And finally on July 18, 2012, it's pack up time, life’s great leveller. Rajesh Khanna had arrived five flops later in his career. (Late coming was to become a permanent feature about him). But then his next 20 odd films, barring a few hiccups, make it look as if his was the land of the midnight sun. Forget the P&L impact of the Box Office or the fact that distributors would line up with cash advances even as his film was announced. This was not even just about being autograph hunted. It was more intimate and up-close. Rajesh Khanna seemed to reach out to every woman's private fantasy.
"Some girls married my photograph", he had said once. Women would injure themselves to write letters to him signed in blood. These could not have been traditional fan-following. There had been no shortage of chocolate-faced romantic heroes pre-Kaka. So what was it that he brought to the party that say, a Joy Mukherjee or a Biswajit could not?
His on-screen fatality, for one. This was a volte-face from the accepted texture of heroes who had 'Happy Ending' smudged all over their faces, almost as if it was an insurance cover for worry-free film viewing. Khanna's 'deaths' in Anand, Safar, Aradhana were the most helplessly watched ones. Be it cancer or a plane crash, he would live a thousand lives, sing a million melodies, squeeze out every drop of life from Time and walk away from the world like a victor, to death’s chagrin.
Even Nasir Husian, who espoused escapist entertainment where music ruled, had plans for a sad ending in his film, Baharon ke Sapne, till it was reshot to fall in line with his previous films where the hero would always get the leading lady. There was a frailty factor with him, which somehow appealed to filmmakers and the audiences - and how.
And then his failures in love. In Akhri Khat, his first released film, he deserts his lady love of the Kullu valley, Lajjo (played by Indrani Mukherjee), who dies and leaves him a son, who is then lost on the streets of Bombay. In Amar Prem, he is forced to severe ties with his only vent in life, a near platonic relationship with Pushpa (Sharmila Tagore), by his demanding wife who leaves him in the long run.
The climax where Pushpa is given a home by Nandu (Vinod Mehra), in all fairness, is a happy ending, but does little to curb Anand Babu (Khanna) of the loneliness and the pain he had endured all his life. In Kati Patang, he gets stood up (rather foolishly, one thinks) by his bride-to-be. In Aap ki Kasam (in a role which closely reflected his real life traits of complexity and insecurity as per someone who acted with him in many films and was also at one point in time, close to him), he loses his wife to a moment of distrust.
In Ajnabee, a misunderstanding does him in. In Mere Jeevan Saathi his blind eyes continue to seek her out. Hey, here was a man just like one of us – as vulnerable as us, as much a loser in love as many.
Rajesh Khanna was the male equivalent of a pretty-girl-who's-lost-her-purse at an airport lounge. Women wanted to reach out to him to offer solace and alternatives or just surrogate friendship. Kaka did not seem like a distant cine-star. He seemed close enough to reach out to. That’s why they all kept trying. That’s why they kept waiting outside the gates of 'Ashirwaad'.
His Impala car was perhaps reachable to chase down and smear the windscreen with lipstick – straight from their lips. He was the clichéd so-near-yet-so-far phenomenon.
"I recognize a star when I see one," said GP Sippy when he offered Babita her debut film Raaz. Perhaps he saw a star in Khanna too, as in this film, his first signed one, he was cast in a double role - one of the first instances of a debutant hero being cast so. His meteoric rise which began with Aradhana, was in fact more by chance than design. Shakti Samanta who along with GP Sippy was one of the twelve producers who was part of the jury in the Filmfare contest in 1965, fresh from his Europe journey with An Evening in Paris, wanted to make a quickie, and was bound by law to offer a role to one of the winners of the contest. He had remembered Rajesh Khanna in Baharon Ke Sapne and auditioned him for the role in a film which he based on the struggles of his own mother, Subah Pyar Ki, which later became Aradhana.
Rajesh Khanna’s entry in the film was with the SD Burman composition Mere Sapno Ki Rani, a song which has had, till now, few parallels in terms of popularity. He came in almost like a nor’wester and swept away the refined, upper class leading lady Sharmila Tagore off her feet. The audience too sang along to frenzy.
Interestingly, the Binanca Geetmala topper that year was Kaise Rahun Chup from Intequam - wonder how many of the present generation would be able to even recall the song.
He was handsome in an unconventional way. He did not have the physique of Prithviraj Kapoor. Neither did he have the features of Dharmendra. In fact, during his days of struggle, he was often the butt of jokes for his nose and eyes - which earned him the sobriquet Gurkha for some time - and the pockmarks on his face.
Asha Parekh, in an interview some forty years ago, had recalled the days of Baharon Ke Sapne when her mother would question her about her pairing with somebody who had so many pockmarks on his face. But there was an innate softness in his crinkling eyes, an intrinsic simplicity in his smile, and unfathomable tenderness in his voice - all of which added to create a larger than life aura of somebody who was the boy next door and yet, the stairway to heaven.
The instinctive warmth and romanticism exuded by his voice with lines like 'Babumoshai' was something the country had never heard before, and made hearts melt fast. Very fast.
He had also developed his own brand of mannerisms that tided over trivial road-blocks of not being a great actor or a good dancer. Very few heroes till then had been dancers anyway. And then he had his two best chums - RD Burman and Kishore Kumar. One was the soul of his hits and the other was his voice. "Our voices sound similar, just that he can sing and I can't", he had paid a tribute to Kishore in a BBC interview during the shooting of the song Suno, Kaho.
Rajesh Khanna, in the Kishore Kumar documentary by Sandip Ray had also confided that the two voices were in such synch that it was a case of 'do jism and ek jaan'.
There was no word in the dictionary to describe the Rajesh-mania sweeping the nation. 'Superstar' had to be coined. His stardom had reached such epic proportions that J Om Prakash had to change his hotel room eight times during a location shooting in Kashmir for Aap Ki Kasam.
What was also true that Rajesh, in his initial days of stardom, had enjoyed the advantage of strong scripts and screenplays. Salim-Javed, Gulshan Nanda, Sachin Bhowmick and others created the right balance of emotion, drama, romance; and blended music delectably into the narrative and thus got the best out of Kaka.
In fact, he had gelled nicely with the Bengal school of directors, some good, some at best mediocre - Hrishikesh Mukherjee (Anand, Bawarchi, Namak Haraam), Shakti Samanta (Aradhana, Kati Patnag, Amar Prem), Asit Sen (Khamoshi, Safar), Arabinda Sen (Maryada), Mukul Dutta (Aan Milo Sajna), or Dushman (Dulal Guha) - who accounted for most of his hits during that period. But, in some unexplained hurry to make it count for more, he started signing up for weak scripts and shoddily written screenplays.
This meant that the dependence factor on his acting skills and the quality of music score went up. And the raw truth was that he was not a great actor. Being from a theatre origin, his movements were exaggerated.
In front of the probing camera lens these looked awkwardly magnified. He probably failed to realize that he was acting for the camera - and not the stage. His mannerisms which had fetched him the fan following of a nation, gradually tended to become a drag as he kept repeating them and often using them as his safest bets. In films like Prem Nagar, Maalik, Dil Daulat Duniya they reached intolerable proportions and often bordered acutely around the melodramatic.
Suddenly three of his films flopped – one of which, Mere Jeevan Saathi, was probably one of the best musical scores of all times. The years 1972 and 1973 saw the gradual decline in his fortunes. Daag opened to average response. The Namak Haraam round belonged to Amitabh Bachchan. Aviskaar, the only film where, according to Rajesh Khanna himself, he did not need to act, flopped. 1974 too was indifferent. Ajnabee ,(which he perhaps wrongly chose over Amanush when given the option ) a film from the Shakti Samanta-RD Burman combo, completed a Silver Jubilee only in select halls, something against the grain of their earlier films.
Prem Nagar was a hit, but it hardly created the mass hysteria in spite of excellent music by S D Burman. People were now tired of his mannerisms. His own production Roti, a tragedy where he played a friendly dacoit on the run, did well – but not well enough to combat the shadow of Amitabh Bachchan which was looming large. The 1970s also were more realistic in the sense that pop-corn romances were on their way out. And Zanjeer and Deewar saw a tectonic shift in land mass. The macho, larger than life, seething anti hero was here and now. To Timbuktu with songs, no wasting of time around trees....
Meanwhile Kaka was not the cute boy of his early years. Between 1969 and 1975 he had developed bags under the eyes and had his body become paunchy and toneless from low maintenance. He was looking ragged and more than his age. In Mehbooba, Bundalbaaz, Red Rose he looked woefully wooden - these were examples of interesting storylines being spoilt by the script and the lead actor. Rajesh should have made the choice of stepping back and being choosy about roles as he was still officially a Superstar. He did not. His decline continued, in as much, that during the muhurat of Vijay Anand’s Rajput, autograph hunters crowded Dharam and Vinod Khanna while Rajesh watched in agonizing silence.
Amar Deep, another of his uncouth melodramatic sagas brought him flickering
luck, though. But not enough. His association with Basu Chatterjee in Chakravyu, the desi version of 39 Steps, bombed. It was unfortunate, as this was one film where Khanna had shed his mannerisms. Films like Prem Bandhan, Bandish, Ananchal again found him trying to play the young hero desperately, and one did not need to posses clairvoyance in predicting the outcome of these films. Mohan Kumar’s Avtaar, a film which was sold to territories for more than a crore of rupees did bring him back into the limelight.
However, such roles were rare and Rajesh refused to explore the image further which he carved in Avtaar. Gradually, with intolerable films like Asha Jyoti, Maqsad, and Dharam aur Kanoon, his career dipped to a new low. His efforts at film making again with Alag Alag bombed. When the bough was breaking, apart from Shakti Samanta, no one looked too keen to rescue him. This industry, a fair weather coffee joint at best, was returning Rajesh Khanna a favour for all the weight that he threw around in his hey days.
His arrogance, his trivialization of others' time, his vanity... "People were waiting for him to fall from his height", confided a veteran script writer. Kaka had not done an audit on his cumulative goodwill balance.
Gradually the Rajesh Khanna one knew faded away from public memory. While the music survived the onslaught of decades, his star value became more and more obscure. He failed to display the durability of his usurper Amitabh. Or even that of a Dharam or a Shashi Kapoor. He paid for his mistakes in his professional life and was troubled in his personal life as well. The other side of his character, his magnanimity, which included acts like buying a house for Anju Mahendru when they were dating in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, getting the best hotel rooms for his wife Dimple when she used to travel, gifting a brand new Fiat to Khayyam after hearing his compositions in Majnoon, etc - all would be remembered for posterity and fondness.
Rajesh Khanna the actor had already died in public memory. Rajesh Khanna the large hearted icon of Hindi films would live on in the hearts of few who were close to him personally.
But today and in the years to follow Rajesh Khanna would have one credit to him that can never get taken away. That of being the first Superstar of Indian cinema.