Meeting the first Super Star was exhilarating

Meeting the first Super Star was exhilarating
India Herald contributor Gadfly (left) in this 1971 photo with India’s first ‘Super Star,’ Rajesh Khanna. Photo by Nimkar Photo Studio, Girgaum, Mumbai

Hindi filmdom’s first Super Star Rajesh Khanna who passed away on July 18 after repeated problems with blood-pressure and hyper-tension (reportedly from liver disease), charmed his way into our hearts with an unparalleled endearing smile that was missing till then despite the big three – Dilip, Raj and Dev and of course, Shammi Kapoor. The trio were like our older brothers.

Shammi was our funny buddy and a rebel. He was like our senior in college. Rajesh was us. He was our classmate, spoke our language in films, did things we wished we could and took our place in his films.

We lived through him vicariously. He set some trends of his own too. Dev Anand was the only film hero whose hair-style was imitated by thousands at the time. Rajesh created a craze for Kurta-Pajama. It became his trademark. His persona was such that youths from zopadpatti to the paanwalaa at the corner, from the young girls in poor areas to the sophisticates from Xaviers College to some college in Jhumritalaiya, from Bandra to Malabar Hill to Pali Hill, screamed for him. Some girls even cut their wrists in his name.

Today in Hindi films, as in life, we see English words mixed with Hindi in a sentence. Rajesh mixed them in one word as in Aradhana, when he asks Farida Jalal at the airport: “Then why are you rowing? (Instead of ‘Then why are you crying?)” He was the first hero to become one of us using the street-lingo. Add Kurta-Pajama and “Babu Moshai” and India’s first superstar was born. Ma Kasam!

Rajesh had cuteness, mannerisms, acting chops, charisma and an uncanny ease of dialogue delivery. I doubt if anyone even noticed that ease. Aside from his language mix, the kurta-pajama, his tilted head, he had his inimitable smile which is the only way we remember him. Despite being the first superstar, he had an affectionate name, Kaka.

None of the big three had that. Rajesh was ‘Kaka’ to his fans. Most of all, the camera loved him. He didn’t have the dancing chops of a Shammi. His biggest asset was his smile. He milked it and became the only actor, before or since, to deliver 15 consecutive solo super hits in his illustrious career.

Yet, what a difference two years make! When Anand (1971) came along, Rajesh was still a big star with huge hits like Aradhana behind him with Amitabh Bachchan rising. With Rajesh’s electric personality and charming smile endearing everyone he met or ran into, Anand was tailor-made for him. Not even Amitabh could have done that role. Fast forward to Namak Haram in 1973.

Loosely based on Hollywood’s Beckett, the film is a flashback beginning with Amitabh being released from jail and brought home by his girl-friend, Simi. In pre-production, Rajesh and Amitabh were arguing with Hrishikesh Mukherjee about Namak Haram’s ending wanting their character to die at the end, to create audience sympathy and boosting their respective careers. Rajesh, as we all know, won. It was a pyrrhic victory. Amitabh’s character took the false blame for Rajesh’s murder and went to jail.

Amitabh’s shouldering blame for Rajesh’s murder had a big impact on audiences, pushing Rajesh’s death in the background. Rajesh won the battle by dying in the film but lost the war for audience sympathy. Y/our calculations and life don’t always meet.

Rajesh Khanna was a finalist in the 1965 All India Talent Contest organized by United Producers and Filmfare, topping over 10,000 contestants. That led to his first film by Chetan Anand Akhri Khat. But it was Aradhana and the song Mere Sapno Ki Rani that put him over the top. Untouchable, unreachable until ‘more of the same’ set in. Even in one of his best acting roles in Amar Prem, the lines ‘Pushpa, I hate tears’ were nauseating.

Two things went against him. First was that he never tried to get out of his comfort zone to take risks and give up the ‘style-maarnaa’. After the success of Haathi Mere Saathi, Salim-Javed who were that movie’s writers, offered to change his image into an angry young man. Rajesh refused. That was Amitabh’s ticket to stardom.

They say ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ but that works for appliances and equipment. In acting, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ means ‘more of the same’ and that doesn’t work.

Meeting Rajesh Khanna was an exhilarating experience. It was like being possessed. You knew you were in a charmed presence without his saying a word and without a smile. I experienced it at a pre-release cast party for Anand (1971) by Cinegoers’ Club of which I was an active member. Rajesh was well-known for being late. Hrishida was already there. So were Ramesh Deo and Seema. Amitabh had a ‘scheduling conflict’. In the small hall (I forget the place now), as we waited, the club president, Shyam Kajaria, requested me to wait at the main entrance to keep an eye for Rajesh’s arrival. Now there is a small comedy here involving my lack of planning and forethought.

All my good clothes, including my suit, were at the dry cleaners – what we call laundry in India. I was in my trousers and a ‘colorful’ shirt.

I said, “Shyam, you guys are all in suits. I’m the only one in a pant and shirt and with the color of my shirt, I look like some worker handling lights in a studio. How about sending someone in a suit?”

Kajaria joked, “Arrey Bhai, Hum sub suit mein honge, lekin hamare paas tera handsome chehra nahin hai.” (Arrey brother, we all may be in suits, but we don’t have your handsome face.) I told him blackmail by flattery won’t work but if there is no one else, I’ll do it.”

He thanked me and off I rushed to the main door barely 30-seconds away. As luck would have it, just then, Rajesh walked in with his secretary. Taken by surprise, I stretched my hand and said, “Hello and welcome!” Rajesh stopped, stretched out his hand to shake mine, warmly thanked me and asked me my name.

When I told him, he addressed me by my name and thanked me again as we approached the hall. On the way, my friend Y.P. Shukla, in a suit, joined us. And here we are, in three disparate attires – me in a non-descript pant and shirt, Rajesh in his kurta ‘uniform’ and Shukla in a suit.

Before the function, one of the suited young guys had told me he went to the same college with Rajesh and the two were classmates but hadn’t met since. He wondered if Rajesh would remember and acknowledge him, now that he is a big star. The 1969 release of Aradhana had already made Rajesh a superstar. But as soon as Rajesh came across his Guju classmate, he recognized him instantly by name, saying, “How are you. It’s been a long time. It’s good to see you.”

I could see my Gujubhai was in seventh heaven. That was the personal Rajesh. He never forgot where he came from and perhaps that is why in every role he played he was able to convey that ‘one of us’ feeling. Yes, he had his moods, was often late. Fame does worse things to people. Rajesh (whose real first name was Jatin) was adopted by his rich relatives because his parents were very poor. He knew who his parents were but that adoption combined with his shyness perhaps resulted in a pensive loneliness we saw in his eyes when not smiling, as in the picture here.

Dev Anand’s acting in a double role (Hum Dono) was commendable. Dilip Kumar (Raam Aur Shyam) brought a distinct separateness. But Rajesh surprised us all in Sachaa Jhutha, with its song Yun Hi Tum Mujhse Baat Karti ho, a highlight. I was as huge a fan of Rajesh as anyone, just more discerning. So out of his 120 or so films, I have seen only 26. Such was his sudden fall because of ‘more of the same.’ I watch my DVDs of many of his films, when the mood strikes for a particular scene or song. But Amar Prem (his first aging on film) is one of my two favorite Rajesh films (barring that line ‘I hate tears’). The best? Undoubtedly, Ittefaq.

The media were surprised by the number of fans that thronged for Rajesh Khanna’s funeral and the outpouring of grief. I was not. The mere thought of Rajesh brings a smile to my face and to millions of his fans. — Send responses to gadfly7_7@yahoo.com

 

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