That 70s' showman

MURALI GOPALAN | Updated on December 27, 2012

Rajesh Khanna with Amitabh Bachchan in Namak Haram

Rajesh Khanna with Asha Parekh in Kati Patang

Tomorrow is Rajesh Khanna’s 70th birth anniversary. Had he been alive, it would have been just another day in his life. As he had admitted to a filmmaker some years ago, the flowers had stopped coming after he ceased being a superstar.

On December 29, Rajesh Khanna, or Kaka as he was fondly known, will predictably have TV channels paying tributes to him by running some of his hit films. Interestingly, the day coincides with the release of his last movie, Riyasat.

Paul, my colleague, and I were on an assignment in Tamil Nadu and heading back to Chennai airport when we got the news that Rajesh Khanna had passed away. There were a whole lot of calls coming in during the drive, largely from buddies in school and college. “Hey, just heard that your good friend died,” was the common thread in all the messages.

Everyone in school knew that I belonged to a minority Kaka fan club and there was good-natured ribbing as a result. It was hard to explain then that this man was an integral part of my childhood. It was a wave that began with Aradhana and gathered momentum rapidly for the next five years with Do Raaste, Safar, Kati Patang, Aan Milo Sajna, Dushman and a host of other runaway hits.

During the heady 1970s, he was the monarch of all he surveyed. It was a magical era, which a lot of us revisit time and again with films such as Bawarchi or Namak Haraam, as much to see our hero as to reignite beautiful memories of our own youth. And so, it was natural that the media coverage of Khanna’s death largely focused on that dream phase from 1969-74, when he had an entire nation hypnotised by his special charm. He had his share of relatively successful films in later years, but most of us would much rather remember the phenomenon of Aradhana, Anand and Amar Prem. There was no way this kind of a high could be sustained forever, and Khanna perhaps knew this better than anyone else.

Poignantly, he was well aware that he would be a prisoner of his image for life. To that extent, it was both an asset and a liability, which would shadow him all the way to his final resting place. The huge crowds that were part of his funeral procession, accompanied by the exhaustive TV coverage, pretty much reflected this aspect of his stardom.

That raises the question of whether the late superstar was stifled by this obsessive attention. A media report quoted him saying “Rajesh Khanna was a mirage confined to the screen, while Jatin (his real name) was the living entity.” Yet, he knew there was no getting away from this image association.

Is that why he chose to do the advertisement for Havells fans, which was closer to reality? Shot barely months before he died, it showed a man who was visibly ailing.

As a diehard Kaka fan, I was aghast watching this commercial till an old school buddy reminded me that the actor actually deserved to be praised for his confidence. “Here is a man who is comfortable with himself. He has made it known loud and clear that his fans will stand by him forever,” he said. This became more than apparent after he died on July 18 this year and the crowds went out of control. The former superstar would have been delighted to see this outpouring of emotion, especially given that he was near-forgotten for over a decade.

His diehard fans, of course, didn’t really expect Khanna to die. Not after he had waved out, just weeks earlier, from his landmark Bandra bungalow, Aashirwad, assuring the crowds gathered outside that he was very much around. But given his frail state, the end was inevitable. But fans like me continued to be in denial simply because we wanted our childhood connect to be alive and kicking.

But immortality escapes even superstars, and on July 18 Rajesh Khanna broke many hearts all over again.

Thank you, Kaka, for creating that special magic in our lives.

Published on December 27, 2012

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