WHILE a lot has been written about Amitabh Bachchan, there is a dearth of material on the man whose throne he usurped. The man in question is, of course, Rajesh Khanna, who caused such a frenzy in India — and likely in Pakistan too — that he caused film journalists to coin the term ‘superstar’ to describe him. While Bachchan continues to this day to be a part of the public sphere, mainly thanks to his ability to reinvent himself time and again, the same, sadly, cannot be said of Khanna, who from the late 1980s until his death in 2012 remained almost invisible, a mere shadow of his former, glorious self. That was perhaps the biggest tragedy of Khanna’s life, given that he was larger than life and basked unashamedly in the adulation he once commanded.
For all these reasons, a book exploring his life by Gautam Chintamani — a self-confessed cinephile — is more than welcome.
Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna attempts to chronicle the life of one of Hindi cinema’s most enigmatic ‘stars’. Khanna’s performances may have seemed over-the-top at time, but his earnestness and the occasional understated performances (in films such as Amar Prem, Safar and Aavishkar) cannot be disputed.
“Rajesh Khanna,” writes the incomparable Sharmila Tagore in the foreword to this book, “is remembered primarily as a romantic actor. He had a vulnerable, lost air about him that made women of all ages feel very protective. I remember ... long queues of women from nine to 90 outside the studios where we worked. Some garlanded his car, some married his photograph, and others sent letters in blood. The hysteria was unprecedented.”
Khanna’s wasn’t a rag to riches story; he came from a wealthy family, was adopted by his aunt and uncle at a young age, and was thoroughly spoilt by his biological and adoptive parents. Perhaps this environment nurtured his sense of entitlement, which eventually led to his downfall — but more on that later.
Khanna’s film career began when he was in his late 20s by winning a contest that aimed to introduce new talent to Hindi cinema. And even though his first few films were quite forgettable, the first being Aakhri Khat (1966), there was no looking back after Aradhana and Do Raaste (which were released in November and December of 1969); Khanna had arrived, rocking the holy trinity of Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor.
According to Chintamani, “the factor that contributed the most towards [Khanna’s] meteoric rise was his female fan following. For the men, Khanna represented the average man. They could identify with [something that Shah Rukh Khan was able to do decades later] but for the women he embodied something they hadn’t seen on screen ever before ... he was the first Hindi film star to bring to the screen the sensuality and even the sexuality of the hero without making a hue and cry about it.” Unfortunately for Khanna, though, “the highs of success can make anyone feel like God, and Rajesh Khanna ended up taking the analogy too literally.”
He was unprofessional as far as timings were concerned, was constantly late (something that Tagore also attests to), and was fond of being surrounded by admirers and followers when at home — at what he used to call his durbar. Khanna is also remembered as being theatrical in real life; at one point in time he is believed to have said “aap ko humari durbar chorni paregi” to people with whom he had differences. However, as long as his films continued to make money, the producers put up with such behaviour. But then the winning streak came to an abrupt end. By 1972 the flops started outnumbering the hits, and “Hindi cinema’s first superstar had already begun his downward spiral and he wasn’t even 30.” Khanna was scared of losing his stardom and it is alleged that a reason he married 16-year-old Dimple Kapadia, who played the title role in Raj Kapoor’s Bobby, was to reinvigorate his flailing career.
However, while “the Rajesh Khanna-Dimple Kapadia marriage did manage to generate a lot of buzz, Khanna couldn’t exploit it beyond a point.” In true Khanna fashion, there are stories that his baraat passed by his ex-girlfriend Anju’s house.
Even though Khanna managed to produce the occasional hit until the 1980s, and was paid on par with Bachchan, the former glory was never regained and Khanna turned to politics, where he didn’t last too long. Soon Khanna was confined to his beloved bungalow, Aashirwad, away from the limelight and adulation.
What is missing in Dark Star are in-depth accounts of Khanna’s personal life; this, Chintamani says, he stayed away from on purpose (“the stories of his largess, his pettiness, his insecurities could fill pages but this book steers clear of anything overly salacious”). Unfortunately, this poses a problem when the title of the book is considered as Chintamani neither explains why Khanna was a ‘dark star’ nor why he was lonely.
After all, if Khanna was a lonely man, what led to that loneliness? The innate insecurity? The lust for adulation? The fact that he counted on his mannerisms much more than the scripts he chose? Was his success due to luck or was it due to his considerable talent?
While the book does pose these questions to an extent, it fails to answer them and tends to lack insights pertaining to the life of an enigmatic man who was as dramatic and theatrical in real life as he was in his reel life, and whose films are considered classics even today, making many of Bachchan’s films (especially those of the 1980s) seem misogynistic and crass in comparison.
Thus, while Dark Star is a commendable biography in so far as it chronicles its subject’s life in considerable depth, it cannot be viewed as a complete biography.
Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna
By Gautam Chintamani
Harper Collins, India