Once upon a time, there was a Rajesh Khanna. Men aped him. Women worshipped him. And girls married his photographs, smudged his car with lipsticks and waited late night outside hotels hoping to catch a glimpse of him. Once when he had fever, a group of college students spent hours taking turns to put ice water on his forehead in a photograph.
In the history of Hindi cinema, nobody has induced fan hysteria like Rajesh Khanna. And nobody has captured the nation’s collective mindspace like the actor, who passed away at Ashirwad, his iconic Mumbai residence, on Wednesday, 18 July 2012. He was 69. The cause of his death has not been officially announced. But doctors treating him at Lilavati hospital hinted at cancer.
Once he rode into a nation’s heart serenading Sharmila Tagore with Mere sapnon ki raani in Aradhana (1969) and followed it up with another blockbuster Do Raaste a few weeks later, Rajesh Khanna rewrote box-office history. Between the years 1969 and 1972 almost everything he touched turned to gold — 15 consecutive hits of various degrees. No wonder producers chanted: Upar aaka, neeche Kaka (God above and Kaka, Khanna’s pet name, below).
Nobody really knows how an actor of average build, middling height and a face often sprayed with pimples hypnotized India. Maybe, he was the last gasp of innocence when India was getting angry about unemployment and price rise, a hyphen between the simplicity of the years gone by and the uncertainty of the future. Maybe, it was just written. Unable to find a phrase that captured the phenomenon, the industry finally coined a new term: the superstar.
He behaved like a superstar too.
BBC journalist Jack Pizzey described him as someone with the charisma of Rudolph Valentino and the arrogance of Napoleon. The star had missed his interview appointment five times.
The Amritsar-born actor was too big and too swept away by fame to care. Who wouldn’t when even street fashion was defined by your personality? The belt slapped over shirt, the round-collared guru kurta, a smart ploy to hide a growing waistline, all became a rage. And even in those no-sat-TV days, his smile sold toothpaste (Macleans).
He was the king of romance; most at home shaking his head and crooning love nothings. Songs were the spine of his movies; he revived Kishore Kumar’s singing career in Aradhana. But the actor brought no revolution to the art of celluloid love; he just gently blended the playfulness of Dev Anand with a fraction of Dilip Kumar’s intensity; to this, he added his own charm and style.
Critics loved him too for doing off-beat movies such as Ittefaq and Aavishkar. But the actor knew how to wet a handkerchief too. Few actors have milked tear ducts better than him and fewer have profited more from a broken heart. It is easy to empathize with the smiling cancer patient in Anand or the large-hearted bhadrolok in Amar Prem. There is a style with which he says: “Pushpa, I hate tears.” Rajesh’s acting was defined by style. But in his later years, the style degenerated into a bundle of mannerisms. Like Dev Anand, Rajesh Khanna too became his own parody.
Once the action films’ angry young man came with Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna’s romantic movies (typified by Shakti Samanta films) went out of fashion. A sudden marriage to Dimple Kapadia, almost half his age, got him back in focus. But his attitude issues as an actor — coming late for shooting on sets, ego clashes with other stars — ensured that he lost big banners and good directors once the chips were down. After Mehbooba (1975) flopped, his superstar days were over.
But just when critics wrote him off, the actor made a comeback of sorts with Amardeep (1979). Right through the 1980s, he blended the occasional hit (Souten, Maqsad) with the rare blockbuster (Avtaar) and a stream of flops.
Joining the Congress in 1991 was a shrewd career move. The same year he contested the Lok Sabha election against BJP leader L K Advani, then on Cloud 9 following his Ayodhya rath yatra, and gave him the fright of his life. The actor lost by only 1,589 votes from the New Delhi Lok Sabha constituency. A few months later, he comfortably won the byelection beating fellow actor Shatrughan Sinha. But in politics, the actor sparkled like a shooting star only to vanish with the same speed.
The last two decades were disappointing for the ex-superstar. In 1997, he played a father in RK Productions’ Aa Ab Laut Chalein. He also acted in forgettable television serials such as Ittefaq. When an ex-superstar ends up rubbing sun cream on the back of the likes of Laila Khan as he did in Wafaa (2008), you know he isn’t doing too well.
But then as the superstar might have said, Hum to sab rangmanch ki kathputliyan hain… And for his fans, Rajesh Khanna will always be the only and forever superstar.
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