The original superstar
It was somewhere in early 1967 that two films called Raaz and Aakhri Khat were released. They were made by top filmmakers of the time - G.P.Sippy and Chetan Anand respectively - but nosedived at the b-o. Their heroines Babita and Indrani Mukherjee were unknown and only the haunting solos Akele hain chale aao and Baharon mera jeevan bhi sanwaaro, respectively, made a mark.
Someone said that the common-to-both hero was a man called Rajesh Khanna, and that the films were a part of his predetermined prize for winning the All-India United Producers' Talent Competition. Write-ups spoke of an actor who was confidence personified. Born Jatin on December 29, 1942 in Amritsar, he was an orphan adopted by a wealthy and indulgent couple, Mr and Mrs Khanna. Destiny had already made special the man who was not born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth but had acquired a golden one after birth instead.
Time passed. The big name heroes ruled, and two more big names, S.S.Vasan of Gemini (Aurat) and Nasir Husain (Baharon Ke Sapne) made also-ran films with him. With the latter, the actor struck up an enduring friendship with Nasir's composer, R.D.Burman.
The actor, who had come to Mumbai with the backing of rather apprehensive parents and rudimentary theatrical experience, struggled in his own car - a first again. And wonder of wonders, despite flops, he had been signed by biggies Shakti Samanta, Raj Khosla, Asit Sen and a Milan-fresh A.Subba Rao. In between making two big films, B.R.Chopra had also launched a song-less suspense quickie - Ittefaq directed by Yash Chopra - with him too.
And that Khanna was special was borne out when destiny engineered the back-to-back releases of Shakti's Aradhana and Khosla's Do Raaste in late 1969. The euphoria began with the endemic popularity of the S.D.Burman chartbusters from the first film and when Rajesh Khanna made his entry singing Mere sapnon ki rani kab aayegi tu, it was an irresistible invitation to his dreams rather than to a dream girl. And Khanna became the new icon of romance as well as passion (Roop tera mastana) and mischief (Baagon mein bahaar hai) in an unforgettable father-and-son double dose.
It never rains, it pours. Perhaps this truism was created for the struggler that was Khanna, or Kaka, as he was later affectionately named. "Stardom" was but a tepid term for the hysteria he generated, and though the successive hits that followed for almost two years (or five, if you sidelined the exceptions) had instrinsic merits, we have to grant it to Khanna that in that blessed phase he could do no wrong.
Do Raaste, Ittefaq, Doli, Bandhan, Saccha Jhutha (one of his most understated and underrated performances), Safar, Aan Milo Sajana, the cult Haathi Mere Saathi and Andaz, the once-in-a-lifetime Anand, Kati Patang, Maryada, Dushmun, Amar Prem, Daag, Anuraag, Namak Haram (despite the subtle post-Zanjeer change in the Rajesh Khanna-Amitabh Bachchan equation), Roti (a home production), Premnagar, Aap Ki Kasam, Ajnabee and Prem Kahani - Khanna packed a stunning box-office punch of 22 more jubilee hits!
You had to 'record' that era 'live' to know the demi-god Khanna was. The media has written about girls swooning at his sight, writing him letters in blood and slashing wrists when he dumped girlfriend and early support system Anju Mahendroo and married Dimple Bobby Kapadia; of men dressing like him - the guru kurta became a fashion statement for years - and imitating his hairstyle; about his almost-daily parties with friends true and opportunistic and his "loyal" producers. But the reports are nothing but bland statements of a time when Khanna's nod of the head, his crinkle-eyed smile and all his stock mannerisms had acquired a near-divine status.
In those days, Mumbai's 2-kilometre Opera House to Grant Road stretch was crammed with a dozen movie-halls, and it was not unusual to find the best of them concurrently running Khanna's movies to crammed houses for 25 or more weeks. Come out of the theatres and enter a café or switch on the radio at home and both would be full of the timeless and boundless array of chartbusters the man inspired music directors to create. It is a moot point whether Khanna catapulted Kishore Kumar to the top as a singer or the other way round, but Khanna, undoubtedly, was one of the focal points of the healthy but royal battle that raged between composers each vying to give him the best, and clearly the four composers who worked with him the most - S.D.Burman, Kalyanji-Anandji, R.D.Burman and Laxmikant-Pyarelal - had the edge over their competitors.
Khanna's commercial downfall came as swiftly as a thunderbolt. Trends changed, Rishi Kapoor became the new romantic heartthrob, action took centerstage and the superstar's mannerisms lost their fresh magic. But even more than that was Rajesh Khanna's own contribution: his increasing lack of professionalism, his manipulation with scripts that had male co-stars fuming and ganging up in the fast-emerging multi-star film trend, his hangers-on that put off self-respecting associates and his alleged starry tantrums. Last but but not the least, his traumatic relationship and final split with wife Dimple even after the birth of his two daughters Twinkle and Rinke was not exactly the stuff past icons of love should be about.
Much water has flown since under the Khanna bridge. As a star he continued doling out the occasional hit (Chhaila Babu, Amar Deep, Thodi Si Bewafaii, Dhanwan, Avtaar, Souten, Maqsad, Amrit) all the way to the '80s, and as always never shirked from experiment. If his peak saw him take up Khamoshi, Anand, Amar Prem, Aap Ki Kasam and Aakraman in offbeat or gray roles, he daringly played a psychopath in Red Rose, a philanderer in Dhanwan and a politician in Aaj Ka MLA Ram Avtar even later.
But the magic had waned even if the larger-than-life charisma had not. A political career took off uneventfully and he turned producer officially with two films that went nowhere. Khanna tried his hands playing screen father to Akshaye Khanna (Aa Ab Laut Chalen) and Tusshar Kapoor (Mujhe Kucch Kehna Hai), made friends with his wife and others he had antagonised, and even tried acting in a tele-film and in a soap or two. When he received the Golden Actor recognition from the Phalke Academy some weeks ago, with rare candour, he admitted to the mistakes he had made in the first heady flush of stardom.
But perhaps like his unprecedented innings, that too was all pre-ordained. And Rajesh Khanna is not so much about the wrongs he did but about his awesome achievements that form a historic chapter in Indian cinema.
Kings decide history, Gods write it. And Khanna wrote the last chapter of the era of innocence in Hindi films.
‘We were a lucky pair!’
"Rajesh Khanna was a star who made a lot of difference to my career. In seven years from Do Raaste to Prem Kahani we starred in eight major hits but no flops! Show me a single lead pair with this record - even Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol have done only five hits. Interestingly, the two films in which we did only cameos - my Raja Rani and his Aaina - were the only ones that flopped!
"Yes, we were considered a very lucky pair. Rajesh Khanna was a good and very professional co-star but not very outgoing. He was always very reserved and had few friends. He would usually report late on the sets, but he would never leave without completing his work.
"We were neighbours too, so we would often meet, but he would still be introverted, unlike me. Today, he has changed completely. I have quit films and we are two people happy in our own worlds. We last met more than two years ago, when my daughter Natasha got married to Zayed Khan. He came for some of the wedding functions and I think that it was very nice of him to do so.
"We first shot for Do Raaste and Bandhan. Both films were being made simultaneously, and he was a struggling hero. But after they were released he became a superstar, a Phenomenon as he was known. I think no one has seen the success the guy has seen, with a line of cars of his producers and hysterical fans outside his bungalow every day. He would be very generous with his associates, and would party a lot. As an actor, he was very good, and I particularly want to mention his performances in Aradhana, Anand, Dushmun and Roti. His mannerisms were a rage. Of course they would look funny today, but such things are always related to the timeframe. Among our films, all were focussed on him except for Aap Ki Kasam, but I had varied roles in them all.
"I recall shooting for his home production Roti in Kashmir - we were filming the climax and he had to carry me up a slope, The shooting went on for 3 days and I was always on the plump side, and the poor man's shoulder was red because of my weight! But he brushed off my apologies!"
‘He should come back to films!’
"He was a good actor and a good-hearted man. But after he made a name for himself, he shifted a bit from his goodness! He joined politics and left movies. I wish he would come back and concentrate on films."
"Rajesh Khanna won our United Producers' acting competition. I was making another film at the time and my friend G.P.Sippy gave him a break with Raaz. But it was only after Aradhana that he became a superstar. He was a naturally good actor. Even during the competition, he had spoken his lines so well. His strength was how he understood a character in a script.
"Aradhana had a double role for him. The story was lying with me for a while so the writer sold it to someone else, and because of that I had to change the climax of the film. But I had confidence - in Rajesh and in myself - that I could deliver, and the experiment was successful!
"Rajesh Khanna's weakness was that he could not do action, and that his quick success made him too overjoyed! After many films together, I made films with some other actors because the roles did not suit him, but we joined hands again in the '80s for Awaaz, my own film, and his first production Alag Alag, but neither did well. The latter was based on a Pakistani story that had flopped even there. I had warned him that it would not work, but he insisted on making it!"
‘We had an unspoken bond that continues even today’
"Rajesh Khanna was lucky for us and we were lucky for him too. From the 1969 Do Raaste to the 1986 Amrit, we gave hits together both as films and as music scores. We used so many singers for him - Rafisaab, Mukeshji, Mahendra Kapoor, Amit Kumar and Mohammed Aziz among them - but he would always request us to fit in Kishore Kumar wherever possible. I recall how Kishoreda was very reluctant to sing Waada tera waada in Dushmun and was insisting we get Rafi for it. We surrounded Kishoreda and Rajesh Khanna winked at Laxmi(kant) and me and told Kishoreda that in that case we would scrap the song. And he immediately changed his mind!
"Rajesh had an unspoken bond with Laxmi and me. Even today, he sometimes calls up to recall the great times we had together and says, "Yaar humne kya kaam kiya hai!". When we went on our first overseas concert tour in 1984, he came and danced to three songs. He was very particular about his music and would take a tape home if he could not assess a song. He would then give his feedback after a day or two. But if he liked a song at the sitting, he would loudly shout "Wah! Wah!" in appreciation. After he heard the mukhda of Mere dil mein aaj kya hai from Daag he stopped us from making him listen to the first antara and told Yash (Chopra)ji that it would be a hit!
"It was God's blessing that we came up with such a vast range of hit songs for him, including in his home productions Roti, Aashiq Hoon Baharon Ka and Chakravyuha. Incidentally, he had a stake in Mehboob Ki Mehndi too. He had great interest in music and a terrific sense of melody too. His music is dominated by Pancham (R.D.Burman) and us and we accepted Shakti Samanta's Anurodh only because Rajesh Khanna had had some misunderstanding with Pancham then and did not want to work with him."
(As told to RV)