The Loneliest Superstar Ever

From the dizzying heights of stardom to the depths of despair, the Rajesh Khanna story is unsurpassable
Supernova
Stuck in a hopeless time warp, Khanna may well be real life’s closest equivalent to Sunset Boulevard’s delusional ‘I-am-big’ centrepiece

You know Rajesh Khanna, don’t you? If you are a young man or woman reading this, you may have heard of him as Akshay Kumar’s father-in-law or Dimple Kapadia’s husband or Amitabh Bachchan’s one-time co-star. At a pinch, you might also be somewhat familiar with his work: such classics as Anand, Aradhana, Amar Prem, Aavishkar and Bawarchi, which play on TV now and then. But to know and understand what and who Rajesh Khanna is and was, ask your mother. Chances are, she may have harboured a secret (maybe even an open and zealous) crush on Rajesh Khanna in her youth. My mother did. In truth, it was an entire female generation’s adulation of this actor that was at the centre of the Rajesh Khanna phenomenon.

Since the onset of his undisclosed illness, brought to popular notice by his weak frame in a recent TV commercial for Havells fans in which he announces that nobody can take his fans away from him (he can rest assured of that), wellwishers have wondered whether all is okay with the Lord of Aashirwad, that ocean-front shrine in Mumbai that has been his home. But the commercial has served its purpose. It has turned the spotlight back on him, just as he wanted. One of his reasons for doing the commercial was to subtly remind people of his days of refulgence, the time when he more or less owned the word ‘superstar’, a term coined especially for him by Devyani Chaubal of Star & Style magazine.

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The Rajesh Khanna story is without parallel. It never had a prequel and can never have a sequel. It stands alone as one with extreme alienation at its heart. He was a soft, uncannily romantic hero at a time of Dharmendra-like masculinity. That look in his eyes, that hint of a smile and that nod of his head all had a magical effect on women. Some of the praise that the critic Pauline Kael once lavished on Cary Grant can apply to Khanna as well: that he was a male love object, and that men wanted to be as ‘lucky and enviable’ as he was, and that ‘women imagined landing him.’ Add chartbuster songs to romantic mannerisms, and—voila—you had a star few women could resist.

In a chapter on the actor in the anthology Bollywood’s Top 20: Superstars of Indian Cinema, Avijit Ghosh writes that without music, ‘Rajesh Khanna became an actor without his best lines.’ There was a touch of the poet-philosopher, notes Ghosh, in the characters he played. In this, as in other things, it was as if Khanna stood alone, like an outsider trying to break into a charmed circle.

Several of his co-stars, including Amitabh Bachchan, have testified to an inability to put in words the extent and reach of his stardom. It’s hard to imagine it now, but there was once a time when Bachchan’s claim to fame was that he had worked with Khanna. The irony of this, however, is that while Bachchan has retained a relevance in another era of cinema well past his prime, Khanna’s appeal remains frozen in its old frame of the mid 1960s till the mid 1970s.

If at all, it is Khanna’s films with Hrishikesh Mukherjee that help him cross over to different generations and lend him longevity as an actor—mind you, only as an actor, not as a superstar. His success is a story cherished only by those who were young when he was at the peak of his power. For today’s youth, he is at best a relic from the past who continues to be his own enemy, trapped as he is by a false sense of propriety and his own image, one who lives in that dream mansion in the comfort of a stardom that is now only illusory at best. In other words, he lives in a hopeless time warp, and in that, he may easily be real life’s closest equivalent to Sunset Boulevard’s delusional ‘I-am-big’ centrepiece.

What happened to him was something rather Norma Desmond-like. Not that the pictures got small (they got big, in fact), but he refused to acknowledge that he was fast fading away. Khanna—or Kaka as he was affectionately nicknamed—and Desmond appear to be lonely inhabitants of their own fame and misfortune. As fellow travellers, separated by nearly half a century, they are prisoners of their own respective worlds of make-believe, even as everything else moves on. Is it their fault that nobody told them about it?

For any superstar, being loved by audiences is nothing short of a life-affirming need, but for Rajesh Khanna, that alone wouldn’t do. There was a time when almost all of India loved him. Not to be left out—and quite in tune with the rest of the country, to be fair—Rajesh Khanna fell in love with himself. The bedazzler of fans had bedazzled himself. It was an act of narcissism, say critics, that needed only one sort of divine sanction: his own.

“At one point, Rajesh Khanna was a god, but the trouble with him is that he started thinking he was one,” says Ali Peter John, a senior film journalist who has known Khanna for a long time.

Ali agrees to meet me outside Costa Coffee in suburban Mumbai to talk about his ‘friend’. When he turns up, he suggests walking over to a nearby Udupi joint. “Cheaper option,” he says, gloating over his decision. For the first few minutes, he merely repeats what most people already know about the actor—that he was the adopted son of KC Khanna, a businessman in Thakurdwar, a teeming neighbourhood in Mumbai, and that Jeetendra and he went to the same school. By the time Jatin Khanna—Kaka’s name then—entered college, he had become a part of the campus theatre culture, and to slake his thirst of becoming a star, had participated—and eventually won—a talent hunt contest. Vinod Mehra was among the contestants, but was knocked out by Kaka in a close encounter. Winning the contest meant a film role, but the name ‘Jatin’ was deemed too business-like for Bollywood. No one knows for sure, but ‘Rajesh’ was a screen name given by either his uncle KK Talwar or film producer GP Sippy.

Anyhow, the first half a dozen films he acted in were washouts. Ali was in college when Khanna was shooting for his third film, Baharon Ke Sapne. It was 1967. A crowd had gathered at the shooting spot, but nobody was interested in the newcomer. There were a bunch of autograph-hunters around, of course, as often happens at filming sites, but they spotted the lead actress Asha Parekh and went rushing over to her. As Ali recounts, she was an infinitely bigger draw at the time. In fact, the journalist recalls that some unruly boys had taken to mocking the hero, calling him “gurkha”. This, Ali postulates, could have been because of his somewhat Nepalese features.

Although Ali could see sufficient signs of determination in Khanna during the aspiring star’s early phase of struggle, his shyness and reluctance to mingle with everyone (by some accounts) were misconstrued by some as arrogance. Ashim Samanta, whose father Shakti Samanta turned Khanna into an overnight star with Aradhana, 1969, puts it this way: “He was more reserved than shy and he became socially active much later. He used to accompany dad everywhere initially, but once he was on his own, he mastered the rules of the game.”

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At the height of Khanna’s popularity, say critics, he developed—or, to be a little generous, succumbed to—what is best described as a superiority complex. Somehow, he never had a good word to say about any of his peers, and was particularly condescending towards a newcomer in the 1970s by the name of Amitabh Bachchan. For Ali, this growing rivalry and jealousy was a subject worthy of many a media report, a theme that he explored whenever an opportunity arose. Even an objective observer like the BBC reporter Jack Pizzey, who filmed a documentary in 1973 on him called Bombay Superstar, felt that the actor was a manic egoist. In his introduction, Pizzey described him as an actor with the “charisma of Rudolph Valentino and the arrogance of Napoleon”. But it is obvious to any viewer that this was Pizzey’s sense of frustration more than admiration speaking. The BBC reporter had been given a royal runaround and was finally awarded an audience by the “emperor” only after a series of unkept appointments. Pizzey’s documentary is as much a testimony to the mass hysteria generated by Khanna’s mere presence at a film premiere as it is a portrait of an insecure, lonely superstar fixated with his position. When Pizzey asked him if he had to fight to stay No 1, Khanna told him he just had to wait and things would happen the way he wanted them to. But part of it did require fighting, he admitted. “One has to fight,” he was quoted as saying, “and fight well and win the battle.” Meanwhile, Devyani Chaubal, the columnist who’d first called Khanna a ‘superstar’, had this to say of him to Pizzey: “He is so insecure, so complex.”

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One of the reasons Khanna lost his stardom, as Ali puts it, is that he didn’t value it. In Pizzey’s documentary, Khanna was asked about his fans and the crowds that had encircled him on an outdoor shooting spell as if it were a cricket World Cup final. Khanna’s response? “[Such a] crowd is good for business.”

The more popular he became, the more friends he acquired. But they were not his true friends, in Ali’s assessment. “People wanted to be around him because he was a star,” he says. Although those were the days when Khanna was ‘friends’ with nearly all his colleagues, the regular darbar that he held at Aashirwad had only small-timers in attendance. Among those he hung out with were the producers Mohan Kumar and Johnny Bakshi, writer VK Sharma and villain Roopesh Kumar (claimed to be a cousin of Mumtaz). Do these names ring a bell?

Another undoing of his was that in his desire to stay all-powerful as a superstar, he began compromising his credibility. He always did things on impulse, he told Pizzey: such as his marriage to Dimple Kapadia. As depicted in Pizzey’s documentary, this was a spontaneous decision. But, more than that, it was a ‘publicity marriage’. One day, he’d called Chaubal to offer her the scoop of a lifetime—what bigger news could it be than Rajesh Khanna’s wedding announcement? For many of his fans, it was a shattering piece of information. Girls across the country, reacting at first with shock, went into collective mourning. There were widespread fears that some of them would commit suicide, and several did. Khanna had been right: it was big news. But Chaubal had turned a Khannasceptic by then. What left her unconvinced was the story that led to his wedding. By his version of events, he’d found Dimple drowning in the sea and had fallen in love with her by the time he rescued her. By now, Chaubal knew him only too well to fall for that. “He liked what was happening to him,” she noted, “the attention, the fuss made over him.”

According to Ali, Khanna loved all things grand much before he could afford the trappings of wealth. Ali narrates the story of his most famous acquisition, Aashirwad, which was earlier owned by Rajendra Kumar. As a newcomer, he had set his sights on the bungalow and wanted it at any cost; the problem was, he was broke. “He went to BR Chopra and said, ‘Give me a cheque and I will do whatever film you tell me.’ Finally, he bought the bungalow, which was called Dimple (named after Rajendra Kumar’s daughter). He wanted to retain the name, but Rajendra wouldn’t part with it because he either had another place by that name or was constructing one, I don’t quite remember clearly. Rajesh wasn’t happy about this. Any other man would have been over the moon, but not Rajesh. He hated being refused.”

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The fall from stardom was as quick as the ascent. His worst fears came true when the industry suddenly started talking about Amitabh Bachchan, the lanky actor with a baritone. Now, it so happened that Hrishikesh Mukherjee had planned to cast the two actors together in Anand. According to an essay that Ali wrote for Movietalkies.com, Khanna asked Mukherjee to replace Bachchan. That was not the end of the superstar’s unkindness to the young actor. Here is a blunt episode from the said article: ‘Rajesh Khanna, who lived in a world of his own, was told about this new actor and he just brushed his name aside and told his friends, ‘Aise attan button aate jaate rahenge, lekin Rajesh Khanna ko koi chhoo bhi nahi sakta. Main kya aise aire gaire logon se darr jaaunga? Aap log agar sochte bhi ho toh aap ko humaara darbar chhodna padega.’ (Such Johnnies-come-lately will come and go, but nobody can touch Rajesh Khanna. Do you think I’ll get scared by such newcomers? If you think that way, you ought to leave my group.)’

Ali cites another occasion when Jaya Bhaduri had to stand up for Bachchan on the sets of Bawarchi. Piqued at the kind of treatment Khanna meted out to Bachchan, Jaya lost her temper. This is how Ali describes the scene: ‘The superstar neglected Amitabh every time he passed him, even though he reluctantly wished and greeted Jaya. I was there in the studio that afternoon when Jaya kept seeing how the superstar was behaving with Amitabh. A stage came when she couldn’t control herself and burst out saying, “Woh aadmi apne aap ko kya samajhta hain? Woh Khuda toh nahi hain. Ek aadmi ko doosre aadmi ko thodi izzat dene mein kya jaata hain?” (What does that man think of himself? He is not God. What does he lose in giving a man some respect?) Then she took the form of ‘goddess Kali’ and screamed, “Dekhna ek din yeh jo aadmi mere saath khada hain woh kitna bada star hoga aur woh jo apne aap ko Khuda samajhta hai woh kahin ka nahi rahega.” (Mark my words, this man here will be a top star someday and that man who thinks he is God will not be anywhere close.)’

Bachchan’s success caused Khanna immeasurable pain, says Ali. Recounting an incident from a party at Sun-n-Sand hotel in suburban Mumbai, Ali writes that Khanna staged a walkout when he saw Bachchan swamped with more autograph requests than him. Ali writes: ‘That night he went to the terrace of his bungalow and cried his heart out and in his drunkenness called out to God and howled, “Oh God, why me?”’

Khanna just couldn’t accept his eclipse by someone he’d scoffed at. But Bachchan soon attained superstardom of the kind Khanna had merely fancied. He turned a recluse.

Recently, it was a surprise to see Khanna resurface at an award ceremony; the bigger surprise was that he had agreed to receive the trophy at the hands of Bachchan. At most public appearances since then, he has been going out of his way to remind people (and himself) that, “Yeh bhi ek daur hai, woh bhi ek daur thha.” (This is an era, and that too was an era.)

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Life’s ironies, aside, Ali points out that in his illness, Khanna has come to terms with not only the ephemeral nature of stardom, but also his own mortality. His family is back by his side. Ali says the actor’s only wish is to restore Aashirwad to its past glory. “If you pass by Aashirwad at night, you’ll see it lit up like a film set. That’s what he desires most.” Maybe, like Norma Desmond, Rajesh Khanna is ready for his close-up. Are we, the audience, going to behave like “those wonderful people out there in the dark” as he’d expect?