There is a scene at the end of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1971 masterpiece, Anand, where Rajesh Khanna has just died and Amitabh Bachchan, playing his doctor and friend, sits distraught at his bedside. Then, just as Amitabh finishes his lines, Rajesh’s voice is heard, emerging not from the dead man but booming out of a tape-recorder.
That scene replayed itself again and again in my mind as I watched the TV footage of a dismayed Bachchan visiting ‘Aashirwad’ after the real-life Rajesh Khanna’s death. Even as the cameras zoomed in on Amitabh, the voice-overs were all about Rajesh Khanna, the once and forever superstar.
When Anand was made, Rajesh Khanna was the biggest star of his time and Amitabh a virtual unknown. In less than a decade, Khanna’s career would be in terminal decline, while Bachchan would become the emperor of Hindi cinema. But as Amitabh himself has often said, nothing in his career has ever approached the hysteria that Rajesh Khanna generated. The whole of India went Khanna-crazy, his mere presence on a street could cause a riot, girls married his photograph, women wrote letters in blood to him, children idolised him and he was the son that every mother wished she had.
Couples Rajesh and Dimple, Amitabh and Jaya, in 1973. (Photograph by Indian Express Archive)
Bear in mind that all this was before the explosion of mass media. There were no TV channels to promote his movies, far fewer newspapers and magazines to celebrate his success and no Twitter to allow his fans to cultivate his legend. All Rajesh Khanna had going for him was his charisma.
And in those days, that was enough. In many ways, Rajesh Khanna was the last star. He was like one of the heroes of 1920s Hollywood, who became the characters they portrayed on the screen. Certainly, there was a side to Khanna that his fans never saw. He was always late for shoots. He routinely kept his co-stars waiting. He would make producers come for script readings and then forget to turn up. He was moody, capricious and prone to extended sulks. He bought into his own legend (and that of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a book he treated as his own biography), creating an off-screen persona that mirrored its screen counterpart, spouting dialogues, forever crinkling his eyes and favouring extravagant gestures.
He liked his chamchas and his camp followers. He gave boastful interviews (to The Illustrated Weekly, for instance) saying he had “been intimate” with some of his co-stars but complaining that a few had bad breath. He liked his liquor and made no secret of it. And like the great Hollywood stars of the 1920s, he expected the world to dance to his tune. When his career collapsed, it was partly because he made disastrous film choices. By then, people had stopped telling him what he did not want to hear. And, moody and introverted, he saw enemies everywhere and resorted to bombast to bolster his confidence.
But mainly, it was that the era had changed. By the time he had become too old to play the young romancer, and India had lost its innocence. Once audiences had thrilled to Rajesh Khanna’s smile and copied the outlandish fashions he promoted: double-breasted shirts, short kurtas, V-necked shirts, belted safari jackets etc. Now an angrier audience wanted the smouldering intensity of Amitabh Bachchan. If Khanna had kept the tailors in business, Bachchan simply knotted his shirt at the waist or wore a banian.
Off camera too, Bachchan was the anti-Khanna. He never missed a shoot. He was always on time. He was polite, well-mannered and never lost his temper. He did not touch alcohol. He did not insult his co-stars. He had no camp and no chamchas. And he kept his own personality entirely separate from the street fighters he played on the screen. Plus, Bachchan had an advantage that Khanna never possessed. He could convincingly bash up the villain. Khanna lacked the physicality for action and as the fashion for angry, fight-packed movies took over, he seemed increasingly isolated, a sad and puffy reminder of India’s age of innocence.
And yet, as the outpouring of grief and emotion over the last few days demonstrates, many of us still long for the romance that Rajesh Khanna symbolised. We grieve for the loss of our innocence and we look back fondly to that gentle era when lovers serenaded pretty girls in trains and when drunks always sang in tune. Perhaps Rajesh Khanna’s career flamed out because India changed so quickly and perhaps his reign at the top was so brief because the light that burns twice as bright can only last half as long.
Like some blazing meteor, Rajesh Khanna shot swiftly through our world, lighting up our lives as he passed. RIP.
When Rajesh Khanna died, the media started comparing him with Amitabh Bachchan (Zindagi Ka Suffer, Jul 30). What are we supposed to do: mourn the superstar or sit in judgement on who was the bigger phenomenon?
Shashank Gahlot, Ajmer
What has Vir Sanghvi said in this obituary that’s new? That we did not have Twitter in the ’70s! Couldn’t Outlook get somebody else, say Bhaichand Patel, to write?
Pankaj Gupta, Bangalore
His life is a reminder to many of us that there is nothing more intoxicating than your own ego, success and money.
As Sanghvi says, for many, Rajesh Khanna symbolised the age of innocence. His death truly represents a loss of that innocence.
Arun Murthy, Bangalore
Apropos your tribute to Rajesh Khanna (Jul 30), it’s disheartening that you devoted just two pages to a man who inspired the immortal line: “Upar aaka, neeche Kaka.”
Apropos the tribute to Rajesh Khanna (Zindagi ka Suffer, Jul 30), only some Tamils would remember an unknown aspect of Rajesh Khanna’s ineffable superstar charm. At a time when the Dravidian anti-Hindi movement was reaping rich dividends in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Rajesh Khanna took a lot of air off their sails with his romantic looks, inimitable body language and melodious songs, all sung in Hindi. There would hardly have been a college student who didn’t get drunk on ‘mere sapnon ke rani’.
What did Vir Sanghvi say in this obit that's new? That we did not have Twitter in the 70s! Couldn't Outlook get somebody else like Bhaichand Patel to write this obit instead of this twit?!
First of all see the double standard of Outlook. It took all the effort to show us Nira Radia tapes, which showed us REAL Vir Sanghavi. And now outlook is giving him the opportunity to write again. India is a strange nation, we you can not escape from crooks. For example is politics there is no escape from Jai Lalita, Mulayam, Lallo, Kalmadi and so on. And similary in sports there is no escape from Azharuddin as Congress needs him for minority votes.
Anybody who has heard Nira Radia tapes, should say to VS "Please shut down your writting and do any business, if you have any shame. Otherwise these English speaking Indians will do more harm to India than anybody else.
Rajesh khanna lived in a era when Mellifluous Scripts rivetted Indian cinema. Hope that golden era is revived again
Srinivas >> I am glad Vir Sanghvi produced his first unpaid article. How does it feel to be a real journalist as opposed to a paid chamcha?
Vir Sanghvi will always prefer to be a paid chamcha since that is what gives him the money and power. And this yes this is his first unpaid article, but probably the last one too (unless another superstar dies in near future !)
BVG Rao >> Films are no more like this now. They days of 100 days and 360 days have ended. No film can hope to play for 180 days in a theatre. Cinema itself lost the status of a cult and precursor of designs and fashions. Even soap opera type of TV serials are fast losing their value and this small screen is becoming bold.
Techology has ensured massive intrusion of Infotainment into people's lives so much that people no longer need to mass subscribe to same content. That is the reality of 2012. As 3G and smartphones spread and become common place in India (in next 10 years), entertainment will get increasinly niche and personalised. We should not be even surprised if we have more localized entertainment and short duration superstars (as represented by the Why This Kolaveri rage some months back).
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