Rajesh Khanna in his heyday. Photo from the book
Rajesh Khanna in his heyday. Photo from the book

The late Rajesh Khanna remains one of Hindi cinema’s most enigmatic stars, and led a life worthy of being the subject of a novel, if not a film. No wonder then, following his death in 2012, several books have been written about him, including Gautam Chintamani’s Dark Star: The Loneliness of Rajesh Khanna, and, more recently, Rajesh Khanna: The Untold Story of India’s First Superstar by Yasser Usman.

While the former placed more emphasis on Rajesh Khanna’s work, and stayed away from too many personal details about his life: “the stories of his largess, his pettiness, his insecurities could fill pages but this book steers clear of anything overly salacious,” wrote Chintamani; Usman’s biography, on the other hand, delves deeper into the psyche of the complex ­— and complexed ­— man who was India’s first superstar.

The current generation of filmgoers may not even remember Rajesh Khanna; perhaps the first time they even heard of him was when his death made headlines a few years ago, and even after that, they probably would not have been be able to fully grasp how this man, whose trademarks were his crinkly eyes and odd mannerisms, drove an entire generation of filmgoers in India and beyond into a frenzy.

For context, noted scriptwriter Salim Khan points out in his foreword: “My son Salman Khan is a big star, crowds cluster daily in front of our house to catch a glimpse of him … I have never seen that kind of mass adulation for any other star after Rajesh Khanna.” Khan attributes this fan following to Khanna’s “charm and charisma at work because it happened in an era when there was no television, no 24-hour FM radio stations or big PR agencies.”

Khanna’s meteoric rise to stardom with films such as Aradhana and Do Raaste (1969) followed after a few flops. But when success came, it was of epic proportions. “The second blockbuster [Do Raaste] proved that Rajesh Khanna was here to stay … the symptoms included ringing cash registers and fans — especially of the female species — becoming hysterical at the sight and sometimes the mere mention of Rajesh Khanna. The fever was soon going to escalate into mass hysteria unlike anything that had ever been witnessed…”

Yet, even though Khanna’s films and persona are remembered so vividly by his colleagues and film fraternity, it is all the more surprising given that his success was, in fact, short lived. After a string of successful films such as Safar and Anand, Haathi Mera Saathi and Amar Prem, by 1973-74 the failures started to outnumber the successes. Besides his bad choices in films, another factor that contributed to his decline was that Amitabh Bachchan, who co-starred with him in Namak Haram (and Anand earlier), rose to fame as the ‘angry young man’ at this time.

Ironically, part of the credit for this goes to Khanna, since during the filming of Namak Haram, Khanna manipulated director Hrishikesh Mukherhee to ensure that the character he was playing died in the storyline, while Amitabh lived. This was because Khanna believed that the previous films in which he ‘died’ like Safar and Anand had proven to be big hits, and he felt that would be the case with Namak Haram too. Unfortunately, while the film did relatively well, “eventually, the death scene that Rajesh Khanna had fought so hard for became his undoing. His character dies too early … before the audiences even have a moment to absorb this … the screen is eclipsed by the giant Amitabh.” And this film, along with others like Zanjeer, marked the beginning of the Amitabh Bachchan era of Bollywood.

The manner in which Usman portrays Khanna’s life makes Rajesh Khanna: The Untold Story of India’s First Superstar a potboiler of sorts. The narrative is brisk, the facts substantiated by many leading journalists and actors who worked with Khanna, all of which come together to create an insight into Khanna’s life, yet with plenty of mystique. Even Khanna’s birthplace remains a mystery — according to several accounts he was born in Amristar, while others state it was Lahore or even near Karachi. His family members do not speak about him, but what is known about his childhood is that he was adopted by his father’s brother, who was unable to have children. Usman points out that this was probably the reason that fuelled his insecurity once he became a star.

Insecure he was, of that there seems to be no doubt, as he chose to surround himself by his “chamchas” and as the bad times came, they left. His unprofessional behaviour — he was late on the sets, drank all night and sometimes was prone to violence — all led even his most loyal directors to cast the far more bankable and professional Amitabh in their films. However, while Khanna had his second innings of success in the 1980s, with films such as Souten and Avtaar, the former glory never returned.

Khanna was a man of contrasts; while he may have been unprofessional and petty at times, many people attest to the fact that he had a “heart of gold”; he was a wonderful host, and an extremely generous person when he chose to be, gifting houses and cars to his servants, spending significant amounts of money on them when they fell ill. Sadly, when it came to his relationships, be it with model Anju, his wife Dimple Kapadia or girlfriend Tina Munim, Khanna was a complete failure.

This was, according to Munim, because: “Kaka was incapable of loving anyone. He was only in love with himself!” Incidentally, when Munim broke up with him, she told a journalist that “it was because he had promised to divorce Dimple but never got around to it … she left him though he wept and begged her not to go; her goodbye gift to him was to make copies of 20 of his best films and put them in velvet covers with the title name in gold threads — trust Tina to always do things in style.”

Despite a tumultuous marriage to Kapadia (who left him after writing something along the lines of “I love you but goodbye…” in lipstick on his mirror), it was Dimple and their two daughters who looked after Khanna in his last days, which he lived with all the exuberance he could muster akin to the eponymous character he played in Anand.

Sadly, what comes across from Usman’s narrative is the fact that Khanna was an extremely lonely man; time did not treat him well, but worse still, he was in many ways his own worst enemy. Tragic, really, given that this man who drove an entire nation (and maybe two) into a frenzy in his heyday, had the phrase superstar coined just for him, stood alone by his gate in his later years as a “nation that was crazy about him was now just passing him by…”

Still, given the fact that his funeral was attended by thousands of his fans on a rainy Mumbai day speaks volumes of his star power, and substantiates what he once said: “A king dies a king. He might not have a following. He might be dying alone in a desert, but he will still be a king, whether on the throne or in exile.”

The reviewer is a Dawn staffer.

Rajesh Khanna: The Untold Story of India’s First Superstar
By Yasser Usman
Penguin Books, India
ISBN 978-0143423614



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