Towards the end of his career, Rajesh Khanna, who died three years ago on this day, had almost totally disappeared from public view. But you can’t keep a superstar down for long – there is a revival of interest in him and the success of two recent books on him demonstrates that he continues to hold his fans in thrall.
The 1960s were the decade of Eastmancolour romance in Hindi cinemas, full of bubble gum love stories set in locations like Kashmir, Nainital or, for the big budget filmmakers, Switzerland or Paris. Rajesh Khanna came at the fag end of the decade and continued till the mid-1970s, till a lanky star named Amitabh Bachchan, with his brooding looks and simmering anger, knocked him off his pedestal.
But in Khanna’s heyday, from 1969 to 1975, when every film he starred in was a guaranteed box office hit, the actor generated a kind of hysteria not seen before or since. Fans kissed the tyres of his cars, sent letters to him in their own blood and some times “married him”, even if he did not know of the betrothal.
His crinkly eyed smile, the flick of his hand and the low purr of his voice, Kaka, as he was called by friends and fans alike, won the hearts of millions of young women and men. He was the good looking boy whom Mum didn’t mind coming home (and secretly hoped her daughter would marry) – his persona was loving, not threatening, engaging, not aloof and most of all, genuine, not fake. Young women saw him as the perfect romancer, handsome but sensitive.
That the character he played died in many films only enhanced his appeal.
And the songs! He is associated with so many terrific songs, of love, of enjoyment, of sadness and of fun. Here’s a compilation of some of his best numbers to remind us of a more innocent time when romance, not violence, was king.
1. Aakhri Khat
Though it was not the first film he was signed for, Aakhri Khat was released earlier. An unusual story of a child who goes missing in Bombay, it was shot by Chetan Anand in black and white, which gave it a retro feel even then. It’s a gently paced film and a young Rajesh Khanna, paired with Indrani Mukherjee, already shows some of his magic that made the girls swoon.
This 1969 film is really the film that made him. Riding in a jeep, wearing a Gurkha cap and singing “Mere sapne ki rani kab aayegi tu” while Sharmila Tagore dimpled away, sitting on the Darjeeling toy train, Kaka burst upon our collective consciousness as the quintessential lover boy. That he had a double role was a bonus for his fans.
3. Do Raaste
A family drama that came out the same year as Aradhana, this showed that Rajesh Khanna could hold his own in an ensemble cast. The role as a loyal, principled son was perfect for his innocent looks. It also set off his partnership with Mumtaz, one of his most regular co-stars.
Rajesh Khanna made death romantic. This also ensured that he got many philosophical sounding songs on the futility of life. In Safar, he was a medical student suffering from cancer who hides this fact from the woman he loves. This created the aura of a martyr around him, which served him well in several films, including Anand. By now he was a huge star and could do no wrong.
5. Kati Patang
To suffer with dignity and with a smile on the face – all for love — was Rajesh Khanna’s lot in many films. A melodramatic potboiler by Shakti Samanta, Kati Patang was a phenomenal success, not least because of the theme – of a young man romancing a white sari-clad ‘widow’ – its songs, and the way Rajesh Khanna sang them on the screen.
One more instance of suffering quietly, without the world ever knowing. Anand is arguably Rajesh Khanna’s best ever role. It is the film that introduced India to ‘lymphosarcoma of the intestine’. Anand suffers from this dangerous sounding disease but faces it with optimism and joy, establishing him as a serious actor who could do more than woo his heroines. Amitabh Bachchan was the perfect foil as the doctor who is treating Anand—Bachchan brought an intensity to the role which worked well off the happy-go-lucky Anand.
7. Haathi Mere Saathi
With this film, Rajesh Khanna became the darling of the kids. Kaka and the elephants were the real stars of the film.
8. Amar Prem
Working with Shakti Samanta, it was only a matter of time before Rajesh Khanna played a Bengali bhadralok kind of role. Amar Prem was the classical tear jerker, about the pure love between a singing girl – prostitute, really – and a businessman in a loveless marriage. The Calcutta ambience, the story that moved as gently as a boat on the Howrah and the songs, turned this into a super hit film. “Pushpa I hate tears”, a line said by the character, has become a shorthand for Rajesh Khanna.
9. Namak Haraam
In 1973, both Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan came together for the second time, once again under the direction of Hrishikesh Mukherjee. But things had changed since Anand. Bachchan had become a star after Zanjeer and was being spoken of as the actor to watch. Khanna was still at the top of the Bombay game, but it had been a dream run that had to come to a halt one day. Besides, there was already talk of tension between the two. Mukherjee’s decision to cast both in an Indian interpretation of Beckett worked well—their scenes together have a frisson that makes this film eminently watchable.
Probably the last really worthwhile role he did was in this Basu Bhattacharya film. As an ad executive who is in a drifting marriage, Rajesh Khanna demonstrated that he had reached a new level of maturity as an actor and won a Filmfare award for it. This was the time to get choosy about roles, but he kept on accepting dross like Bundalbaaz and Mahachor.