They are the living legends, the superstars who took Hindi cinema to towering heights long before NRI markets opened, with their mesmerising mix of looks, persona, talent and charisma. This time we look at Rajesh Khanna, labelled by the Indian media and his PR machinery as the 'First Superstar Of Hindi Cinema' or simply, 'The Phenomenon'.
Born Jatin, the young orphan was adopted by a doting and wealthy couple named Khanna. And though he stayed in a lower middle-class apartment in downtown Mumbai, he became the first struggler to do the rounds of producers in his own imported MG sports car ? an industry first: his foster-parents, albeit apprehensively, had allowed him to try his hand at acting.
It was somewhere in late 1966 and early 1967 that two films called Raaz and Aakhri Khat released ? and flopped. The common hero was called Rajesh Khanna and the films a part of his prize for winning the All-India United Producers' Talent Competition.
Khanna had a rudimentary theatrical experience, and despite these flops, on the strength of his talent and that mysterious charisma, he had been signed by biggies Shakti Samanta, Raj Khosla, Asit Sen, A Subba Rao and finally B R Chopra. And so it was that when destiny engineered the back-to-back releases of these five films within the last three months of 1969.
Leading the parade was Shakti Samanta's Aradhana, the musical sensation that clinched Khanna's long link with the filmmaker and Sharmila Tagore, and Khosla's Do Raaste that set off the much more successful Mumtaz-Rajesh Khanna pair.
And if Aradhana consolidated his friendship with associate music director R D Burman and Do Raaste with Laxmikant-Pyarelal, both films established the bond with Kishore Kumar and lyricist Anand Bakshi, with all of them becoming the bulwark of the star's solidly-musical reputation.
A lot has been written and said even now about his music sense. If Laxmikant-Pyarelal and R D Burman dominated his music, Kalyanji-Anandji, S D Burman, Shankar Jaikishan and so many other composers also gave him instant but enduring chartbusters. And film-lore has it that all of this was not explained by these humongous music talents and melody-savvy filmmakers alone. Khanna would listen to a song, ruminate on it (without a physical copy with him) and would clear it only if he still recalled it easily days later
But what stood out was the emergence of a young sensation who commanded unprecedented hysteria. If men turned wannabe Khannas and imitated his hairstyle, his guru-kurta and also his stock mannerisms, girls swooned at his sight, wrote letters in blood and went ballistic over the bent head, the crinkling of his eyes and that dreamy smile.
And perhaps the adage "It never rains but it pours" was created for Kaka, as he was affectionately named.
Through the successive hits that followed (for five years, if you ignored the occasional exceptions) Rajesh Khanna could do no wrong.
His girlfriend and early support system Anju Mahendroo was the first to get the taste of the flipside of his superstardom and the accoutrements that Khanna willingly allowed ? opportunistic hangers-on, ego-boosting acolytes and a coterie that alienated true well-wishers and friends. In a shocking development, Khanna dumped her and married Dimple Bobby Kapadia weeks before the release of her debut film Bobby in 1973.
But if 1969 was the year that made the Phenomenon, 1973 proved a watershed. The marriage soon went on the rocks, and the couple split, but not before two kids, now known as Twinkle and Rinke Khanna, and endless acrimony happened. Simultaneously, rival lover-boy Rishi Kapoor arrived as Dimple's Bobby co-star, as did the man who by his sheer force of persona and disciplined professionalism proved to be Khanna's nemesis ?
Amitabh Bachchan. Khanna's commercial downfall came as swiftly as a thunderbolt despite his continued hits and evergreen chartbusters.
As a star he continued doling out the occasional hit all the way to the 80s, and as always never shirked from experiment. If his peak saw him take up Khamoshi, Anand, Aap Ki Kasam and Aakraman, he still dared to essay a psychopath in Red Rose, a philanderer in Dhanwan and a politician in Aaj Ka MLA Ram Avtar.
The magic, however, had waned. Even a political career proved uneventful and he turned producer officially with two films that went nowhere. Khanna tried his hands playing screen father, made friends with his estranged wife and even tried acting in a tele-film and in a serial or two. He publicly admitted to the mistakes he had made in the first heady flush of stardom, but the desperation (as proved by his recent skin-flick Wafaa) and ego-centric inaccessibility remained.
But Khanna is not so much about the wrongs he did but about his awesome achievements that form a historic chapter in Indian cinema. As Mumtaz puts it, "I think no one has seen the success the guy has seen in his time."