Two years ago, for Indian cinema's centenary, I wrote a blog post highlighting what I thought were the defining films of each decade. Naturally, the post exposed some of the gaps in my outsider's knowledge of Hindi movies. For instance, of the 1970s I said, "This decade can almost be summed up in two words: Amitabh Bachchan." I should have known these would be fighting words. One commenter said he "winced just a bit" on reading this, for I had neglected the superstar who ruled the first half of that decade: Rajesh Khanna.
This critique of my oversight was wholly deserved. From 1969-1972, Rajesh Khanna had something like 17 consecutive solo hits, a record that remains untouched. Films like Namak Haram and Anand that starred both Khanna and Bachchan can be taken, in hindsight, as harbingers of things to come, or even as a kind of baton-passing. But in the first half of the 70s, Rajesh Khanna was alone the king of romance. And I knew this; I had read that his effect on young women of India was much the same as the Beatles' effect on young women of the west a decade before. Khanna is still often called India's original superstar.
Is it much of a puzzle, then, how I could have made such a blunder, to forget this great presence in my summary of the 70s? There is a simple enough explanation, if embarrassing to acknowledge: I was blinded by my own preferences. For much of the 10 years that I have been watching and studying Hindi films, I could not stand Rajesh Khanna. I found his froggy, heavy-lidded demeanor thoroughly unappealing. His mumbly delivery seemed slimy, not steamy. Often, he just appeared tired, as if his characters would rather be napping. I found his most beloved characters insufferably grating. I was, to put it mildly, not a fan.
Anand was the worst, combining a ferret-like, preternatural cheerfulness and pompously-recited platitudes with that unappealing droopy-lidded mien. In Amar Prem, as another character named Anand, Rajesh Khanna delivers more sleepy-eyed mumbling, lolling about philosophically while Pushpa tries to stifle her perfectly-justified tears for him. That Anand's cryptic pronouncements make him something of a sphinx — a squinting, drunken, pontificating sphinx. Even the delightful Bawarchi required a bit of steeling against that grinding smugness. But at least there, as an avatar of Krishna on earth, there is a reason for the self-satisfied, beatific air of the character.
For a time, nearly all I had seen of Khanna was those three films (plus Disco Dancer, which is a hoot — but no actor's tubby and toupeed twilight years will win him new fans). Then I watched Ashanti, another late-career film. I love nearly everything about Ashanti — but more despite Khanna than because of him. You can't but love a masala film in which Parveen Babi, Shabana Azmi, and Zeenat Aman all share the screen in Charlie's Angels-esque style, in which Mithun and Bob Christo have a shirtless fight scene, and Mithun and Parveen Babi have one of Hindi cinema's greatest drunk songs. Even Khanna's doughy, sanctimonious presence cannot compromise this joyride. And Khanna redeems himself in the climax, by removing his own prosthetic leg and beating his nemesis with it.
When Khanna died a few years ago, I felt I owed it to his superstar legacy to give him another chance. Haathi Mere Saathi seemed like a safe place to start, with a Salim-Javed script, adorable elephants, and adorable Tanuja. Here, as in Ashanti, there is enough going on in the movie, with all its delightful songs and animal set-pieces, to make up for the smarmy star and his relentless wardrobe of pastel-colored Nehru suits. And you don't have to be a Rajesh Khanna fan to enjoy the bit where he sets himself on fire and leaps from a 100-meter platform into a tiny pool of water.
The first movies I watched in which I sort of even liked Rajesh Khanna a little were Namak Haram and Sachaa Jhutha; such is the power of Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Manmohan Desai. Namak Haram is an excellent movie all around, an intense study of friendship and loyalty and class warfare, and Khanna is effective in it. His droopy lethargy registers as pensiveness rather than smugness, and is appropriate to the challenges his character faces as his growing commitment to social justice strains his commitment to his best friend. In the less weighty Sachaa Jhutha, Khanna has a double role. He plays a guileless village bumpkin, Bhola, who is hired to impersonate (and supply an alibi for) his doppelganger, Ranjit, an eccentric millionaire who moonlights as a serial jewel thief. It turns out that a double role is good for highlighting an actor's redeeming qualities (not for nothing that Paheli is my favorite Shah Rukh Khan movie). The role of Ranjit demands smarmy repulsiveness, so my usual response to Khanna suits quite nicely. And to distinguish Bhola, Khanna sets aside the droopy, froggy, supercilious mannerisms to render a far more wide-eyed, ingenuous, and energetic avatar.
These were the first films of which I did not have to say I liked them despite Rajesh Khanna's best efforts to ruin them. And as I kept watching, I kept finding more; Khanna is quite a lot of fun in The Train, too, a thriller with the tone and style of a Vijay Anand film, though it isn't one. But it wasn't until I watched Aradhana that I finally began to comprehend Rajesh Khanna as the King of Romance. There is the energy with which he sells "Mere sapnon ki rani kab aayegi tu." There is the mountaintop frolicking of "Gun guna rahe hain bhanware," in which he is actually — dare I say it — rather cute. And there is the gorgeously spicy "Roop tera mastana," in which he fires on all cylinders, delivering (not without some help from Sharmila Tagore) a thrillingly sensuous several minutes of cinema. For the first time, my outsider's eyes could see how compelling this star might have been in his day, how he might have enchanted an audience that had not seen his like before.
The subtitle of this column is a bit of a lie: I still do not love Rajesh Khanna. But at last, I can start to understand Rajesh Khanna. I wasn't a young person in India in 1970, watching his star ascend in real time. Through the cynical haze of 40 years and from the oblique angle of my outsider's perspective, something about him got lost in translation. Watching his movies, trying to recover that something, I have begun to see it. Khanna will probably never be a favorite, but he is no longer an automatic strike against a movie. And the next time I feel compelled to generalise about Hindi films of the 1970s, I know better than to neglect his place in that story.