Many say Jitin Arora was born in Amritsar, India while some others claim he may have been born in Burewala in what is now Pakistan but most agree that as Rajesh Khanna he lived in the hearts of millions from Kabul to Kolkata, and beyond. I say most, as even when the prince of romance is mourned everywhere Hindi and Urdu are understood, some like a Pakistani television anchor Talat Hussain opted to deride him quite viciously. In his show dated July 19, 2012, which can be found at http://bit.ly/MuFrV3, Mr. Hussain disparages the media coverage of Rajesh Khanna’s demise on the pretext of evaluating its news value. The anchor’s barely concealed xenophobia is most unfortunate but let it not take away from what Kaka, as Rajesh was affectionately called, meant to literally hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis.
Pakistani governments had opted to first levy heavy taxes on the Indian films to curb import and then banned them initially in the western wing in 1952 and eventually even in East Pakistan by 1962. But it is still hard to erect barriers to popular culture, especially where the historical and linguistic bonds unite people despite the state ideology or political dispensation. When Doordarshan India started its telecast to Lahore it attracted not just the locals but also many others who could manage to travel to Lahore. On the other hand, Peshawar’s lifeline to the Indian cinema turned out to be the metropolitan Kabul of 1960s and 1970s. Theaters like the Temurshahi, Kabul Nandareh, Zainab Nandareh and Behzad screened new Bombay movies in Kabul. And as one Peshawari elder put it, they “descended upon Kabul to watch Aradhana in hordes”. Indeed one need not look beyond that 1969 release to grasp the magic of Rajesh Khanna.
The chemistry between Rajesh and his leading lady Sharmila Tagore in Aradhana, and thereafter, was almost palpable. Add to it Kishore Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar’s playback rendition to Sachin Dev ‘SD’ Burman’s music and there was no looking back for Rajesh. The beat, rhythm and use of orchestra to produce an exceedingly contemporary melody – as against SD’s semi-classical and folk-based tunes - in one song at least, also had the unmistakable fingerprint of SD’s son Rahul Dev Burman, whose name appeared as the assistant music director. Kishore Kumar and RD Burman became to Rajesh what Mukesh and Shankar-Jai Kishan were to the great Raj Kapoor. The trio did some 32 movies together. Rajesh was to later say to the documentary filmmaker Jack Pizzey about Kishore: “This is one of those playback singers … I mean … you hear the playback singer and you feel it is me who is singing …more or less … lots of similarity between his voice and my voice … only thing is that he can sing, I can’t!”
About that song Nilanjana Bhattacharjya notes in a 2009 study on the Hindi film song sequence in the periodical Asian Music: “Roop Tera Mastana (Your Beauty Intoxicates Me) from Aradhana, for example, unfolds in a secluded log cabin in Kashmir. The lyrics to the song annotate the rising level of passion between the couple amidst their awareness that despite having eloped, they approach dangerous territory. The lyrics effectively rule out any need for dialogue as the song sequence depicts a young man and young woman drawn increasingly closer before cutting to an unrelated scene the next morning.”
The Hindi film music and lip-syncing are virtually synonymous but this song sequence perhaps is unique in that Rajesh matched the range of Kishore’s voice only through the panoply of his expression without moving his lips. And did the male protagonist Arun’s body language and gaze fixed on Vandana, the female lead, delivered - and evoked - every emotion it could or what! Perhaps inspired by this and similar song sequences, Jack Pizzey had to say: “Kissing may be forbidden on the Indian screen but Rajesh has found more ways of implying love than the Kama Sutra has of making it!”
Little wonder that the movie, which on the face of it was a maternal melodrama, practically broke every taboo on sensuality in the Indian cinema and established Rajesh Khanna as the unmistakable prince of passion. He essayed the double role of a father and son, both dapper air force officers, in a movie that condemns a woman’s victimization at one level and at another more sublime one punishes her for a ‘lapse of judgment’. Unlike majority of Hindi movies the real protagonist of the movie is Vandana and no surprise that Sharmila Tagore’s powerful performance landed her the Filmfare award for best actress that year. Rajesh, however, came out of Aradhana as the heartthrob, whose mention forever would entail anecdotes about how girls would slap kisses on his car, write letters to him in their blood or marry his picture.
The Rajesh Khanna phenomenon was actually the sub-continental middleclass finding its first original celebrity post-1947. Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand were past their prime in more ways than one. The Nehruvian ethos of the former two especially was ready to be replaced by something more compatible with the increasingly urbanizing masses that were craving, yet not willing, to let go of the tradition. In Pakistan Rajesh was not quite the idol of the Anglicized upper crust and obviously not of the ideologically anchored-types. That is in fact true for whole commercial Hindi cinema. But Rajesh’s appeal was in the mohallahs and streets of the large and small towns where the arrival of the videocassette recorder (VCR) in 1980s provided the young and old an opportunity to cram through his entire filmography. There was hardly a neighborhood in any town where the local “music center” would not have at least his first 13 blockbusters. In a way, arrival in the Pakistani market via the VCR gave Rajesh certain immunity against the box-office as the barometer of success and forever archived his image as the quintessential flamboyant romantic.
Rajesh Khanna was a Bollywood icon when there was no Bollywood, Bombay had not become the puritanical Mumbai yet, and Pakistan, of course had not produced its own version of Bal Thackerays. The news value of anything and how it should be slotted is certainly debatable but let there be no doubt that to Pakistanis too Rajesh Khanna’s death means the passing of an era. He will always be remembered as The Superstar – the one for whom the term was coined. RIP Kaka!
Dr. Mohammad Taqi is a regular columnist for Daily Times, Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @mazdaki