Remembering Rajesh Khanna, Indian Cinema’s First Superstar

Remembering Rajesh Khanna, Indian Cinema’s First Superstar

Sometimes a diva, sometimes a star, the actor’s legacy includes a record hit streak, magical songs and unforgettable stories

Today, we're all used to seeing tourists wait hopefully for a sighting outside Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan's bungalows. Ask for directions to Salman Khan's home, and everyone will point you to the building that has a crowd gathered on the other side of the road. However, the first film star's home to become a tourist spot in Mumbai was Aashirwad, Rajesh Khanna's bungalow on Carter Road. Bachchan once said at an awards function, "The Indian film industry had never seen superstardom like they had of Rajesh Khanna."

Born Jatin Khanna, the actor had originally wanted to go with the screen name Jeetendra, but his friend Ravi Kapoor, who debuted a few years before Khanna, beat him to it. The name Rajesh was chosen by Khanna's family and meant "king of kings". Before entering the film industry, Khanna worked as a theatre actor. A chance meeting with actor Geeta Bali, who saw Khanna and wanted to cast him in her next production, made Khanna think about becoming a film actor. The project with Bali didn't work out, but in 1965, Khanna submitted a form to enter the Filmfare-United Producers Combine Talent Hunt and ended up winning the contest (along with Farida Jalal). His first three films failed at the box office. No one at the time could have guessed that Khanna was about to star in 15 films between 1969 and 1971, which would be consecutive hits.

In his book, Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna, Gautam Chintamani says:

"…legends are created when stories are told and retold about an event. Khanna too was surrounded and engulfed by the yarns spun about him by others and perhaps, at some point, started seeing everything that happened through the prism of these tales."  

In Khanna's lifetime, there were regular scandals and rumours about his personal life, which often overshadowed everything else. Ten years after Khanna's passing, we remember a few of the stories about Khanna the actor, who impressed his colleagues as much as he frustrated them.

The first hit

Director Shakti Samanta was making a small film named Aradhana (1969) with Sharmila Tagore and a little-known actor named Rajesh Khanna as the lead pair — as far as the Hindi film industry was concerned, it sounded like hara-kiri. Khanna was three films old and all those films had been flops. Tagore was a bona fide star, but her role in Aradhana was deglamourized. While the film's soundtrack was being recorded, music director S.D. Burman got so frustrated with one of the musicians that he almost cancelled the recording of "Mere Sapnon ki Rani" (give thanks to Burman's son and assistant, R.D. Burman who saved the day by playing the song's intro on the mouth organ and convinced his father to keep the song).

However, for all the doubts that others may have had, Samanta knew he was making something special. And Khanna, eager to prove himself, was leaving nothing to chance as far as his acting performance was concerned. Samanta's son, Ashim, remembered Khanna practising his lines in front of the mirror for hours, figuring out every gesture and mannerism, from the flick of his neck to how long he'd close his eyes while saying a line. It worked. Aradhana was released in Delhi a week before Bombay and by the time the first show in Delhi ended, Khanna was an audience favourite.

When the film released in other parts of the country, half-a-kilometre lines outside the box office were a common sight. Chintamani described Khanna's appeal in the early years like this:

"Here was an actor who appeared to be inspired by the past but, unlike the second generation of starts — like Rajendra Kumar, Shammi Kapoor or Manoj Kumar — clearly wasn't burdened by it, and that added to his appeal. By not totally imitating the nuances of the holy trinity of Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar, and being one of the first actors to openly acknowledge his live-in relationship with Anju Mahendru, he was a nonconformist both on and off screen."

Khanna first realised how much of a heartthrob he'd become at his uncle's wedding, which took place soon after Aradhana was released. The moment he arrived, the entire baraat (including the band) made a beeline for Khanna, leaving the groom and his mare standing all alone, in the middle of the street.

Ladies vs Rajesh Khanna

One of the reasons why Khanna's popularity among women is interesting is that there wasn't anything macho about his online persona. Consider some of his most beloved early films. In Aakhri Raat (1966), he has a child out of wedlock. In Aradhana (1969), his characters dismiss societal norms in favour of what their hearts tell them to do. In Kati Patang, Khanna's character Kamal is the only person unbothered by the fact that he's fallen in love with a widow. Chintamani concluded that Khanna's choice of roles suggested to the women in the audience that here was a man who was guided by what he considered right and not social conventions.

Off screen, Khanna had his share of typical male insecurities. Here, according to Chintamani, is what happened during the shooting of Kati Patang, which was directed by Samanta.

"Kati Patang was yet another woman-centric subject thrust upon him [Khanna] and he whined about it for a major portion of its making to director Shakti Samanta, saying he was stuck with heroine-oriented films and was missing out on heavy-duty dialogues like the ones Vinod Khanna and Shammi Kapoor mouthed in Jane Anjane. … Somewhere, Kamal's resentment towards the faceless entity who spurned him was a mirroring of Khanna's real-life situation with Asha Parekh. The shooting for Kati Patang had started before the release of Aradhana and Asha Parekh was given the star treatment over Khanna. During the film's outdoor in Nainital, she was put up in a fancier hotel while Khanna cooled his heels in a smaller property."

Aradhana, Kati Patang and Amar Prem (1972) are three of the most successful films Khanna made with Samanta. Amar Prem has thrived in the present-day thanks to the memeworthiness of Khanna's iconic line, "I hate tears". Samanta almost made Amar Prem with another actor because at the time, Khanna was at the peak of his popularity and Samanta didn't think the actor would have dates for him. However, the moment Khanna heard Samanta was thinking of casting another actor for the male lead in Amar Prem, he barged into the director's office and demanded the role of Anand Babu. Samanta pointed out Khanna had no free dates. Ultimately, Khanna gave Samanta four hours, every night, for Amar Prem, after he'd finished shooting for the other films to which he'd committed.

Today, the most famous song from Amar Prem's soundtrack is probably "Chingari Koi Bhadke", but it wasn't originally composed for the film. Samanta heard the first few lines of Anand Bakshi's lyrics and created a situation in which the song could be incorporated into Amar Prem.

The court of Rajesh Khanna

Khanna was famous for being a generous host, but also behaving like a diva. In Dark Star, Chintamani describes the "durbar" where both these aspects of Khanna's personality were on display.

"Once Khanna moved into Aashirwad, the façade of being a king was complete, with the garage of the house turned into a huge bar where Khanna held court. Khanna made tens of producers wait endlessly outside the fabled durbar, granting audience only once they had done time. He would emerge in his famous silk lungi-kurta and take his position at a chair that was conspicuously placed a little higher than the others to differentiate between the king and his subjects. Only a select few had access to the inner sanctum, and many a times, those waiting outside would tell the ones who passed by to put in a good word. … Inside, copious amounts of whisky would flow endlessly through the night and most of those present would sing praises of King Kaka. … Those who didn't agree with him or presented a somewhat contrarian point of view, even for the sake of argument, were often shown the door. The manner in which Khanna supposedly banished people from his court was nothing less than high theatrics; he would weigh the words that didn't meet his approval and proclaim, "Aapko humara durbar chhodna padega (You'll have to leave my court)."

One of the consequences of this 'courtly' behaviour was that Khanna became notorious for his unpunctuality. He'd invariably arrive hours after the call time, which was ironic because as an upcoming actor, he was often the first one on the set.

Among his friends and contemporaries, Aashirwad was famous for the lunches Khanna would host. His friend Johny Bakshi was convinced that the office that Khanna had was essentially an excuse to feed the people who came to meet him.

Reel and real

Khanna also became famous for his on-screen deaths. When audiences realised Khanna's character, Avinash, died in Safar (1970), the reaction was emphatic. The film scored at the box office — it's one of Khanna's 15 consecutive solo hits — but it also led to a flood of angry fan mail. In letter after letter, fans complained about the ending. Had Khanna no idea what seeing him die on screen did to those who loved him, they asked.  

Perhaps Khanna's most famously tragic role was in and as Anand (1971), which was director Hrishikesh Mukherjee's ode to Raj Kapoor. Incidentally, while most people knew Khanna by his nickname Kaka, Mukherjee called him "Pintu Baba".

In a poignant parallel to Khanna's role in Anand, years later, the actor realised after a visit to the doctor that he didn't have very long before his "visa expired". Even as his health deteriorated, Khanna did everything he could to enjoy his last years — including doing that infamous ad for Havell fans, directed by R. Balki. The ad was shot in Bengaluru and it wasn't until Khanna arrived for the shoot that Balki realised how fragile Khanna was. A few days before the shoot, Khanna had slipped in the bathroom and fractured his ankle. He still showed up in Bengaluru, a drip dangling from his arm, and refused Balki's offer to postpone the shoot. The ad made Khanna a topic of online and offline conversation after decades because it upset many. However, Balki said Khanna was amused by both the ad and the reactions it got. "He laughed. He laughed the loudest at every comment," Balki told Chintamani.

It turned out that the film Anand had foreshadowed what would actually happen in Khanna's life. In it, Khanna played the titular character who is a cancer patient and who lives his life to the fullest even though death is looming around the corner for him. Anand also shone the spotlight for the first time on Amitabh Bachchan. Khanna and Bachchan would win the Filmfare Awards for best actor and best supporting actor respectively for the film.

The two legendary actors would go on to have a complicated relationship. There are many stories of Khanna having snubbed Bachchan, whose popularity would exceed Khanna's in coming years. For instance, film journalist Ali Peter John has said he saw Khanna repeatedly insulting Bachchan when the younger actor would come to the sets of Bawarchi to visit his then-girlfriend Jaya Bhaduri. However, for all the animosity and rivalry that stood between the two actors in their prime, their story had a happy ending.

In 2009, Khanna was given the lifetime achievement award by the Indian International Film Awards (IIFA) and it was Bachchan who presented the award to him. Bachchan spoke eloquently about both Khanna's performances and his celebrity and the two actors embraced warmly on stage. The IIFA award was the one trophy Khanna always kept on display. "Yeh award mujhe Amitabh Bachchan ne diya hai! (Amitabh Bachchan gave me this award)" the actor told his friends repeatedly.

When Khanna passed away in 2012, Bachchan was among the first who came to pay his respects. Khanna's funeral took place on a rainy July 19. The entire film fraternity showed up as did approximately 9 lakh people who wanted to accompany Khanna on his final journey. When the police resorted to lathi charge, hoping to make way for the funeral procession, the crowd barely budged. It turns out that the tagline of the Havell ad that had seemed cruelly ironic — "Fans, hamesha mere rahenge (My fans will always be there)" — was in fact an earnest statement about Khanna's fandom.   

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