Rajesh Khanna: Goodbye to India’s first superstar
By Bhama Devi Ravi
20th July 2012 02:09 PM
It is unlikely that many school students have watched a Rajesh Khanna film. The first actor to be given the ‘superstar’ tag, Rajesh Khanna’s best years were over in 1972. By 1973 the Bollywood actor himself said that his days were over and that Amitabh Bachchan would be the next big thing. Nevertheless, on Wednesday, when Rajesh Khanna died at Aashirwad, his Mumbai residence people of all ages were saddened. Everyone, school students included, had heard of this superstar whose last film was the highly forgettable Wafaa in 2008.
To understand the nation’s collective sniffle it is important to try and understand why this man, who smiled his way through films, brought such happiness to young men and women in the 1970s. Men wanted to be like him and worshipped him as though he was god. In an era without cellphones, wallpapers and social networking sites, and when the concept of marketing a film had not even been seeded, how did Rajesh Khanna emerge as an icon of style and a role model for those coming of age in India’s swinging sixties (and early seventies)?
In 1969 when he delivered the huge box office hit Aradhana, India was just beginning to come out of the backwoods. It was the beginning of the era of freshness, of articulation, of popular culture. Hindi cinema began to reflect these and the best carrier of this change was Rajesh Khanna. As an actor playing a romantic hero he was very different from the heroes of earlier years such as Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar and Joy Mukherjee. He did something that the aam admi wanted — be a likeable guy. His were not a tough characters like the ones essayed by Dharmendra; his were not a tragic heroes like Dilip Kumar’s, although Rajesh Khanna also dies in the last scene in quite a few movies. With his smart hairstyle he came across as a charming man. It worked at the box office because the audience wanted all that for a short while. All too soon it would turn to Amitabh Bachchan and his angry young man roles where he would take on the corrupt system single-handedly. But that was much later.
For three years, from 1969 to 1971, Rajesh Khanna delivered 15 box office hits in a row — a record that still stands unbroken. Men imitated everything from his guru kurta to his hair style. Women were swept by his on screen charm and turned hysterical. He was the first star to be mobbed by fans, is the first matinee idol to unleash mass hysteria. He resurrected the career of singer Kishore Kumar and after Aradhana there was no turning back for Kishore. The Aradhana number Meri Sapnon Ki Rani became the trending song of the decade.
On Thursday, when his last rites were performed, a rainy day when the heavens seemed to weep, thousands followed his cortege on the streets of Mumbai. The last thing they could do for a star who brought so much anand to so many people.
Born on December 29, 1942 in Amritsar he was named Jatin Khanna. He was adopted by relatives and grew up in Girgaon, Mumbai. He went to St Sebastian’s Goan High School. He then went to Kishanchand Chellaram College and was active in theatre.
When he was 23 years old, he won a national talent hunt contest, emerging the winner from a field of 10,000, something that even Amitabh Bachchan failed to do.
His first film Aakhri Khat was released in 1966 and other films followed. It was only in 1969 when Aradhana became a huge box office hit that he became an actor that directors and producers could bank on.
Rajesh Khanna became a one-man phenomenon. Between 1969 and 1971 he gave 15 consecutive hits. He starred with Sharmila Tagore, Mumtaz, Hema Malini, Anju Mahendru and many others. After Aradhana, the watershed film for Indian cinema was Anand, since the film starred Amitabh Bachchan as well. Critics would say this picturises the passing of the baton — Amitabh would become the next big superstar. By the end of his career Khanna had acted in over 160 films and he was the hero in over a 100 of them.
Some of his famous films, apart from Anand and Aradhana include Safar, Bawarchi, Amar Prem, Kati Patang, Haathi Mere Saathi, Awaaz and Aavishkar. His last blockbuster was Avtaar in 1983.
A number of Rajesh Khanna’s dialogues became legendary. The most famous ones include, “Babumoshai, zindagi aur maut to upar wale ke haath mein hai jahanapanah,” in Anand.Equally famous are these three words, “Pushpa, I hate tears,” from the film Amar Prem.
In 1973 Rajesh Khanna married the 16-year-old Dimple Kapadia, an act that sent his female fans hunting for handkerchiefs to stem their tears. The two separated in 1982.
Rajesh Khanna won the prestigious Filmfare award three times — he was nominated 14 times — and the Filmfare Lifetime Achievement award was conferred on him in 2005.
The Superstar and the Fallen Star
Such was the craze for Rajesh Khanna that if fans could not get close to him they were happy to kiss his car. As a man idolised and treated like a god, Rajesh Khanna soon got caught in the ego trap. He began to behave like a super brat. Arriving late for shooting, cancelling appointments and making the media wait for him for hours for a pre-agreed appointment were almost everyday incidents.
He had agreed to grant an interview to the BBC, but postponed it five times. He did not get along with his co-stars and also failed to gauge the pulse of the audience. It was beating for action films, but Rajesh Khanna refused to let go of the romance genre. He tried a couple of B grade films, tested the water of a telefilms as well. However, they were not success stories and when his attempts at production also failed. The superstar had lost his magic touch.
Cinema to Politics
Like many actors, Rajesh Khanna moved from the world of films to politics. He was elected to the Lok Sabha and remained a Congress MP between 1992 and 1996. But the star who rocked the nation in the early ’70s did not make any ripples in Parliament. He spent the last few years in comparative quiet, away from arc lights.
Rajesh Khanna was ailing for a while and was in and out of hospital over the last few months. He breathed his last at his home surrounded by Dimple Kapadia and their two daughters Twinkle and Rinkie.
With his passing away on Wednesday, an era has truly ended.
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