Remembering Rajesh Khanna 50 years after he became a superstar

Fifty years ago, in November 1969, Rajesh Khanna smashed into the public consciousness with the golden jubilee hit, Aradhana, in which he played a dashing double role. A superstar was born that year, especially when another golden jubilee hit, Do Raaste, was released the very next month in December.

The two blockbusters played in two non-air-conditioned Mumbai theatres a stone’s distance from each other — Do Raaste was running in Opera House and Aradhana in Roxy. The latter paired him with the stylish and sexy Sharmila, while Do Raaste co-starred the pug-nosed spitfire, Mumtaz

In the next four years, whatever Khanna touched became gold — Sachcha Jhootha, Anand, Aan Milo Sajna, Kati Patang, The Train, Andaaz, Amar Prem, Apna Desh, Haathi Mere Saathi, Dushman, Daag to name a few.

I can still recall Rajesh Khanna’s voice recounting those heady days, “I felt next to God! I still remember the exact moment when for the first time I became aware of how mind-blowing super success can be. It psyches you totally — or you are not human.

It was just after the premiere of Andaaz, at a lottery draw held at the Vidhan Sabha in Bangalore. One couldn’t see anything but heads bobbing down the whole road, which was not only broad but almost ten miles long. I wept like a baby.”

He reduced women to shuddering heaps with that characteristic nod of his head. Once, he touched my grandma’s feet at a family wedding and my grandma sang his praises till her last breath. The bonnet of his car, when parked outside Gaylord restaurant — yes, Churchgate’s Gaylord Restaurant was the place to be seen at in those days — would be covered with lipstick marks.

Boys, including me, dressed up like him. We would wear our glares on the tip of our noses, keep our shirts untucked and wear broad belts over them. The fact is that Khanna did this to conceal his paunch, but youngsters emulated it and it became a fashion statement.

While I was interviewing Avinash Gowarikar once, he casually mentioned that his mother would dress him up like Khanna when he was 11 or 12. Amitabh once told me, “I got famous purely because I was working with Rajesh Khanna, On the sets of Anand, people would come and ask me, ‘How does he look? What does he do?’”

I think what made Rajesh Khanna a superstar despite not being particularly tall, or conventionally good looking was the fact that he had a fierce streak of individuality. He was most unlike his contemporaries such as Jeetendra, Sanjeev Kumar and Sanjay Khan or his seniors Dharmendra, Manoj Kumar or Shashi Kapoor.

And sometimes destiny decides to discriminate … and a superstar is born! The melodious music of his films played a major part in fuelling his stardom — he would attend R D Burman’s recordings and was a huge admirer of Anand Bakshi’s lyrics. Kishore Kumar became his voice... and together they held the nation in a musical thrall.

The first time I saw Rajesh Khanna was during my school days. He was shooting the title song of Raja Rani with the dimpled beauty, Sharmila Tagore near my house at Worli Seaface. The crowds had turned up in huge numbers to see the first superstar of India in flesh and blood.

My friend Aftab kept pushing himself in front of the crowds and combing his hair to get Khanna’s attention. Later, after packup, as he drove away, we gave chase from Worli to Century Bazaar, and gave up only when he rolled down the windows and waved out to us.

Later, when I became the Editor of MOVIE magazine, I interviewed him on many occasions and sometimes just met him at his office to casually chat over a drink. He was mercurial in nature but endearing nonetheless and a fabulous conversationalist. I grew to like him a lot.

In 1990, my magazine pulled off a coup of sorts by bringing Amitabh Bachchan and Rajesh Khanna together for a photo-session cum interview. The two superstars were coming together after a gap of 17 years. The last time they had shared a frame was for Namak Haram (1973).

It was a sight to see both of them walking in at the same time — belying my fear that Khanna would be late and therefore upset the always-punctual Amitabh. Amitabh was not happy that I had booked only one room for both the stars, he wanted to know where he would change.

A charming Khanna came to my rescue and suggested that he could change in the bathroom. Both of them heaped compliments on each other and opened their hearts out. The marathon interview went on from midnight to four in the morning at a city hotel. I came home with the morning milk but was a happy man.

Even when Khanna started slipping, he continued to behave like a star. In the joint interview with Amitabh, he narrated how, after nine flops in the late seventies, one day he got drunk and went onto his terrace and told God, “Parvardigar, hum gareebon ka itna sakht imtihaan na le ki hum tere wajood ko inkaar kar de.”

He said that his wife Dimple and the servants came running because they thought he had gone insane. The next day a producer offered him a film, Amardeep, that went on to become a hit. In 1983, the surprise success of Avtaar and Souten, gave his career a second surge.

He may not have made memorable films in the last two decades of his life but he had his legacy to sustain him. Rajesh Khanna lived by his belief: “A king is a king, whether on the throne or in exile.”