“If reborn I’d like to have the same friends, the same enemies” — Rajesh Khanna.
On his eighth death anniversary, reliving Rajesh Khanna’s superstardom...
Each time he died on screen, it increased the longevity of the film at the Box Office. In fact, the word ‘zindagi’ became a talisman in his songs… Zindagi ek safar hai suhana (Andaz), Zindagi kaisi hai paheli (Anand), Zindagi Ka Safar (Safar), Zindagi ke safar mein (Aap Ki Kasam), Zindagi pyaar ka geet hai (Souten)… the poignant melodies are Rajesh Khanna’s heirloom.
With 15 consecutive hits between 1969 and 1971, he was indeed a ‘phenomenon’ to whizs across the showbiz skies. Young girls got married to his photographs, married women secretly carried his picture in their wallets, while the overwrought revered the dust on his car wheels as sindoor. Some even attempted self-immolation when he suddenly married teen Dimple Kapadia.
Gentle face, playful voice, nod of the head, wave of the hand… his sex-appeal was hard to pin down. ‘Brand’ishing the Midas effect, his name spawned several industries – Rajesh salons, Rajesh pressure cookers, Rajesh kurtas, Rajesh bindis... even Rajesh babies!
Truly, Rajesh Khanna was a wave, a movement. And then it was all over. Some allege it was his arrogance, some claim that he was consumed by his own myth; some attribute it to nature’s law.
“At one point, Rajesh Khanna was God, but the trouble with him was that he started thinking he was one,” veteran journalist Ali Peter John was quoted saying.
Stardom, like an estranged beloved, returned to pay her last obeisance to him when he passed away in 2012. From people on the streets to peers and even TV anchors… the whiff of sentimentality in the air was unmistakable. Rajesh Khanna's demise spooled back a million memories, melodies, movies…
Because Rajesh Khanna is not an era gone past. He’s an emotion that lives on… on music channels, on social media, on retro apps… beguiling every generation…with his brand of romance…
Rajesh Khanna was born on December 29, 1942 in Amritsar, Punjab, as Jatin Khanna. He was adopted by his affluent relatives, Chunnilal and Leelawati Khanna, who lived in Girgaum, Mumbai.
He was one of the eight finalists in the All India Talent Contest, organised by United Producers and Filmfare in 1965. His first film was Chetan Anand’s Aakhri Khat (1966). Ravindra Dave’s Raaz, Aurat and Baharon Ke Sapne (all in 1967) and Doli and Ittefaq (both in 1969) followed.
Stardom came straightaway with Shakti Samanta’s Aradhana (1969). The charismatic Air Force officer in a jeep, singing Mere sapnon ki rani to a pretty woman (Sharmila Tagore) in a train, remains a classic frame. The film saw the resurgence of Kishore Kumar with hits like Kora kaagaz tha and Roop tera mastana.
Raj Khosla’s family drama Do Raaste (1969) won him further attention with Laxmikant-Pyarelal’s Bindiya chamkegi, filmed on Rajesh and Mumtaz, remaining the ultimate seduction ditty.
Manmohan Desai’s Sachaa Jhutha (1970) again had him in a double role. The song Meri pyaari beheniya banegi dulhania, sung by Rajesh for Naaz in the film, became the tearjerker at bidaai functions. Just as Aan Milo Sajna (1970) with Asha Parekh is remembered for its dating elegy Accha to hum chalte hain.
MA Thirumugham’s Haathi Mere Saathi (1971) endeared Kaka (as he was fondly called) to children. The same year, Shakti Samanta’s Kati Patang reaffirmed his stardom. Based on Gulshan Nanda’s novel, the love story was shot in quaint Nainital. R D Burman’s tracks Yeh jo mohabbat hai, Yeh shaam mastani and Pyaar deewana hota hai established him as the definitive romantic icon.
Asit Sen’s Safar (1970) was Rajesh’s starkest film. Based on a novel by Ashutosh Mukherjee, it had Rajesh, play a cancer patient, who urges his beloved (Sharmila Tagore) to marry a businessman (Feroz Khan).
Soon after, Rajesh played the titular role in Anand (1971), as someone who suffers from lymphosarcoma of the intestine. The Hrishikesh Mukherjee film paired him with Babumoshai Amitabh Bachchan. Mukesh’s Kahin door jab din dhal jaaye from Anand remains a retro favourite.
Special also is Shakti Samanta’s Amar Prem (1972), based on the short story Hinger Kochuri. Story goes that the song Chingari koi bhadke was to be shot at Howrah Bridge in Kolkata. But the unit was denied permission by the authorities as they feared the bridge would collapse due to the weight of his teeming fans. Rajesh’s dialogue from the film, ‘Pushpa, I hate tears...’ continues to inspire mimics and memes.
Bawarchi, Joroo Ka Ghulam and Apna Desh in the same year enjoyed a good run. But three unexpected flops, Shehzada, Mere Jeevan Saathi and Maalik heralded the beginning of the end. Rajesh, however, was confident that he’d reclaim glory with Hrishida’s Namak Haraam (1973).
Based on Becket (1964), Namak Haraam had Amitabh Bachchan playing industrialist Vicky, while Rajesh chose to play the underdog Somu. This time Rajesh’s onscreen death spelt the demise of his stardom.
Zanjeer, early in the same year, had introduced the ‘angry young man’. Namak Haraam was a follow-up. Apparently at the premiere, Rajesh pointing towards Amitabh told Hrishida, “Here’s the superstar of tomorrow.”
Yash Chopra’s Daag, Manmohan Desai’s Roti, J Om Prakash’s Aap Ki Kasam, KS Prakash Rao’s Prem Nagar and Shakti Samanta’s Ajanabee released in 1974. But the Rajesh mania had lost its fizz.
In the ’80s, he gave hits like Souten, Thodi Si Bewafai, Avtaar, Agar Tum Na Hote and Amrit… but by then the Hindi film hero had undergone a metamorphosis. Aa Ab Laut Chalein (1999) and Wafaa (2008) were his last few outings.
Co-stars Mumtaz and Sharmila Tagore were an intrinsic part of Rajesh’s stardom and were witness to the hysteria he invited.
JP Dutta, who was an assistant director during Dushman (1972), once recounted, “We were shooting in a village near Pune. It was way past 2 a.m. A huge crowd had gathered to watch Rajesh Khanna. People were perched on tree tops, roof tops… I was surprised to see that Mumtaz bachaa kar le jaa rahi thi hero ko! Hato, hato… she said as she escorted Rajesh to safety!”
Sharmila, with whom he did around six films, was quoted saying, “Women came out in droves to see Kaka. They’d stand in queues outside the studios to catch a glimpse, they’d marry his photographs, they would pull at his clothes. He needed police protection when he was in public.”
BELOVED & WIFE
While women were swooning over him, Rajesh was in love with actress/model Anju Mahendru those days. The seven-year relationship finally gave way due to Rajesh’s alleged possessiveness.
He married the teenaged Dimple Kapadia, who was to debut in Bobby, in March ’73, perhaps to prove a point and rejuvenate his wilting popularity. After two daughters, Twinkle and Rinkie, and a decade of turbulence, Dimple walked out of their home Aashirwad. But she never divorced him.
Friend and politician Bhupen Raseen revealed in an interview, “Kaka-ji once said, ‘I’m an ordinary man. I had told her before marriage that I want a wife, not a heroine. I wanted to return to a home where my children would tug at my clothes, pull my hair… Other than that we had a healthy relationship.”
Anju and Rajesh resumed their friendship after 17 years. Admirably, Dimple and Anju remain friends till date.
THE LENGTHENING SHADOWS...
Getting candid about his alleged indiscipline, which was cited as a key reason for his downfall, Rajesh once confided in friend and filmmaker Johny Bakshi, saying, “Meri parvarish galat hui thi. I was brought up by two families – my parents (Lala Hiranand and Chandrani Khanna) and my uncle and aunt (Chunni Lal and Leelavati Khanna) who adopted me. When I asked for five rupees, they gave me 10. I went to school when I wanted to. No one woke me up. That’s why I have no value for time and money.”
An excerpt from Rajesh Khanna: The Untold Story of India’s First Superstar, by Yasser Usman, reads, “He (Rajesh) said, ‘Once, I even attempted walking into the sea, but at the last minute pulled myself out of the depression. I will not die a failure, I promised myself. I don’t want people to say Rajesh Khanna was a coward’.”
THE FINAL GLORY
It was in 2011 that reports of Rajesh’s terminal illness started doing the rounds. His family was constantly by his side. “During those days I asked him, ‘Are you afraid of dying?” He said, ‘Nahin. Koi baat nahin yaar. Magar zara jaldi ho gaya. I’ve no regrets. If I’m reborn I’d like to have the same friends, the same enemies. Anand was reel. What’s happening now is real’,” shared Bhupesh about the ailing superstar.
In 2012, Rajesh agreed to do the Havells fan TV commercial. But just days before the shoot he developed a hairline fracture. He got admitted at Nanavati Hospital, kept his foot inclined and got the swelling down. He flew to Bangalore for the shoot. He was taken on a wheel chair. “He said, ‘Anyway I’m dying. Whether I die here or there, what difference does it make’,” shared friend Bhupesh.
Rajesh Khanna passed away on July 18, 2012. His funeral, which took place on July 19 and was attended by 9 lakh people, was a tribute to his stardom. His fans had come from places like Surat, Ahmedabad, and even foreign countries.
In his death he justified what he claimed in the ad, “Mere fans mujhse koi nahin chheen sakta!”