At the height of the popular Beatles' hysteria, John Lennon remarked, “We are more popular than Jesus Christ now.” After he had colonized the mind of a nation, Rajesh Khanna admitted to feeling 'next to god'.
In November 1969, Aradhana was screened at Bombay's Opera House. In December '69, Do Raaste was released at the Roxy, across the road. Both Rajesh Khanna films were golden jubilee hits. Both engendered a hitherto unknown phenomenon in the film industry - a superstar. An astounding volley of consecutive hits rocked the country between '70 and '72, as Khanna simply scissored the screen with his eye-crinkling, head-shaking mannerisms and exerted some kind of tidal pull over the audiences.
There was no obvious rationale for the Rajesh Khanna miracle. Destiny discriminated, and a superstar was born. He was the personification of many a woman's romantic dreams in the early '70s.The term 'phenomenon' summed up his all-pervasive hypnotism.If girls married his photograph, middle aged moms secretly carried his picture in their wallets. A few heart-broken reportedly committed suicide when he got married to Dimple Kapadia! From pressure cookers to hair salons, restaurants to new born babies; all were named after him. If his hairstyle was copied by the youth, tailors were inundated with orders for the collared-kurtas that he popularized. If tickets of his movies were sold at exorbitant rates, his bungalow Ashirwad became the tourist hub. His stardom had reached such epic proportions that J Om Prakash had to change his hotel room eight times during a location shooting in Kashmir for Aap Ki Kasam.
Amitabh Bachchan recently paid tribute to the legend on his blog where he remembers the time when he was cast opposite Rajesh Khanna in Anand. He says: “ This was like a miracle, God's own blessing and one that gave me 'reverse respect'. The moment that anyone came to know that I was working with THE Rajesh Khanna, my importance grew.”
He further recollected the 'Rajesh Khanna impact' and wrote: ''...the one moment that always worried me was, that last scene when I break down after his death and urge him emotionally to speak ! Not being able to find a method in my own very limited acting experience, I sought the help of Mehmood bhai. And I still remember what he told me -
He said, 'just think Amitabh, R- a- j- e- s- h K- h- a- n- n- a is dead! And you will get everything right'. It was not so much a tutorial in acting that he expounded. It was an exalted acknowledgement of Rajesh Khanna's presence and position in the psyche of the nation, that he was drawing my attention to.''
Born Jatin Khanna on December 29, 1942, Rajesh was raised by surrogate parents (relatives of his biological parents) since they were childless. Jatin had a childhood friend Ravi Kapoor; they both studied in the same college. Ravi Kapoor went on to become Jeetendra and Jatin became Rajesh Khanna. Being the adopted child, he had always been surrounded by love, especially indulged by his mother. When the young Jatin Khanna expressed a wish to act, he become that rare newcomer who struggled in his own MG sports car! After doing theatre, he was selected by the United Producers' Talent Contest. Despite having three straight flops after his disappointing debut in Chetan Anand's Akhri Khat ('67); he signed an incredible 14 films before Aradhana. The industry had been waiting for a phenomenon to happen. It did.
By conventional standards, he wasn't handsome at all, blessed with neither the physique of Sunil Dutt, nor the magnificence of Dharmendra. In fact, during the years of his struggle, he was ridiculed highly by people for his features and the pockmarks on his face. And he earned the sobriquet Gurkha for some time too. But he had something that no one else did. The inherent warmth in his persona which was elevated by the voice that millions could identify when he said: 'Babumoshai'. That soft-spoken man bridged the gap between masculinity and sensitivity.
It was Aradhana (1969) that catapulted Rajesh Khanna to fame, crowning him 'the first superstar of India'. He was cast in a double role opposite Farida Jalal and Sharmila Tagore. Aradhana also saw the resurgence of Kishore Kumar who eventually went on to become the official 'voice' of Khanna. Music was one of the biggest mainstays of Rajesh Khanna starrers; most scores were composed by S.D.Burman, R.D.Burman and Laxmikant Pyarelal and the singing voice was the redoubtable Kishoreda. "Our voices sound similar, just that he can sing and I can't,” he had paid a tribute to Kishore in a BBC interview during the shooting of the song 'Suno, Kaho'.
He had 11 consecutive hits from 1970-1972, an unbroken record in Indian film history. These included Anand, Amarprem, Andaz, Hathi Mere Sathi, Aap Ki Kasam, Namak Haram, Daag and Safar. In Anand, as the determinedly cheerful chatterbox living under the shadow of a fatal disease, he gave new meaning to Frank Capra's immortal observation: “Tragedy is not when actors cry, tragedy is when the audiences cry.” Khanna's 'deaths' in films like Anand, Safar, Aradhana, made the audience helpless spectators, who sat transfixed and watched him die, tears rolling down their cheeks. Fatal accident or deadly disease, he managed to bring to life, stories that were told in countless melodies, taking a little lease from the depths of time, and walk into the blinding sun. Those characters, their dialogues and the way they were enacted were nothing short of magic.
And then being a disappointment in love. And then his failures in love. In Akhri Khat, his first released film, he deserts his lady love of the Kullu valley, Lajjo (played by Indrani Mukherjee), who dies and leaves him a son, who is then lost on the streets of Bombay. In Amar Prem, he is forced to sever ties with his only vent in life, a near platonic relationship with Pushpa (Sharmila Tagore), by his demanding wife who leaves him in the long run. In Kati Patang, he gets stood up by his bride-to-be. In Aap ki Kasam he loses his wife to a moment of distrust. In Ajnabee, a misunderstanding does him in. In Mere Jeevan Saathi his blind eyes continue to seek her out.
Here, he becomes one of us, who sometimes can't withstand fate, suffers and consequently shows that men are not all tough, they too are vulnerable. His appeal for women was that they always assumed him to be a part of their own world, someone who is not larger than life, not a radiant star in the sky, but a twinkle that you can spot in your eye. Khanna was the friend they sought, someone to discuss their love and loss with, minus the manly pretences. He never seemed impossible to reach out to. That's why the wait outside the gates of Ashirwaad continued.
Unfortunately the dream came to an abrupt halt. Khanna suddenly found the magic carpet pulled from under his feet. His reign was cut short in 1973 when Amitabh Bachchan arrived with his thundering superhit Zanjeer. The first to bear the brunt was his girlfriend, Anju Mahendru, who called him 'a rat' in print. There was a time when an obsessively possessive Rajesh had bought the reels of Anju's first film, Uski Roti, to withhold its release. In 1973, however Rajesh made an overnight decision to marry the Bobby girl, Dimple. Including his appetite for headline making, he ensured that his marriage procession passed outside Anju's bungalow. This media sensation, as well as hits like Daag ('73) and Prem Nagar('74), won him a reprieve, but by 1975, Rajesh's career was on the rocks and soon, so was his marriage.
When the situation worsened, Rajesh revealed that he went to the terrace of his bungalow and in the streaming rain shouted, “God, don't test my patience to the extent that I lose faith in you.”
His downfall has also been attributed to his post-stardom complacency in addition to the changing trend of movies; from romantic to action-oriented multi-starrers. Khanna could not retain his magical touch and his career started to unravel after eight consecutive flops including Mehbooba, Naukri and Jonata Hawaldar. He unwittingly destroyed his popular image by taking up roles that opposed his screen personality. Joroo Ka Gulam, Shehzada and Mere Jeevan Sathi failed to woo the audiences. It was said that Rajesh Khanna had started to sleepwalk through his roles. Rajesh strutted about in his gaudy costumes which destroyed the identifiable romantic image he had so convincingly developed over time. It was also said that Rajesh Khanna became a caricature of himself.
''The day I announced my retirement, I had realized one of my films had flopped. After a few days another one flopped and in a matter of few months, eight of my films crashed at the box office. And that's the reason I decided against retiring. I didn't want to go away a loser,'' he said in 1978.
Superstars too are susceptible to the winds of change; but Rajesh found changing fashion in superstars difficult to accept. His now-jaded persona could not stand up to the Amitabh onslaught. His mannerisms which had fetched him the fan following of a nation, gradually became a drag as he kept repeating them and often using them as his safest bets. In films like Prem Nagar, Maalik, Dil Daulat Duniya they reached intolerable proportions and often bordered on the melodramatic.
''Trends changed and I had to change to suit the new trends. I tried to be versatile but I failed. But I know I will come out of it. The bad phase did a lot of good for me,'' Khanna confessed in 1978.
Marital discord, professional arrogance, a coterie of sycophants fanning his delusions and hamming it up in subsequent films hindered the superstar image. "People were waiting for him to fall from his height,” confided a veteran scriptwriter. With Amardeep ('79) and Thodisi Bewafaii ('80) Rajesh's career reached an even keel. His marriage to Dimple splintered but with the young Tina Munim as his inamorata, he made his long-promised comeback in 1983. As the self-respecting senior citizen in Avtaar and as the romantic in Souten, he once again found favour with the audience. But this ageing star's attempts to recast himself and counter Amitabh Bachchan in the '80s' vernacular failed and stardom slipped through his fingers. For Khanna, 1985 was a complete washout, all his films bombed at the box office. He made one last attempt at salvaging his career by turning producer with Alag Alag opposite Tina Munim but it only served in putting a final stamp of doom on a fast fading career.
A mention must be made of his relationship with Tina Munim, whom he reportedly wanted to marry. Tina even went to say that they were so close that they even shared 'a toothbrush'. But this seven-year-long relationship also went kaput with Tina tying knot with industrialist Anil Ambani.
Rajesh, however, recast his career in the '90s and joined the Congress. He won the elections from New Delhi and served as an MP from 1991-1996. He made an acting comeback after a gap of several years in Aa Ab Laut Chalein (1999) directed by Rishi Kapoor and also appeared in some B-Grade films like Jaana-Lets Fall in Love and the controversial Wafaa. He won the Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005.
The actor had been battling prolonged illness for a long time and finally had to bow down to it. He breathed his last in presence of his wife and daughters in Ashirwaad in Mumbai. He was 69.