Rajesh Khanna bids a quiet adieu
From the dizzying heights of fame to quiet shadows behind the arclights, Rajesh Khanna’s life had a theatrical sweep, almost like one of his films. Bollywood’s original superstar – simply the phenomenon to some – died in Mumbai on July 18, leaving behind memories cast in celluloid of that famous crooked smile and head tilt. He was only 69.
In an era long before this age of instant connect of mobile phones and internet, Rajesh Khanna was the man who sparked a frenzy never seen before and never since, not even by the likes of Amitabh Bachchan.
His very name spelt magic in the 1970s. He sparked hysteria, particularly amongst his legions of women fans, who would line the road for a glimpse, chant his name, cover his car with lipstick marks and even write him letters in blood. They got married to his photograph, cut their finger, let the blood flow and applied sindoor.
Truly, O mere dil ke chain!
Kaka, as he was popularly known, was one of the highest paid actors of his time, his record of consecutive solo super hits still unbroken. Who can forget the years between 1970-1979 when he starred in mega hits like Safar, Kati Patang, Sachaa Jhutha, Aan Milo Sajna, Anand, Amar Prem and Mere Jeevan Saathi. Ever the urbane, suave romantic who wooed like few others.
Glory and fame galore came his way with the two 1969 films – Aradhana and Do Raaste – where he teamed up with two of his best co-stars, Sharmila Tagore and Mumtaz, respectively. Both the films were super hits. Hindi film’s first superstar was born.
Between Aradhana in 1969 and Prem Kahani in 1975, Rajesh enjoyed god-like status.
It was all about charisma – a certain something that went beyond the art of acting. He had that unique way of delivering a dialogue, of crinkling his eyes and that interesting head tilt that were all his own – and designed to get fans swooning.
Describing the charm of Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh once said: “I got famous purely because I was working with Rajesh Khanna in Anand. People asked me questions like, ‘How is he to look at? What does he do?'”
The mega story had a small beginning in Amritsar. Born Jatin Khanna on Dec 29, 1942, he was adopted and raised by foster parents.
He went from being Jatin to Rajesh, thanks to his uncle who changed his name, when he decided to join films.
In 1965, the journey to filmdom started after he won the All India Talent Contest organised by United Producers and Filmfare. He made his debut with Aakhri Khat in 1966.
It was a fairly easy road to superstardom after that.
He became the heartthrob of the nation, singing timeless melodies like Mere Sapnon Ki Rani… in Aradhana, Zindagi Ek Safar in Andaaz or Yeh Shaam Mastani in Kati Patang. Singer Kishore Kumar and composer R.D. Burman were amongst his closest friends.
In his four-decade career, he appeared in about 160 films, of which 106 had him as the solo lead hero and 22 were two hero projects.
Rajesh proved his mettle in offbeat films too. He teamed up with Hrishikesh Mukherjee for the critically acclaimed Bawarchi and Namak Haram. The quintessential romantic also did the intense Avishkar, directed by Basu Bhattacharya.
But then age caught up and the star began fading away.
He moved to television and played the main lead in two serials – Ittefaque and Apne Paraye during 2001-02 and also featured in Raghukul Reet Sada Chali Aayi between 2008-09.
The decline to B-grade films was inevitable. There was also the sorry Wafa with Laila Khan, who was found murdered this July.
He dabbled in politics, being Congress MP from the New Delhi constituency from 1991-1996.
Like the Hollywood legends of yore, the personal life also had a larger than life dimension.
He fell in love with Dimple Kapadia, who was only 16 and whose first film Bobby was yet to release. She was 15 years younger to him but the pull was strong and they got married after a whirlwind romance in 1973.
It was the stuff of tabloid headlines. They had two daughters Twinkle and Rinke. The marriage lasted only 11 years.
It was a lonely life for Rajesh after that. He disappeared from the headlines and appeared to be a shadow of his former self in his rare public appearances.
But the family came together in his last days. His estranged wife was the one who took care of him during his illness. Son-in-law Akshay Kumar was also a great comfort. When news of his critical health first came out on June 20, legion of his fans expressed concern. A day later, he stepped out in the company of Akshay Kumar and estranged wife Dimple Kapadia to tell his fans that all is well.
But clearly it wasn’t.
He was a shadow of himself, gaunt and ravaged by illness, with glares covering the famous face that would once reduce women to a swoon.
On June 23, Kaka – as he was popularly known in the film world – was in the hospital, and the stay stretched for 15 days. Just a week after he was discharged, he was back to the hospital bed due to “weakness”, but was allowed to go home soon after.
Though family members maintained he was “fine”, Rajesh was said to be critical and breathed his last at his Bandra home Aashirwad.
Film celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Abhishek Bachchan, Shabana Azmi, Sajid Khan, Farah Khan and Prem Chopra came to his residence to pay their respects after news of his demise spread.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni were amongst the political leaders who condoled the death of the star.
His last screen appearance was an ad for Havells fans, with which he once again became the talk of town. But it was an eerie intimation of what was to come. In it, Kaka reminisced in an empty auditorium with music from his films echoing in the background. He was clearly unwell but the zest in his voice was intact.
“Babumoshai,” he intoned deeply – the affectionate Bengali address he made all his own after Anand.
Like Anand from the film, the man is gone. But the memories will live on.