His death scenes had people sobbing uncontrollably in movie-halls. Yet, when reel life met real life on Wednesday, it was hard to believe that Rajesh Khanna had actually passed away.
It still seems surreal for a lot of us who grew up on his films and witnessed the kind of hysteria that is unlikely to be replicated in the distant future. Even a brief role in Andaaz had us spellbound and the magic of the dramatic motorcycle entry with Zindagi Ek Safar Hai Suhana endures even today.
Rajesh Khanna was the ultimate icon for my generation growing up during the late ‘60s and mid-‘70s. His films had the perfect package of love and music while alternating between happy and, sometimes, tragic endings. He was part of our lives and it was only natural that we wept for him in Anand and Safar while revelling in musicals such as Kati Patang and Mere Jeevan Saathi.
Come to think of it, his films were the perfect antidote for an India that was grappling with its own set of challenges. The ’71 war was around the corner and there was uncertainty all around. Yet, it was the year which saw our cricket team come back with its first overseas wins in the West Indies and England. There was hope amid despair. And then there was, of course, Rajesh Khanna with his unique charisma.
Clearly, there was something special about him if he had an entire nation spellbound. My father says this was equally true for his generation’s fascination with John F Kennedy, the US President, and how grief-stricken they were when he was gunned down in Dallas. A lot of this had to do with his youth and energy levels which captivated the world.
The same was true for Rajesh Khanna who became the darling of an entire nation almost overnight. He had his share of worthy predecessors and counterparts in the Hindi film industry but nobody had this kind of appeal which straddled across age groups.
I was barely seven when I first saw Aradhana but the memories of Mere Sapnon Ki Rani in a small movie-hall still linger. I remember how my friend’s mother went into raptures after Bawarchi and how touched she was by the goodness of a cook attempting to reform a temperamental household.
Beyond crinkling eyes
His choice of roles always ensured that Rajesh Khanna experimented in a host of films which would go beyond the crinkling eyes and the shake of the head. Ittefaq was released around the same time as Aradhana and Do Raaste in ‘69.
It had no songs unlike the other two which had the best of Kishore Kumar, Mohammed Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar. Likewise, Safar, Anand and Bawarchi balanced nicely with entertainers such as Aan Milo Sajna, Kati Patang and Apna Desh.
Even as his magic gradually began wearing off during the mid-70s, Rajesh Khanna continued acting in memorable movies such as Daag, Namak Haraam, Aap Ki Kasam and Aavishkar. There were some rank bad films too but this down phase still saw gems such as Palkon Ki Chhaon Mein which would have been surefire hits had they been released in the early ‘70s when he was riding high.
In a way, this period allowed Rajesh Khanna to try out diverse roles which went beyond his traditional lover boy image. Red Rose and Dhanwan saw him explore the dark side even though the audience did not exactly go into raptures as a result. From his point of view, though, this could have been experimentation time, something he could never do when trapped in the superstar image.
It is all very nice for people to sit and analyse how Rajesh Khanna frittered away a godsend of an opportunity and took his pedestal status for granted. What is more relevant, though, is that he was a clean entertainer who heralded a magical phase in Indian cinema. With his passing, some of us have lost a part of our own childhood.