Last week I was taking an early morning flight to Banglaore and as we headed towards the Western Express highway after crossing the Bandra-Worli sea link , the famous mustard-colored Lilavati hospital gradually appeared in view. It felt acutely strange. The Phenomenon was there somewhere on the 11th floor apparently struggling with an unknown, but surely, a debilitating illness. I believe there have been very few visitors. At close proximity to several film studios where his appearance once created traffic jams, a commotion hard to contain. Screaming fans sporting his trademark guru-kurta, film-photographers battling the mayhem , love-struck Juliet’s ready to slash wrists and kiss his car’s bonnet, curious onlookers simply amazed at the uncontrollable hysteria. Not too far away from that famous address in town either, Aashirwaad on Carter Road, where people from all parts of the world would come to just see where the King lived, at least momentarily fooling themselves that they were merely a few hundred feet away from the greatest superstar India had ever seen. Or will ever see; Rajesh Khanna.
I first saw Khanna in the ultimate romantic classic Aaradhna in the memorable scene where Sharmila Tagore throws a bucket of cold water on him inadvertently . The audience went completely berserk. It was to happen again in Andaz when he appeared suddenly on a Royal Enfield ( Zindagi Ek Safar Hai Suhana) with a scarf circumventing his neck, black goggles perched tantalizingly on his nose bridge as Hema Malini hung precariously as a pillion. It was to be seen to be believed. And when he sang Vaada tera Vaada in Dushman, a rogue truck-driver with a golden heart, a still poor India threw coins right on the aisle and danced alongside. Unparalleled , unprecedented, unmatched since. To understand Khanna’s maniacal craze , one needed to be have been born in the sixties. What you see today is a mere rewind into shredded fading memories .
The golden phase of Khanna’s career included sensational hits that came in breakneck speed and rapid succession; Do Raaste, Ittefaq, Bandhan, Kati Patang, Anand, Safar, Amar Prem, Roti and Sachcha Jhoota. It was intoxicating stuff, could drive the sanest cuckoo . Khanna was but human. Worse, hugely egotistical, a toxic combination. A string of eminently forgettable films which turned out to be box-office turkeys abruptly halted that serendipitous honeymoon in the zenith.
Khanna made dying into an art form, and audiences wept inconsolably in deep throbs in Safar, Namak Haram and Aaradhna. His haunting Babu Moshai in Anand’s final scene can give you the goose-bumps even today . But it was with Haathi Mere Saathi that Khanna captured those susceptible cuddly hearts , the entire young brat population as well . He was the fountainhead of family entertainment , with the sobbing -sentimental women and the young romantics queuing up for the first day first show. The Phenomenon was unassailable, invulnerable, insuperable. Only he could destroy the hard-earned kingdom. He did.
Namak Haraam in 1973 became the turning point in Khanna’s career, as it did for Amitabh Bachchan, his real nemesis whom he had once contemptuously dismissed . Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s film based on inter-class conflict between the license-raj industrialist’s wayward son and his labor-leader lower middle-class best friend was an epic drama. But the author-backed role of a sulking, emotional fireball suited Bachchan. Khanna’s mild-mannered , mature, mollifying character though brilliantly underplayed got murdered, like Shashi Kapoor’s in Deewar. The superstar’s reign had begun raining off as Bachchan became his direct adversary, who chose films with greater circumspection.
Fortuitous circumstances favored the lanky Bachchan too , albeit immensely talented. One of them was the 1975 declaration of Emergency , which created an inimical, imperceptible anti-establishment mood. The aura of soft, charming romanticism gave way to violent, unrestrained tumult. The Angry Young Man was born, intemperate, resolute, a muscular one man demolition squad. Bachchan’s unusual towering height, impeccable baritone and long side-locks helped. Concomitantly, Khanna chose pedestrian, egregiously bad films like Maalik, Hamshakal, Shehzada, Aaina , Maha Chor , Chalta Purza , Raja Rani etc.
Khanna’s abrupt marriage to teenager Dimple Kapadia looked like a trite script from a tyro film-maker; including melodramatically taking his old steady girl-friend Anju Mahendroo on a false trail to Khandala. Frankly, a starry-eyed Kapadia and a haloed superstar with quicksilver mood swings made odd bedfellows; the marriage, of course, created massive publicity deserving of heavenly misfits. The acrimonious break-up, and their respective high-profile rendezvous and dalliances with co-stars made equal mast-head copy. Khanna’s predicament was that a dissipating professional career was accentuated by a controversial private life ; he stumbled and fell.
Bachchan lorded Bollywood becoming famously a “ one-man industry”, Khanna had became a peripheral innocuous threat despite a late desperate surge with Souten, Fifty Fifty , Chhaila Babu and Avtaar. Jitendra, Rishi Kapoor and a resurrected Dharmendra and the like had also surreptitiously nibbled away at Khanna’s core audience. That era also coincided with a sudden spurt of multi-starrers which saw the re-emergence of mediocre heroes, but which Khanna’s ego studiously, strictly forbade. His later choices in the same genre were terribly abysmal. Superheroes don’t need deadly villains to decimate them, they are perhaps self-destructive.
When the erstwhile The Phenomenon entered electoral politics in 1991 , it signaled his grudging acceptance of his fragility in tinsel-town. Here too fate dealt Khanna a lethal blow; he almost blew LK Advani off in New Delhi constituency finally losing by 1000 odd miserly votes, although comeuppance happened in 1992 when he trounced Shatrughan Sinha. But by 1996 the Congress had become extremely wobbly, and he seemed caught in a dilemma between occasional character roles and New Delhi. He floundered once again. This time more fatally as he misread the changing entertainment space and political dynamics.
What you see in the Havell’s ad is a nebulous apparition of a superstar that never can be replicated in a digital download, multi-screen multiplex age where a golden jubilee is an anachronism. There is no endurance anymore beyond two-weeks even if its Rs 100 crores. But Rajesh Khanna’s transitory madness has endured. He must endure even now. After all, “ Zindagi Ka Safar Hai Ye Kaisa Safar, Koi Samjha Nahin Koi Jana Nahin” still needs to be told in his own words. His tale is incomplete. To have seen such preternatural heights of exhilarating fame and then to experience such impenetrable oblivion requires some inner toughness. The pain of loss, the deep inner turmoil can be devastating. Anonymity can be dreadful for someone accustomed to being serenaded wherever, whenever. Especially when your contemporaries reveled in the new electronic age.
But more later. Right now it is important that Rajesh Khanna leaves the hospital in a happier, healthier state. Get home soon , Sir ! I want to stand outside Aashirwaad once again as I did as a school-kid and be mesmerized , like when I came to Mumbai for the first time. And I know I am not the only one wishing to do the same !
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