Afternoon, 18th July 2012. I was driving back home from my clinic, when Mike, my reporter friend from Gulf News called.
“Kaka expired today. Tabloid is doing a story and they want your reaction.”
For a moment, I was too shocked to react. Wasn’t Kaka supposed to be recovering? Wasn’t he discharged just a day earlier?
But then the reality sunk in. Kaka- Rajesh Khanna was no more. The sudden and utter unexpectedness of death is not a new thing for me. I have experienced it enough, both in my personal and professional lives. And yet, the throat felt choked. The eyes smarted. Something from deep within seemed snatched away.
When I finally talked with the Tabloid writer, the words and feelings just came gushing out. She seemed rather surprised by their force and flow. After all, for her, it was just a matter of few lines for an eleventh hour cover-story waiting to meet the deadline. When I finally stopped talking, even I was surprised by my own spontaneous outpouring of emotions. For all these years, I had never known that I cared for the man so much!
Then I started reflecting on my changing relationship with a phenomenon called Rajesh Khanna.
The rise of a superstar
The first fond memory came back from the recesses of time.
A rainy evening…Watching Haathi Mere Saathi at a theatre in Kalyan…. A hero commanding elephants at will…A hero doing circus stunts…A hero romancing the beautiful heroine…A hero singing Sun jaa aa thandi hawaa!
As a five year old kid, I came back mesmerized by that hero, who seemingly could do everything in life. While listening to the often-played Sun jaa aa thandi hawa, I used to look at our radio and imagine a never-seen thing called television which was supposed to show the moving images. What fun it would be if I could actually see Rajesh Khanna with Tanuja in our radio-box!
Then, I saw Anand, a film that subconsciously played a crucial role in my later career choice to become a doctor. Even at that tender age, I was intrigued by the tongue-twisting diagnosis of Lymphosarcoma of Intestines, the cancer that afflicted Anand. I used to think about so many things. How come there are so many different ailments in this world? How come the doctors diagnose them? Isn’t there a cure for cancer? Why do people have to die? But even in those morbid thoughts there was a deep admiration for Khanna’s Anand, who had taken the impending death so calmly and remained so cheerful till the very end.
In the next three years, whether I understood them or not, I saw all the Khanna-films with relish. The biking cameo in Andaz; the double roles in Aradhana and Sachcha Jhootha; the Bengali Babu in Amar Prem; the rich playboy in Mere Jeevansaathi; the sensitive romantic in Kati Patang and Do Raaste; the truck driver in Dushman and Shehzada; the escaped convict in Ittefaq; the husband posing as a servant in Joru Ka Ghulam; the under-cover cop in Train and Apna Desh; the fix-it-all cook in Baawarchi… Khanna was everywhere. In the cinemas, on the hoardings and more importantly in everybody’s hearts.
He had by that time become the nation’s heart-throb, the first-ever Indian superstar who easily outshined all past and present stars. It was not just mass appeal; it was mass hysteria of unbelievable proportions. A level of popularity that was never seen before and would never be witnessed again. Callow teenage girls, mature married women and shriveled old grandmothers all swooned over him, many going to the extent of writing love-letters dipped in blood. He was their dream lover with the boy next door looks. The male community was quick to take cues and from impressionable school-boys to harried husbands to bent-in-the-back grandfathers started revering him as the ultimate role model. The way he looked into his woman’s eyes, the way he blinked his eyes, the way he shook his head, the way he awkwardly danced, the way he dramatically softened his voice mid-sentence and even the way he hid his rather noticeable tummy under Guru Shirt became the most imitated mannerisms and they became bywords for the 70s romanticism.
It was Kishore’s singing voice which really gave first wings to Rajesh’s romanticism. A black capped Rajesh singing Mere sapnon ki raani kab aayegi tu, riding in an open jeep and wooing the coy Sharmila Tagore travelling in a train and then the rain-drenched Rajesh and Sharmila igniting fire and passion with Roop tera mastana …Who could ever forget those era-defining Aradhana audiovisuals? These Kishore-songs were the first stepping stones to Khanna’s romantic superstar appeal.
Kishore had taken his own time to warm up to Rajesh and to the whole new idea of making playback singing his main focus. But once he did that after having an hour-long chat with the new actor, he dived headlong into that singer-actor relationship. He moulded his macho voice so well for Rajesh that their songs became the best post-70s example of a great singer-actor synergy. The sweet romance in Yeh shaam mastaani, the rustic machoism in Vaada tera vaada, the subtle sensuality in O mere dil ke chain, the poetic love in Jeevan se bhari teri aankhein, the cheeky flair in Ga ga ga gussa, the pain of heartbreak in Khiza ke phool pe and the poignant philosophizing in Chingaari koi bhadke…the Khanna-Kishore combine was full of memorable classics.
‘Aye Babu Moshai…’ the cute way in which Khanna addressed Bachchan in Anand and the tender patient-doctor bond they portrayed in that Hrishikesh Mukherji-directed film has become an immortal piece of Hindi cinematic history. While watching that film as a school-boy I had never even noticed Amitabh. Like everyone else in the theatre, I only had eyes for Rajesh and Rajesh alone. He had a totally author-backed central role and he had delivered a superb performance. Only much, much later I could appreciate Amitabh’s much subtler and much more intense portrayal. That year (1970) both of them bagged the prestigious Filmfare Award for their roles in Anand, Rajesh getting the Best Actor trophy and Amit getting the Best Supportive Actor one.
In another four years, came Namak Haram, yet another Hrishikesh Mukherji-film featuring Rajesh and Amitabh as friends with contrasting personas. Here they unwittingly get pitted against each other in a company’s management versus workers’ strife. Once again, it was the same story. Khanna had got the central, author-backed sympathy-seeking role and for Amitabh, it was a smaller and much tougher role with negative shades. The film did not do too well at the box-office for the erstwhile superstar but the audience and critics started noticing something special about the tall, lanky man with brooding demeanor.
Now the film-industry dynamics was undergoing a seismic shift. The audience had had enough of the goody, goody romanticism. Action was the new byword. Rajesh’s Midas touch at the box-office (where he once gave 15 hits in a row!) started waning. Amitabh’s maiden solo mega-success in Zanjeer put him on path to be the Angry Young Man of the era.
By 1975, Amitabh had totally displaced Rajesh from the top, becoming a superstar in his own right, a position he would not relinquish for a long, long time.
In Amitabh’s rise was Rajesh’s downfall. Amitabh was a total anti-thesis of Rajesh. It was as if he had observed Rajesh’s all the shortcomings (unpunctuality, erratic behavior and a worthless coterie of troublesome hangers-on) and he consciously stayed away from them. His perfect professionalism was a welcome change for top film-makers who had had a tough time dealing with Khanna’s tantrums. Slowly all the major directors-be it Hrishikesh Mujherji, Shakti Samanta, Yash Chopra or Manmohan Desai – made a switch to Amitabh.
Khanna suddenly found himself without viable themes and bankable directors. Against a formidable professional adversary like Amitabh, it was nothing short of a disaster. It is not that he did not deliver hits in his latter career. Films like Kudrat, Sautan, Thodisi Bewafai and Avtaar were successful but they were more like exceptions to the rule that a Rajesh Khanna-starrer was more likely to be a damp squib. By this time, he had already lost his boyish charm, his main weapon at the box-office. He looked old and heavy and his acting routines became predictable and stale.
The fickle audience (including yours truly!) quickly ticked him off their check-list. Now, Rajesh Khanna was a thing of the past, a thing to make fun of and a thing to ridicule. From No.1 to No. 10, there was only Amitabh and then came the rest!
For Khanna it was a bitter pill to swallow and he never really got over that setback.
In the last three decades, Khanna remained in news less for his acting and more for his failed relationships and his stint as an MP. He also tried to make a big entry on television but couldn’t succeed. Occasionally he would be seen at the award functions receiving Lifetime Achievement awards and delivering long-winded speeches. Often he would recite a nostalgic couplet – Aaj jahan main hoon, kal koi aur thaa, yeh bhi ek daur hai, woh bhi ek daur thaa!
The industry and the fans had more or less relegated him to the status of a relic from the past. An advertisement for a cooling fans company was to prove his last stint before the camera.
Then out of the blue, the news channels started flashing news about his deteriorating health and his hospitalization. He was treated, discharged, readmitted and again discharged. No one knew what was happening.
On Facebook, one of my doctor friends messaged me – “Do you know? I have been treating Kaka!” I wrote back, “Great. Make him well and then set up his interview for me!” I ended the message with a smiley.
Now that interview would never happen. Kaka has gone forever to the land of no return!
Only after the news of his eternal departure, came the bitter realization that I had lost not only a superstar that I first loved and then hated; I had also lost yet another irreplaceable piece of my childhood world. A simple world of hopes and dreams where innocence and romanticism reigned!
Rest in peace, Rajesh!