Rajesh Khanna: Lights and loneliness by Rasheeda Bhagat

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers India. Price: ₹499
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers India.
Price: ₹499

Yet another book has been published to tell us about the ­loneliness and dark patches of gloom that inhabit the world of most ­celebrities. Marilyn ­Monroe’s ­suicide is the stuff of legend; the stunning diva ­Madhubala — ­Bollywood is arguably yet to find a more ­beautiful actress — was deeply unhappy, trapped in a wrong marriage after her father played villain and prevented her marriage to her heartthrob Dilip Kumar.

Now Gautam Chintamani, in his book Dark Star: The Loneliness of being Rajesh Khanna (HarperCollins Publishers India), tells us how the first superstar of Hindi Cinema even contemplated suicide at one time in the early 1970s, but refrained from doing so as he didn’t want the world to remember Rajesh Khanna thus.

Born Jatin Khanna in 1942 into a family of railways contractors who had moved from Lahore to Bombay a few years before his birth, and adopted by his childless uncle Chunni Lal who spoilt him thoroughly, Jatin became Rajesh Khanna after winning the Filmfare-United Producers Combine talent hunt in 1965, when he was a theatre artist.

Aradhana’s stunning success

After a few films in the mid-60s, his real break came with Shakti Samantha’s Aradhana (1969) which left the entire Hindi film industry shell shocked at its phenomenal success. Interestingly, even while Aradhana was being made, Rajesh Khanna was acting with Asha Parekh in Kati Patang, where he was constantly “whining” about his being stuck in movies with women-centric subjects. Apparently during the shoots, Asha Parekh, an established star, stayed in a far superior hotel than the one given to him!

But Aradhana’s success changed all that. And R.D. ­Burman’s music for Kati Patang and Kishore Kumar’s soul stirring evergreen songs, combined with Rajesh Khanna’s inimitable manner of delivering them — Yeh jo ­mohabbat hei; Yeh shaam mastani, and Pyar ­deewana hota hei — catapulted Rajesh Khanna into the ­“phenomenon” mode.

With Sharmila Tagore in Amar Prem.
With Sharmila Tagore in Amar Prem.

It was really his female fan following that made Khanna a superstar; star-struck young women mobbing him, leaving kiss marks on his car, sending him letters written in blood, and heartbroken when he married Dimple Kapadia.

In 1972 came a low-budget movie called Anand, produced by N.C. Sippy that cast Khanna in the title role — that of a cancer-afflicted dying hero. As Chintamani puts it, “Anand gave Khanna much more than mere commercial success or critical acclaim. It bestowed upon him his greatest and most enduring on-screen character. But it also brought him face-to-face with Amitabh Bachchan, the Bengali doctor who treats him. It was the legendary comedian Mehmood who advised Bachchan to make the most of Khanna’s death scene. He did just that, and the actor who was written off before this film became the talk of the town.

Enter Amitabh Bachchan

Actually, says the author, Bachchan was so insignificant before Anand, that Khanna had not even bothered to find out anything about his co-star, and snubbed him often. ­Zanjeer came in 1973 and despite being made by Khanna, the Salim-Javed duo never thought of casting him, and this, says writer Salim Khan, was due to Khanna’s attitude. “He believed he was the reason why his films did well and never really appreciated the people who worked with him.”

In Namak Haram, another super hit, Rajesh Khanna was originally offered the role of the spoilt rich kid Vicky, but he chose the role of Somu, the poor worker who dies in the end. A wrong choice as Bachchan who played Vicky walked away with all the acclaim when the film was released. And Khanna’s fall had started.

Bachchan’s off-screen persona was so overpowering that anything he did was acceptable. And finally the Angry Young Man of Indian cinema pulled the rug from under the feet of the superstar. “Unlike Khanna whose stardom fuelled his persona, Bachchan’s aura fanned his stardom,” writes Chintamani.

The book walks us through Khanna’s high handedness, complexities and totally opposing facets of his personality, some of which led to his downfall from the high perch his fans had put him onto. Most of all, his insecurities hurt Rajesh Khanna; he constantly sought positive reinforcement from people around him. Salim Khan recalls how, after he had given an interview hailing Sanjeev Kumar as one of the brightest actors, Kaka summoned him to the Mehboob Studios and quizzed him on that interview. He demanded to know if Sanjeev Kumar was better than him. When Khan replied it depended on the role, it did not go down well with Khanna.

Confession

In an interview given some 15 years later, Kaka recalled that the months between end 1973 and beginning 1974 were the loneliest of his life. He had believed his success would last forever, so when his films began to fail, he didn’t take it as just a transitory phase. “His confidence plummeted further when people around him started to abandon him. This made him irritable and edgy. He said he had built a wall around him and never allowed anyone to help. He didn’t trust people and distanced himself even from Dimple, (his wife), in whom he never confided anyway as he found her too young and inexperienced to handle such a crisis,” says the writer.

When Shammi Kapoor decided to direct Manoranjan (1974), (copied wholesale from the Hollywood blockbuster Irma la Douce) where Sanjeev Kapoor so delightfully played the naive cop, the role was first meant for Khanna. But while Shammi Kapoor was working with Abrar Alvi, a Guru Dutt favourite, Khanna insisted he give the script to Salim-Javed, and finally lost the role.

In her foreward, Sharmila Tagore, who had memorable hits with Khanna such as Aradhana, Amar Prem and Daag, gives a candid sketch of her co-star. Though extremely generous with his friends and sometimes even showering them with gifts such as a house, he expected too much in return. “What affected me personally was his habit of coming late to work. I went to the studios at 8 a.m. and wanted to be back with my family by 8 p.m. But this was impossible since Kaka never arrived before 12 (noon) for a 9 a.m. shift.” As a result she opted to work more with other actors even though their pairing was hugely successful.

Political journey

An interesting journey Chintamani takes us through is related to how Rajiv Gandhi wooed Rajesh Khanna over to the Congress after his bosom pal Amitabh ­Bachchan suddenly decided to quit politics to clear his and his brother Ajithabh’s name in the Bofors scandal. A miffed Rajiv turned to Khanna and in the 1991 elections he contested as a Congress candidate against BJP’s L.K. Advani in New Delhi and came quite close to beating him. Rajiv was assassinated in Sriperambudur before a campaign meet, and with Advani quitting his New Delhi seat — he had contested from two constituencies — Khanna was pitted this time against Shatrughan Sinha and managed to win.

Unfortunately he continued to juggle his official duties as a Lok Sabha MP with acting in films and “the seven films he made during this period were so forgettable that even his die-hard fans would struggle to recall them.”

One of his most successful co-stars Sharmila Tagore touches the core of Kaka’s fall from dizzy heights when she writes: “Like his friendships Kaka didn’t nurture his stardom and allowed it to slip from his grasp. He failed to note that the audience was changing, and that the roles he had been doing were becoming less and less relevant. Kaka either couldn’t, or didn’t reinvent himself to remain contemporary, and so he almost became a caricature of himself and people began to mock him.”

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