Bollywood’s first ‘superstar’ was difficult, temperamental, vain — but only human. A look back at the man, often known as the King of Romance, a trailblazer in the early 70s, ousted from the numero uno spot by the Angry Young Man, and, in
his own words,
never gave up
Perhaps he would have been surprised by the full turnout of Bollywood — from his archrivals during his heydays to the superstars of today — at his last rites. The print media, too, which had scoffed at his fall from grace, dedicated reams of space to the superstar who had retreated from the glare of show business.
As many as three pages in a single day’s issue of some of the leading national dailies carried unconditional tributes to yesteryear’s heartthrob. It was unanimously acknowledged that he was India’s first superstar. No Hindi film hero has ever commanded the kind of hysterical fan following which Rajesh Khanna did, and perhaps never will.
Amitabh Bachchan and Jaya Bhaduri, it is no secret, had their professional differences with the actor who was nicknamed Kaka by his peers. Similarly, his co-stars Vinod Khanna and Asha Parekh, who never socialised with him, were there to bid farewell. It’s been a fortnight since Rajesh Khanna’s passing away, but he is still being remembered for his abundant oeuvre — many of which were heart-tugging tales of tragedy like Anand, Safar, Khamoshi and Namak Haram — in some of which he excelled in performing death scenes.
For a teenager like me in the late 1960s, he also spelt romance. Many of us in college didn’t know the meaning of the word Aradhana (worship) but since its release in 1969, it has always been associated with its hero. Fan worship for us began with the actor with the dazzling smile. And the fact that he often walked away into the sunset at the end with drop-dead gorgeous heroines—like Sharmila Tagore, Mumtaz and Hema Malini — incited envy among the campus crowd, exacerbated by his overnight wedding with the beauteous Dimple Kapadia.
The inaugural issue of Stardust magazine in 1971, naturally, placed him on the cover. Soon after, stories that he had jilted his long-time girlfriend Anju Mahendru were perfect grist for the gossip mills. Ditto rumours that the Bobby girl had opted for Rajesh Khanna over a film career and steady date Rishi Kapoor (whenever Dimple or Rishi have been quizzed about this, their answers have been evasive).
Bollywood, like most industries, operates on Murphy’s Law: if anything can go wrong, it will. Rajesh Khanna’s descent was steady but sure. Amitabh Bachchan, as the Angry Young Man, had erased romance from the movies. Babu Moshai of Anand, who portrayed a supporting part, had sprinted way ahead. And in a business where friendships are fickle, it couldn’t have been easy for the King of Romance to see his most loyal directors like Shakti Samanta and Yash Chopra switching lanes to the angst-spewing phenomenon of the day.
Partly, Khanna was responsible for his own decline, since he behaved moodily and was surrounded by a coterie of what are called ‘chamchas’ in film argot. His image came in for an even more severe drubbing when his wife walked out on him, with their two daughters Twinkle and Rinke. Magazines no longer featured him on the cover. And influential columnists like Devyani Chaubal hurled print brickbats at him instead of bouquets. Clearly, an actor is loved or loathed, in keeping with his fame status.
As a journalist, I met him during his on-the-skids phase. He was shooting with Rakesh Roshan and Reena Roy, for a film titled Dhanwan (1981). I had been warned that I would be treated to the patented, famous Rajesh Khanna mood swings. Lunch break had been called for, and I wasn’t disappointed. Shaking hands grudgingly with a fledgling reporter, he complained, “So now Filmfare is sending a kid
to interview me? The seniors think I’m not big enough for them.”
Tongue-tied, I looked downcast. He proceeded to size me up, beating a drumbeat on a table for a minute or two, which seemed like an eternity. Finally, he acceded, “Let’s get on with it.” The published interview was ordinary, not the kind I would preserve in my file of cuttings.
Later, I bumped into him, accompanied by Tina Munim, at a film preview. I was re-introduced, Tina suggested a Q & A. It was fixed for the next day at his sea-facing, reasonably well-appointed Aashirwad bungalow.
By now, the actor had regained some lost ground in the popularity charts with the success of Souten (1983). He was at ease, spoke his heart out on what he thought about his former producers (“It’s a rat race. Can’t blame them for giving up on a rat who’s fed up of running.”). Accepting his own errors of judgement, he also admitted that fame and adulation can be heady, ending with the proviso that he’s an actor, and always will be. “My doors are open to all, even those who lost faith in me,” he stated. “Now it’s up to them. Take me or leave me.”
On the Sunday morning the interview appeared, he called up to say, “I’ve framed the interview! You got the real me, didn’t change a word… so now, stay in touch.”
That didn’t happen. After a point, he practically gave up on the movies, embraced politics and was anchored in New Delhi. Stories circulated that he was doing okay, then not-so-okay, that he was lonely
and indisposed even though he was still surrounded by women who fawned over him. As for Dimple Kapadia, whom I got to know well down the years, she has never had a negative word for him, instead asserting, “Kaka is a great guy… it didn’t work out between us… it doesn’t between many couples. There are no ill-feelings.”
The last time I bumped into Rajesh Khanna was a year ago at the domestic airport in Mumbai. He was en route to New Delhi. He recognised me after some effort, smiling in his patented style. “You’ve lost a lot of weight, haven’t you?” he asked. “And are you still working?” To that, I answered, “Yes and no!”
Pause. So with another smile, he left, saying, “Just like me, just like me… but keep at it. Never give up.”
India’s first superstar had a heart, perhaps too much of it. Only many of us didn’t appreciate it sufficiently while he was there.
(The writer has been reviewing Bollywood for decades, has scripted three films and directed