Rajesh Khanna in Bawarchi. (Express archive photo)
Mention Aradhana, Amar Prem, Kati Patang, Anand, Namak Haraam and Aap Ki Kasam to Rajesh Khanna fans, and you can feel their hearts jumping with joy. Between 1969 and 1975, Khanna (today is his birth anniversary) redefined stardom in Hindi cinema in a way that prompted critics and super-fans to rewrite the rules of conventional notions of fame to suit his crazy popularity — because what had previously passed for movie celebrity wouldn't fit the Aradhana star's mythology. In the early '70s, before newcomer Amitabh Bachchan dethroned him, Khanna had amassed enough hits and blockbusters to earn a permanent star on the Bollywood Walk of Fame. In hindsight, a modern viewer might feel some of those big hits starring him have not aged too well. The general consensus seems to be that his pairing with Hrishikesh Mukherjee, the master of middle-cinema comedies, produced films of a more lasting quality. Even within that space, one name stands taller than the rest. That is, of course, the fan favourite Anand from 1971.
But there's one gem that gets lost in the blizzard of box-office tsunami, in what has since come to be known as Kaka's golden years. There's nothing in Khanna's 15-hits run quite like Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Bawarchi in which Hrishi-da insisted on snatching Kaka's totemic star power and mystique away from him. At his peak Hrishi-da cast him in an unglamorous avatar of a cook, a character that, decades later, influenced David Dhawan's Govinda starrer Hero No. 1. More recently, Mukherjee's cinema became a model for Rajkumar Hirani and many other contemporary directors. Writer Avijit Ghosh saw that crucial link when he billed Bawarchi as "proto-Munnabhai." Bawarchi itself was a remake of a popular Bengali film. Its protagonist Raghu, played by the dreamy-eyed Khanna, however, is no ordinary cook. The philosophy-spouting Raghu is a man for all seasons, an all-rounder with a solution for everything. The film is staged like a play, a trope that points to Hrishi-da's love for comical charades, happy pretence and role-playing. Like Anand before, a familiar voice (Amitabh Bachchan) reads out the credits. A young Bachchan guides us to all the technicians and crew that have heroically worked behind the scene to make Bawarchi happen followed by the dramatis personae. This is the story of the chaotic lot that are the residents of Shanti Niwas. Their family discord and constant bickering are notorious. It should be called Ashanti Niwas, as Asrani jokes. Shanti Niwas is the family home of Shivnath Sharma aka Daduji (Harindranath Chattopadhyay). The ageing patriarch lives with his three sons and their families (veterans AK Hangal, Asrani, Durga Khote and Usha Kiran among others). But clearly, the heart of this family is Krishna, a selfless and sweet orphan played by Jaya Bachchan née Bhaduri and she's soon joined by the film's soul, Raghu who walks into her home like a godsend.
Raghu's charm offensive
A gentle comedy with a sense of purpose and sans any kind of sermonising, Bawarchi bears Hrishikesh Mukherjee's distinct signature. (Express archive photo)
The multi-talented Raghu's entry into Shanti Niwas is a major turnaround for the large clan. As he spends more time in the house, his actions impact them, provoking a change of heart for everyone involved. For a cook, the khaki-clad Raghu's credentials are tremendously awe-inspiring. Glib and a natural charmer, he will have you floored with his working knowledge of languages (Sanskrit, Urdu, Hindi), dance, music, literature and last but not the least, the selfless devotion he exhibits towards one and all. Does such a man even exist? No wonder, initially, everyone —especially Asrani — are sceptical of this imposter. But somehow, Raghu stays and ends up cutting a deep influence on each of the Shanti Niwas inhabitants. His bond with Krishna remains a little more special than the rest, with the emerging Jaya Bhaduri playing Kaka's foster sister. At one point, before we reach the film's climax, the silver-tongued devil narrates his own story to Krishna's lover, in a hope to reunite the couple after the Shanti Niwas household has busted their budding romance. Raghu is a far cry from the fraud that everyone thinks he is. He never had an eye on the family's hidden jewels though Hrishi-da's suspenseful and intermittent cuts exposing the locked safe kept under Daduji's bed would have you believe otherwise. As we learn from the horse's mouth, Raghu left his job as a professor to make this world a better and happier place. He was an orphan. A desire for larger social good inspired him to don the Gandhi cap and set out on a mission to bring hope and joy in a society that is badly in need of it. Raghu's biggest contribution to the Shanti Niwas denizens is that he brings them closer and makes them realise that it is the small pleasures of life that are more important than the one big ball of happiness that we perpetually wait for. But like Godot, it never arrives. In that quest, Raghu argues, we must not miss the small moments that life throws at us in great abundance.
Leftover from Anand
A parallel can be drawn between Khanna's character in Anand who goes gently into the night surrounded by friendship and laughter and Raghu of Bawarchi who leaves Shanti Niwas in the end in search of a new home, in the sense that they are both smooth-talkers who appear to be fun-loving and frivolous on the surface but deep inside, are hiding a serious and meaningful core. Raghu could be a leftover from Anand. If in Anand, the happy-go-lucky Khanna was the bearer of the famous "Babumoshai…..zindagi lambi nahin badi honi chahiye" philosophy, here in Bawarchi the adage is "It is so simple to be happy but it is so difficult to be simple." The dialogue was said to be inspired by our very own Harindranath Chattopadhyay, or Daduji. On Google, meanwhile, the quote is attributed to Tagore. In any case, you can use that simple but profound philosophy to sum up Hrishi-da's entire oeuvre.
A gentle comedy with a sense of purpose and sans any kind of sermonising, Bawarchi bears Hrishi-da's distinct signature. Instantly identifiable are the typical Hrishikesh Mukherjee touches — comic moments springing from family life and domestic squabbles, the middle-class characters, stern bosses, strict patriarchs, a quintessential background score ramping up the action, someone with a secret love for dance, a world where kindness and knowledge is valued but more importantly, a universe where laughter is the best medicine. As always, Gulzar's dialogue have the depth of reality and a subtle sense of humour. Particularly funny is the exchange between Paintal and Raghu: the dance master's chaste Hindi against Raghu's Urdu bon mots. Hrishi-da also uses Asrani's music director turn to wink at the film industry's transgressions. In this case, the casual plagiarism. Does the name Rajinikant-Nyarelal ring a bell? Babbu (Asrani) works with the famous composers as their assistant, assiduously copying English tunes back in his room over a diet of boiled eggs. Hit by a creative block, Raghu helps him compose an original note for a sad situation! And look, what he gets. Manna Dey's evocative "Tum bin jeevan".
With lyrics by Kaifi Azmi and Madan Mohan's compositions, Bawarchi is one of the least-appreciated soundtracks in Hindi cinema. Close to Hrishi-da's heart, the filmmaker once called it "the best music score among all my films." He went on, "If all the music directors were still alive today and I was allowed to make a film with one of them, I'd opt for Madan Mohan. What a talent!" Trivia: it was close friend Ravi Shankar who was first approached for Bawarchi, but Hrishi-da found Madan Mohan more suitable. By his own admission, Hrishikesh Mukherjee's favourite film was Satyakam (1969), a shining beacon of idealism starring a raw and handsome Dharmendra in one of his finest screen roles to date. In Rajesh Khanna: The Untold Story of India’s First Superstar, author Yasser Usman claims that it was Amar Prem, and not Bawarchi, that was Kaka's personal favourite. But, as Usman assures shortly afterwards, "His favourite director remained Hrishikesh Mukherjee, who always challenged him to push his acting boundaries."
Rajesh Khanna and Usha Kiran in Bawarchi. (Express archive photo)
Revisiting Bawarchi, you can see how the film rests on Khanna's inherent charm and even feeds off from his manic energy that was on full display previously in Anand. His impish nods and smiles are more Kaka stock-in-trade than the stuff of great acting, but you can't deny the X factor that somehow makes it work. Fundamentally an iconic romantic hero, Khanna's Raghu is not what you might expect from a megastar at the top of his game. Instead of a fashionable gear, he struts around the whole movie wearing one pair of khaki shorts and shirt. There's no heroine to romance and serenade. More crucially, the subversion at the heart of it is this — the feminine associations of cooking are thrust on a hero. Never mind that Kaka with his large female following might just be the right fit. Think for a moment. Who else could've passed off as a cook convincingly? Shatrughan Sinha? Vinod Khanna? Bachchan or Hrishi-da's favoured Dharmendra? Only Hrishikesh Mukherjee could have managed to cast Rajesh Khanna and give him the most un-Rajesh Khanna-like character. Yet, what's even more remarkable is that Khanna or 'Pintu baba' as Mukherjee fondly used to call him, agreed to bow down to his director's vision. In those days, stories about Khanna's difficult ways were the stuff of legend. But apparently, the producer-friendly Mukherjee found a way to tame the shrew. Both Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra, who saw Hrishi-da as a mentor, have spoken of the filmmaker's avuncular approach to actors, but he could be a terror when he wanted to. It has been said about Mukherjee that he was like a schoolmaster. In an episode of KBC, Dharmendra reminded his Chupke Chupke co-star how they were scared of Hrishi-da. Was the maverick Khanna scared of him, too? Judging from the way Mukherjee delivered one quickie after another starring the famously unprofessional superstar, you can safely guess that they were on good terms, with Mukherjee firmly in control of his unit. After all, this is a man who shot Anand in less than 30 days!
Reportedly, it was on Bawarchi's set that an emotionally hurt Jaya Bhaduri, having had enough of Rajesh Khanna's repeated taunting aimed at her future husband, confronted the reigning Bollywood superstar: "One day, you shall see where he (Amitabh Bachchan) will be and where you will be." Those words turned out to be hauntingly prophetic. One way to see Khanna's proverbial fall and Bachchan's rise is the shifting scales in the Hrishi-da universe itself. It took all of three years for the tide to turn. In 1971, Khanna played the titular role in Anand while Bachchan had to remain content in Kaka's giant shadow. A year later, Bawarchi sees Bachchan getting a raw deal as a narrator-on-hire reduced to touting Khanna's unsung story of everyday heroism. But finally, by Namak Haraam, in 1973, Bachchan's stars were rising and he was becoming too big to ignore. This time, the 'chhora Ganga kinare wala' gets a fair chance. The two rival stars were now on an equal footing. But we all know how the game will end for the pampered child of the movies. A story of the ideological journey of two friends, Namak Haraam includes a scene of them raising a toast. When Khanna realises Bachchan is too tall for him, he climbs up on the sofa to match up to him. Unfortunately, Khanna could never catch up on a towering Bachchan after that.
In his heyday, in those six magical years we mentioned at the start of this article, there's no doubt that Rajesh Khanna was god. Fans waited for and mobbed him like a messiah, much as Shanti Niwas' residents' do. Crowds milled about his famous mansion in Bandra just to catch a glimpse of him. When girls couldn't kiss the man of their dreams who made them swoon with "Mere sapnon ki rani", they blew some on his car. They sent love letters written in blood. Wherever the King went, he drove the entire neighbourhoods into a frenzy. But then, celebrity doesn't always translate into longevity. As writer Salim Khan, one half of the two-headed Salim-Javed, says in Yasser Usman's biography, Khanna made mistakes and was ultimately human. Not everyone can handle stardom. But till the time the supernova burned, he burned brighter than 'em all.