Sagarika Ghose: Hi there. Our tribute to Rajesh Khanna. He's been described as India's Rudolph Valentino, someone who on screen exemplified romance, happiness, and charming masculinity. Rajesh Khanna was the phenomenon, at his height, the biggest film star India has ever seen. Rajesh Khanna passed away today and with him it seems an older innocent India has gone away too. What made Rajesh Khanna the biggest superstar ever?
Now, music particularly the songs sung by Kishore Kumar was central to Rajesh Khanna's screen appeal. Rajesh Khanna himself said that if he was the body, then Kishore Kumar was the soul of the Rajesh persona.
Did Rajesh Khanna embody Bollywood's age of innocence? That is what we are exploring tonight. Joining us Siddharth Bhatia, Senior Journalist. Joining us Chandan Mitra, MP of BJP and Editor-in-Chief of The Pioneer, but Chandan Mitra is joining us tonight in his avatar as a lover of Hindi films, someone who is an expert in films. Also Gautam Kaul, film historian, critic and Former IG of CISF.
Chandan Mitra over to you, what did Rajesh Khanna embody for you? What did he mean for Bollywood, India?
Chandan Mitra: Well to begin with, I think, he was the first real game changer of the Indian film industry. Before that everything was stuck into a formula and Rajesh Khanna made his own formula. Nobody had even attempted for dared to do that. And there after all file role and everything started being scripted around him, the music, the kind of style of romance, the style of rendering a song sequence, everything was with Rajesh Khanna in mind. After 'Aradhana' there was just no stopping this Rajesh Khanna. And we, you know, became kind of his devotees and not just fans.
Sagarika Ghose: And what was the secret? What was it about the persona that was so magical because, you know, even today decades later we were hooked on to it? We have been playing Rajesh Khanna’s songs all day, every news channel has been. What was it about Rajesh Khanna that was so magical?
Chandan Mitra: Well he was charming and he reflected a middleclass dream. And, I think, he brought the age of romance with him on the Hindi film screen. We was no action hero, he was not very, I would say, histrionically a great actor, although he did some very, very powerful roles. But he reflected our dreams; we all wanted to be Rajesh Khanna. We wanted to serenade our girlfriend’s in the same style. And this is the first time it has happened. For this generation, I think, we lived Rajesh Khanna. He was an icon, he was someone we all adored. And you are right when you say the age of innocence. It was the age of innocence, India wanted to leave 60’s, which was a nightmarish time, and dream. And Rajesh Khanna was that dream.
Sagarika Ghose: He was the dream of late 60’s. He answered what India was wanted at that time. Siddharth Bhatia you have written that he was the man you could take home to your mother, he had that soft non-threatening personality. He was a gust of fresh air after Shammi Kapoor, Dev Anand and Rajendra Kumar. Why was he so unique that India wanted at that time in late 60’s and early 70’s?
Siddharth Bhatia: You know, the cinema of 60’s, specially the mid and later, was all about romance, wonderful locations, good looking people, good songs. The 50’s, the black and white era, and the file of the underdog had gone. And there was this period that had come which Shammi Kapoor, Joy Mukherjee and all those actors… and Dev Anand was around and that was tapering off and there was no new face on the horizon from 67-68 onwards. And then this man vulnerable looking… I would even suggest like the boy next door in his innocence and charm comes on the screen. And remember in film industry nothing succeeds like success. One file after the other was a success. That was the short in Indian post independent history when we had not yet (*) to the cynicism that was to come in 73 and 74, when the country became a little more angry, frustrated and all that. And in that small four or five years window this was the face which was fresh new and had innocence about it. So perhaps we needed that wonderful feeling of romance to linger on for sometime, which he provided us.
Sagarika Ghose: We wanted that romance to linger. But that romance gave away to anger and Amitabh Bachchan became to embody that angry young man, displacing Rajesh Khanna. After the success of 'Anand' Rajesh Khanna was pitted against Amitabh Bachchan in the 1973 hit film ‘Namak Haram’. Khanna was already a superstar while Bachchan was still trying to make his mark as the angry young man. But it was ‘Namak Haram’ really that tilted the balance from Rajesh Khanna to Amitabh Bachchan.
Gautam Kaul you were telling me before the show that this (Namak Haram) was the warning. This (Namak Haram) was the warning to Rajesh Khanna that something is happening; your superstar status could go away there is a new kid (Amitabh Bachchan) in the block. How do you compare the two of them Amitabh Bachchan and Rajesh Khanna in Namak Haram?
Gautam Kaul: Well you see the voice modulation, Rajesh’s voice modulation is flat, there is hardly emotional up and down, whereas there is an outburst in Amitabh’s case when dialogues is there. And this (Amitabh Bachchan) is a very assertive personality facing Rajesh. And in this film (Namak Haram) it stays because now two issues are being argued, on labour issue, one is industrialist and…
Sagarika Ghose: But this was the file Amitabh ran away with. He took away this film from Rajesh. Why did he (Amitabh Bachchan) manage to take it away?
Gautam Kaul: It think the script did not allow it so and when you interpret the script then you add your personality to it. And here Amitabh was a younger person with more aggression. And this aggression moves further, into Zanjeer, Sholay, and it eliminates Rajesh Khanna from the frame.
Sagarika Ghose: It eliminated the softer Rajesh Khanna. But Chandan Mitra the popularity of Rajesh Khanna, the phenomenon, you know, the popularity among the women, particularly. I have his fans kissed his car, women covered his car with lipstick, they cut off their fingers, they wrote letters to him in blood, they threaten suicide when he got married. Amitabh never had this sought of female mass following. He never even had this kind of popularity.
Chandan Mitra: No Amitabh Bachchan, still today is the number one, I mean, I would say the figure of film industry. But you know they are two different personalities. And to that extent comparison is perhaps a little unfair. Rajesh Khanna was the quintessential a romantic hero. Amitabh Bachchan was never a great romantic hero despite the fact that in a file like ‘Kabhi Kabhi’ he did play the romantic role to the hilt. And he (Amitabh Bachchan) is a very accomplish actor to play any role. But Rajesh Khanna was basically very soft and I think, you will agree that women have a very, I would say, soft corner for soft people. So that was probable the reason why women soon knew Rajesh Khanna, just as they did with Dav Anand, who was never an action hero. Women soon knew Dev Anand and soon knew Rajesh Khanna. And today I know many cried inconsolably, those who grew up with Rajesh Khanna, like me, and our generation cried inconsolably although Rajesh Khanna’s death was very coming, everybody knew it. But even then when it happened I think the women have been much more affected because somewhere from the bottom of their heart wanted Rajesh Khanna to be the man in their life as a boyfriend, as a husband. Even though he was not a very good husband but still they wanted Rajesh Khanna, the image of Rajesh Khanna that was in their mind. And that I think is a tremendous tribute to Rajesh Khanna’s ability to connect.
Sagarika Ghose: That’s very true, my mother rang me today and said how sad she was. And I’m feeling sad too. So as far as Rajesh Khanna is concerned he span the generations. Siddharth Bhatia, the BBC says in a documentary that he has the charisma of Rudolph Valentino. He romanced every Indian woman with song and tender emotion, in a way she had not been romanced before. Was that the secret – he romanced the Indian woman in a way that, you know, the Indian woman had not been treated before with this kind of tender and emotional intensity?
Siddharth Bhatia: You know, you had somebody like Dilip Kumar, who had intensity in his romance… but again I return to the point, you have to see when he came. He came at a time when the romantic decade was just coming to an end and we didn’t know what would come up next. And suddenly this face bursts and remember right from his first films, even before Aradhana, we keep remembering Aradhana but if you see some earlier movies he is extremely tender in those films. There is no rough handling; there is nothing angular in his personality. There is a certain amount of vulnerability to say am lost lead me and I think that continued through his films. Never did he actually need to pull a heroin or push her or generally stand in the same frame and try to dominate. He was just there and you could sense whether you see Sharmila Tagore or Mumtaz two of his biggest heroines, you could see them wanted to embrace this man. To say, you know, when he says ‘Pushpa I hate tears. I can imagine the number hearts that would have melted in the audience and most of them women.
Sagarika Ghose: Most of them women. Is that why Chandan Mitra that he couldn’t be that anti-establishment hero. He always did remain trapped in that chocolate box, romantic hero persona. He could have never become anti-established angry hero.
Chandan Mitra: Well, you see as I was saying earlier that once he became a superstar roles were tailored for him. Script writers wrote for him, keeping his abilities and talent in mind. Rajesh Khanna has rarely except that film called ‘Red Rose’, Rajesh Khanna has never played a negative role. He was not cut out for it. He was cut out to be a classical hero in the original mode of the Mumbai film industry and he played that to the hit. When people got a bit tired from that Rajesh Khanna formula, action came in because he had his day. So you can call it limitations but Rajesh Khanna also played some superb tragic roles.
Sagarika Ghose: He did play some tragic roles. If you had to choose you favourite Rajesh Khanna film, your favourite Rajesh Khanna performance, and you favourite Rajesh Khanna romantic pair.
Gautam Kaul: Well I will certainly choose ‘Aradhana’ has memorable film but not his greatest performance. I personally rate his performances in two films, fairly unknown today one is ‘Ashirwad’ by Basu Bhattacharya, the other is ‘Khamoshi’ directed by Hemant Kumar, as films which actually brought out the artist, the performer.
Sagarika Ghose: ‘Ashirwad’ was a very interesting film, wasn’t it? That marital drama with these two people and it was really a powerful emotional film. You think he rose to that occasion there?
Gautam Kaul: Yes, he rose to the occasion. He was not the soft hero, he was the tragic hero caught between two women. And it was a drama; there was hardly a wink in it because Rajesh Khanna’s persona was liked by the younger girls, particularly the side wink he used to make. And the girls I knew, when this action (wink) came in the films, the girls would say ‘Oh’ in all sought of sighs. ‘Avishkaar’ had nothing of it.
Sagarika Ghose: That is really a powerful drama. Let’s put it to Chandan Mitra, Rajesh Khanna the tragic hero, you know, even in ‘Aap Ki Kasam’ again the tragic intensity he portrayed, in ‘Avishkaar’ that husband-wife marital drama. Do you feel his acting is often underrated?
Chandan Mitra: Yes, I think Rajesh Khanna’s romantic persona, his ability to set trends in clothes, in hair style, all this has overtaken I think abilities particularly as a tragic hero. You know Rajesh Khanna died brilliantly, when ever he has been given a role that entails death, I think Rajesh Khanna died many times before his death because the directors cast him in that role. If you recall ‘Anand’ and quite its opposite ‘Safar’ and then of course as you mentioned ‘Aap Ki Kasam’, there are many films. And Rajesh Khanna could bring so much emotion and pain into his dying scene that it would bring people really to tears. Although he said that he hate tears but more people have shed tears than any other hero than Rajesh Khanna.
Sagarika Ghose: Right, Rajesh Khanna the tragic hero. He died very well according to Chandan Mitra. The tragic hero in ‘Aap Ki Kasam’ and ‘Avishkaar’. Siddharth Bhatia what explains his very steep fall from that superstardom because it is said that he rose suddenly like a meteor to superstardom but then descended from that stardom equally quickly. Why do you think that happened?
Siddharth Bhatia: Well firstly I don’t think it was such a steep fall because even Namak Haraam and a few other films that came, he continued posting his hits. His hits went on till 1976 or something like that and theoretically afterwards. I think there are two-three reasons, why he declined. One is audiences changed, I think, when audiences shift dramatically it starts showing in different ways. The audience wanted something else, perhaps he became predictable, his films became too predictable that was one thing. Two, India itself changed in a very dramatic way… 74-75 then 77 India is a different place; they wanted different kinds of expressions on the screen. If you purely speak industry wise Amitabh Bachchan happened. He became industry from one to ten. You raised a point, Sagarika, that he never did anti-established roles. Remember in 69 or 70 there was no such thing as anti-establishment, at least on the screen. When the world around changed, he could not change. But mean while this world wind… but the world wind came and nobody could have stood against that world wind. I mean, we will have to discuss Bachchan, the phenomena at sometime. He (Amitabh Bachchan) was totally a world wind.
Sagarika Ghose: The most popular, the biggest superstar perhaps in India, Rajesh Khanna but overtaken also by that world wind that was Amitabh Bachchan. Well we have been remembering Rajesh Khanna all of today. He did embody Bollywood’s age of innocence and with his passing it does seem as if an older innocent India has passed away. Thank you very much for watching Face The Nation. Thank you Siddharth Bhatia, Chandan Mitra and Gautam Kaul. Thanks indeed for coming.