minute and the state of his health made it worse. Yet, the instant he would hear Balki’s call for action, something would switch on inside Khanna, and for the brief period of the filming, the face that couldn’t smile smiled, the feet that hobbled waltzed and the eyes came alive. The arc lights shone on Khanna, but it wasn’t the spotlight that illuminated him. Like it had happened a million times before, it was Khanna’s soul that lit up the moment he found himself in front of the lens, and for a little while he forgot about the pain.

Although the commercial was slated to go on air to coincide with the new season of the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket series, Balki was worried about pushing Khanna beyond his point of endurance. He recalls how Khanna gave it his all for the duration of the shots, following which he would retreat to a wheelchair. ‘I kept asking him if he wanted to take a break, but he insisted that we carry on,’ says Balki. He adds that it was only at seven in the evening that Khanna mentioned he was tired. Even in his feeble state, Khanna surprised Balki with his cinematic instinct when he gently reminded the director about a few cutaways that he had missed. Khanna was aware that this would be his final hurrah and treated everyone present to an impromptu jig at the end of the shoot by enacting his ultimate farewell line, ‘Achchha to hum chalte hain…’ from Aan Milo Sajna.

The parameter within which popular Hindi cinema operates understands only two things – rise and downfall. According to industry wisdom, anyone who rises must be proud and by that virtue the one who falls couldn’t be anything but bitter. Almost three decades separated the wild frenzy that Rajesh Khanna generated and the Havells commercial that celebrated the whirl the actor caused. As expected, the television commercial generated a great deal of buzz and reactions covering an entire spectrum of emotions began pouring in. For millions of Khanna’s fans and a huge majority of those who had an anthropological interest in him, the advertisement’s tragicomedy was a little too surreal to digest. Khanna may have lapped up the chance to laugh at himself and to cock a snook at those who, believing him to be bitter about the hand that fate dealt him, expected a traditional nostalgic spin to the advertisement. But watching him saunter into the frame dressed in an elegant tuxedo and revelling in the adoration of thousands of die-hard ‘fans’, no one expected the comic turn in the end. To many fans, watching the Rajesh Khanna look right into the camera and equate the undying admirer to an electric appliance was nothing less than an acknowledgement that their idol had feet of clay. To some, the whole exercise reeked of desperation on Balki’s part, for exploiting Khanna’s longing to cling on to anything remotely reminiscent of his glory days.

Bombay-Dyeing

Not just die-hard fans but even those who knew Khanna well once upon a time, such as his mami Madhu Talwar, felt that the commercial exploited Khanna as well as his fans. But the director rubbishes such viewpoints and questions the heartfelt response of certain people and asks where they were during the years when Khanna had been relegated to oblivion. He adds that when he made it clear to Khanna that the advertisement would seem to mock him as well his achievements, Khanna told him that was the reason he liked the whole idea. The actor felt that it was, in fact, he himself who was making fun of his glory by coming out there and saying, ‘Abhi mere paas kuch fans nahin, bas yeh hi hai’ (Now, these are the only fans I’m left with). Even during the shooting, Balki reiterated the possibility of the actor regretting doing the advertisement and confessed to the actor about feeling bad at the thought of Khanna being mocked in the ad; but the actor smiled knowingly and told him to carry on.

Balki believes that the advertisement’s tragicomic essence came through so powerfully because it employed the truth to show a washed-out superstar whose sadness lay forgotten till he decided to address it. Divided between the many who detested the commercial and an equally vociferous lot that didn’t find anything wrong with it, the ad nonetheless managed to get people talking about Rajesh Khanna in a manner not seen for over two decades. Balki says, ‘He laughed. He laughed the loudest at every comment,’ and adds that the actor was so confident of the execution that he didn’t even bother to view the final cut before it went on air. The extent of interest the ad generated pleased Khanna and he enjoyed being talked about and discussed, smiling as yarns were spun about his alleged exploitation. ‘People don’t like others putting it the way it is and having a laugh at it,’ says Balki and adds that if the ad were in negative light, Khanna’s family would have been the first to point it out. The director says that, like Khanna, his son-in-law Akshay Kumar was thrilled, both at how the commercial shaped up and the massive response it generated.

Perhaps the real reason for the hysteria behind the Havells commercial was the way it changed the physical image of Rajesh Khanna forever. Till a few years ago, the smiling innocence of Anand or the lovelorn pathos of Amar Prem would be the first thing that came to mind when one thought of Rajesh Khanna, but his frailty in the advertisement transformed the physicality of the icon. In a day and age in which social media makes news travel faster than ever, it also makes bad news travel farthest, and the video of the making of the commercial that revealed the extent of Khanna’s ill health went viral. Rather than confirm his joy about making his maiden commercial, Khanna’s breathlessness while giving a sound bite revealed the state he was actually in. The more hits the video got, the more people discussed the life of the superstar; and with each page view, the search for material featuring Rajesh Khanna on video-sharing websites such as YouTube increased. For once, Rajesh Khanna had managed to time his exit to perfection.

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Updated Date: Dec 08, 2014 12:02:04 IST