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The rise and fall of Rajesh Khanna

Updated February 28, 2015

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Book cover — Rajesh Khanna: The Untold Story of India’s First Superstar
Book cover — Rajesh Khanna: The Untold Story of India’s First Superstar

Widely called the first superstar of India, Rajesh Khanna emerged like a tidal wave which towered above everything else in Bollywood, for a three-year period.

From 1969 to 1972, he had not one, not two, not even 10, but as many as 15 mega hits to his credit. And then, the tidal wave dissipated in as dramatic a manner as it once had dizzying heights.

His story is reminiscent of the case of Pakistan’s first superstar Waheed Murad, who too had a rise and fall that has no parallel in the cinema of our part of the subcontinent.

Rajesh Khanna took to the bottle and ultimately died of liver cancer. He thought he remained a superstar till the end. Waheed Murad is also reported to have sought refuge in an ‘external source’. The concluding line in the obituary that I wrote for the December 1983 issue of the monthly Herald was: ‘Waheed did not die of a heart attack, he died of a broken heart’.

Back to the Indian superstar, the Delhi-based Yasser Usman has authored a real page-turner, Rajesh Khanna: The Untold Story of India’s First Superstar. The book reads like a novel, such is the writer’s narrative skill. But more importantly, it is rich in content.

Usman spoke to a large number of people who had known Kaka (as Khanna was fondly called) and delved deep into old newspapers and magazines, quoting them profusely. The paperback is also enriched with some rare photographs.

In the first ever Filmfare-United Producers’ Talent Hunt, Kaka was the panel of judges’ first choice. Strangely enough, the following year, the lanky young man, who answered to the name of Amitabh Bachchan, was rejected by the same panel.

Amitabh started his career with inconsequential films but made it big when he appeared as ‘an angry young man’ in Zanjeer, a movie scripted (and the character created) by writers Salim-Javed, who had earlier written the story, screenplay and dialogue for at least two of Kaka’s major chart busters.

Khanna starred with Bachchan in a couple of films and the two shared stellar honours in equal measure.

Writing about Khanna’s performance in one of the movies (I can’t recall which), the reviewer of weekly Screen opined that his performance ranked with the best of Dilip Kumar’s.

Also read: Dilip Kumar: The Substance and the Shadow

Usman, who joined journalism well after Khanna fell into oblivion, had read much about the actor. He was incidentally in Mumbai on an assignment when Khanna died. His boss phoned him to cover the funeral. He was astounded to see the very large number of people who had joined him on his last journey. It seemed his super-stardom days had staged a comeback. That was on July 20, 2012.

The superstar signing autographs. Photograph courtesy: Super
The superstar signing autographs. Photograph courtesy: Super

Flashback: ‘The evening of 27 March, 1973 had an incandescent luminosity about it. Hordes of people had descended upon the streets leading from Carter Road in Bandra to the Kapadia residence in Juhu. A spectacular wedding procession had set out from Bandra along this route, heading towards the bridal home in Juhu. Houses lining both sides of the roads had spectators filling out onto the balconies and rooftops, jostling each other and craning their necks to catch a glimpse of this much-awaited baraat.’ (from the prologue in the book).

Dimple Kapadia weds Rajesh Khanna. Photograph courtesy: Jagdish Aurangabadkar and the late Shyam Aurangabadkar
Dimple Kapadia weds Rajesh Khanna. Photograph courtesy: Jagdish Aurangabadkar and the late Shyam Aurangabadkar

Rajesh Khanna, dressed in a white sherwani and with a sehra hiding his face, rode on a white mare. Quite suddenly he asked those leading the baraat to make a detour and pass through the house of the woman he had jilted to marry a much younger Dimple Kapadia, who, like thousands of young girls, was bewitched by him.

This meanness was a trait in Khanna’s character. He could be petty-minded and mean, but with some people, he was extremely large-hearted. He had earlier gifted a large bungalow to the aggrieved woman.

Anju Mahendroo, a sophisticated Bombay-bred girl, had given support to the good-looking Punjabi boy from Amritsar but when her beau made it big, he wanted her to pamper him in much the same way his producers did or behave like a fan.

However, Khanna's marriage to the teenager (who created quite a stir when she was cast by another RK, Raj Kapoor), lost all its sheen a few months after they tied the nuptial knot. She was disenchanted with the man she married even before they had two daughters, for whose sake she continued to live with him till it became unbearable for her.

The kind of hysteria his presence created among a huge number of fans who trailed him was mind-boggling. Khanna himself commented, ‘After all, how is it possible for anyone to remain immune to such adulation and worship?’

Writer Salim Khan, who wrote the foreword to the book under review, aptly quoted a Hollywood producer, ‘...success has destroyed more people than failure will ever do’.

Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan during the making of Namak Haraam. Photograph courtesy: Jagdish Aurangabadkar and the late Shyam Aurangabadkar
Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan during the making of Namak Haraam. Photograph courtesy: Jagdish Aurangabadkar and the late Shyam Aurangabadkar

Rajesh Khanna became headstrong, stubborn and self-centred. He could not tolerate even mild criticism, or worse, someone who would praise any other actor. He was surrounded by fawning cronies all around him. What made him unpopular among producers was his incorrigible habit of reporting late on the sets.

In a film where he shared the marquee with Amitabh Bachchan, the latter would report on the sets well on time but his equally talented colleague would invariably turn up hours late. That was because he had developed the habit of drinking till 3 am in the company of ‘yes men’.

Also read: Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna

When his movies flopped in a row, instead of finding the causes behind their dismal performances at the box office, Rajesh Khanna said:

‘My films may have flopped, I have not. I am still the superstar’.

There were occasional successes like Avtaar and Souten, both released in 1983, but they were exceptions rather than the rule. He began to sign movies left, right and centre and that was his undoing once again.

The superstar with his wall of trophies. Photograph courtesy: Super
The superstar with his wall of trophies. Photograph courtesy: Super

Rajesh Khanna had a brief stint in politics. He defeated a fellow actor Shatrugan Sinha, when he contested on a Congress ticket for a Lok Sabha ticket while Sinha was a BJP candidate. But the more famous star was not cut out for politics. He never bothered to visit his constituency.

Also read: In death, Rajesh Khanna unites India, Pakistan

He tried his luck on the small screen when the large screen rejected him, but did not fare any better.

His last appearance on the screen was for a commercial, which was made creatively and where, despite the agony caused by a painful foot injury and the advanced stage of cancer, he did a fine job. It was for a fan, and he thought his fans would return in large numbers. They did but it was when his dead body was being taken to the cremation ground.


Rajesh Khanna: The Untold Story of India’s First Superstar by Yasser Usman. Published by Penguin India. Pages: 325. Available in Pakistan at Liberty Books, Karachi and Lahore.