India’s cute and complex superstar

Srijana Mitra Das Jul 20, 2012, 12.00AM IST


Rajesh Khanna mapped modern India — with bhadralok brains and burning passion

For those still trying to figure out how a man who wasn’t very tall, didn’t have a deep baritone but  often had pimples could be India’s first female heart-throb, here’s the answer – Rajesh Khanna was cute. In fact, he was the first Hindi film hero, foreshadowing the Khans, to embody ‘cute’ – Kaka’s cute was a pleasant quality escaping finite definition. Kaka was everyman, boy-next-door, college-kid cute – with an added plus.

 That was the way he related to women. Contrary to stereotypes of an ego-centric male star, Khanna seemed to have few issues sharing screen space affably with women. Coming from theatre, he understood cinema benefitted from a superstar but originality couldn’t run on one persona alone. His films thus presented a universe of characters with poetry and music almost like protagonists too. Heroines were vital to this world and most of Khanna’s super-hits, Aradhana, Kati Patang, Amar Prem et al, featured female co-stars prominently alongside him.

Khanna thus seemed unbothered by how ‘Mere sapnon ki rani’ showcased as much of Sharmila Tagore giggling coyly in a train window as it depicted him singing outside it. Similarly, ‘Chingari koi bhadke’ showed Khanna in his cups of glory, singing the hauntingly maudlin number upon a bajra swaying over the mighty Hooghly – but punctuated by Tagore’s eyes agleam with sadness in the lamp-light. The romantic equality he shared with his heroines affected his female viewership too. Women consistently gave him the sympathy vote as he played unconventional men, drunks, down-and-outs, even a cuckold. Interestingly, the same man apparently had tense equations with women in his personal life but on-screen, skillfully portrayed a gentle, modern male to whom convention didn’t matter. What mattered was love – and passion.

For Khanna embodied sex. Importantly, he ruled as a sex-symbol during a time of censorship, monitoring depictions of sexuality. Even a kiss on the cheek had to be camouflaged – two birds apparently necking meant foreplay while lightning strikes in stormy skies indicated going the whole hog. In this scenario, Khanna had millions holding their breath as he delicately, intensely, sexily romanced heroines, often getting drenched on screen, seeing the other in sensual silhouette, singing till the tension could no longer be borne, songs ending in gasps muffled by shocked censors.

In depicting passion thus, he was different from older stars whose trajectory he seemed to follow. Both Dev Anand and Shammi Kapoor had walked the ground of the romantic hero, all silky scarves and cheeky flair, but remained chaste figures of a certain avuncular charm. It was Rajesh Khanna who really took adolescent India to bedroom adulthood, showing full-blown tales of passion that often led to tragedy – but were so worth it.

Yet, he managed to stay a ‘clean’ middle-class hero. Again, unlike predecessors, Khanna rarely played a rich brat or a young punter assuming fake names. Instead, he played roles typifying emerging middle-class India taking on professional employment and preferring urban addresses – pilots, engineers, artists and the like, educated young men mapping the nation, minus hubris or heaviness. He rarely played a rural hero, his films showcasing a world between a mature mofussil and a young metropolis. Dak bungalows and night clubs rubbed shoulders here, diamond heists were pulled off by drugging fizzy drinks, heroines eloped with tricksters and faithful dogs or elephants saved the day. This was a wondrous look at a world whose roots were slowly ripping, whose branches were growing but kept being pruned.

This was an India that needed to be drawn, measured and mapped. Interestingly, unlike stars before or after, Khanna didn’t shoot abroad. His films were located in Indian hill stations, tea gardens, lake resorts, cities and towns. In this world, Khanna didn’t play a CID spy or a rock-drummer. He stood somewhere in the middle, rather like his viewers, enchanted and intrigued, loving it but not blown away, always conveying there was something else – pathos, pettiness, class conflict, death even – to be considered.

For this complexity, he had his directors to thank. Primarily a director’s actor, Khanna worked with the best, foreshadowing modern multiplex strategies, playing lover-boy in one film, deranged madman in the next. Khanna’s acting was overshadowed by his star appeal but in fact, he was pure artistic performance, swinging from nautanki to noir apparently effortlessly. Most interestingly, his career captures the moment of flux when cinema direction changed significantly.

Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Shakti Samanta’s gentler, cosmopolitan, literary-inspired cinema gave way to the harder, darker, sweatier lanes of life captured by Prakash Mehra, Ramesh Sippy et al. Khanna’s characters were often famously soft, crying, quoting poetry, producing lilting laughter, wearing kurtas, cracking philosophical jokes with drawing room ease. This was in step with his genteel, bhadralok or ‘decent folk’ directors, often Bengalis figuring out Bollywood’s jigsaw, drawing deep from folk culture while trying to locate where Hindi cinema, all qawwalis and quartets, could fit within a wider world. Khanna was an integral part of this scene as it sank into sunset, waking up displaced by angry young men, directed by violently energetic Punjabi filmmakers. Khanna and his ‘bhadra’ characters, humming engineers, jealous husbands, scholarly cooks, softly declined. But he was so much fun while he lasted – and cute as hell too.

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