Why Did Rajesh Khanna Become A Superstar

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Everyone knows that we have two religions in India – Cricket and Bollywood. Cricket players and actors are the gods of this pantheon. In cricket there is Sachin Tendulkar as the reigning deity and then there are the rest of the gods. Take whichever measure of achievement – run rate, consistency, longevity – Sachin has done it all. He has stayed out of politics (so far) and managed to stick to being a player. His behavior off the field has been free from link-ups with controversial people and has come across in television interviews as dignified and mature. That is a big differentiator. People love him for being a role model of sorts.

In Bollywood, Zeus was Kakaji – aka Rajesh Khanna. He was born Jatin Khanna in Amritsar on 29th Dec 1942. He won the Filmfare talent contest in the ’60s and got his break in Aakhri Khat. Nominated for Araadhana and for the film Ittefaq in 1969 (He never won the Filmfare award for either film), he was by then already being dubbed as a superstar. Everyone expected him to win the Filmfare award for the Best Actor in Kati Patang (1970). The Filmfare award came to him in 1971 with Sachcha Jhootha, for Aavishkar (1974). For someone who was a phenomenon, he won adulation much more than awards. It may be reasonable to draw the conclusion that he was not as accomplished as an actor as he was a hero of the masses. His hit spree started in 1969 and went on till 1971-72. In those 3-4 years, Khanna appeared in about 17 films and all of them were successful.

The hit films were:

  • Araadhana, Ittefaq,  Doli, Bandhan, Do Raste (All in 1969). Khamoshi also made in ’69 was a lovely film but not a blockbuster.
  • The Train, Sachcha Jhootha, Safar, Kati Patang, Aan Milo Sajna (in 1970)
  • Anand, Maryada, Haathi Mere Saathi, Amar Prem, Andaz, Dushman (in 1971)
  • Apna Desh (1972)

This is a record that remains untarnished even today. One could argue that there are other superstars too. Amitabh Bachchan for being around since 1969 as well and has reinvented himself several times over and is still going strong having done over 190 films – compared to 160 films that Rajesh Khanna did. Shah Rukh Khan has done more than 77 films since 1988. He is the other actor who is dubbed a modern superstar. Rajnikanth with 177 films has been around since 1975. Kamal Hassan is on his 173rd film having started in 1960. All these names produce mass hysteria too. Each one has their own legions of fans. Ask any Bengali and they will associate the word “Mahanayak” (Bengali for superstar) with Uttam Kumar. He started his career in 1948 and when he died in 1980, he had made 155 films – some of which continued to be released almost 7 years after his death. None of these superstars can speak of 15 hits in a row. Even if you go back in history and think of KL Saigal as one of the first stars of the Hindi cinema or Guru Dutt, Dev Anand or Raj Kapoor – they all had their hits, but none in the league of Rajesh Khanna.

Why Rajesh Khanna became the phenomenon that he was is interesting to think about. He was often teased about his features and height – both of which were below par as was expected from a hero. His acting was always over the top. Melodramatic to say the least. And then there were songs done in the voice of Kishore Kumar. Anand Bakshi wrote some memorable hits for Kaka-ji’s films. Whether it was SD Burman or RD Burman or Laxmikant Pyarelal’s music, most the films had hauntingly melodious songs that remain popular even today. The next time someone plays “Antakshari” (ask an India friend to explain what that game is about), see how many Rajesh Khanna songs crop up. The combo of Anand-Bakshi-RD Burman-Kishore Kumar songs like Chala jaata hoon, O mere dil ki chaine, diwana leke aaya hai, Chingari koi bhadke, Kuch to log kahenge made average movies good and good movies even better. His mannerisms were exaggerated. He would gesture with his head and close his eyes as if giving the heroine a chance to succumb to his charm. His films were all about good music and romance. His fight sequences were clumsy. People knew he was not really fighting those villains. But when he serenaded the heroine, they knew it was for real.I believe he resonated with the masses because he was loud and melodramatic. If you see his films you can see him at his loudest in the songs. In India, if a star has to become a superstar, they need to have awesome songs that the star will get associated with. A hero with the most number of such superhit songs graduates from being merely a star to being a superstar. All the superstars named above meet that criteria.

The BBC reporter Jack Pizzey, who filmed a documentary in 1973 on him called Bombay Superstar, felt that the actor was a manic egoist. In his introduction, Pizzey described him as an actor with the “charisma of Rudolph Valentino and the arrogance of Napoleon”. It is hard to handle failure. We all know that. Rajesh Khanna’s life taught us that it is perhaps much harder to handle success. Kaka did not handle it well at all. He surrounded himself with sycophants and hangers on. Through the eighties and beyond  he became bloated and obese and looked almost comical as he attempted to make a final dash at fame. The last decade of his life was the worst. He was forced to relive his past by himself as he lay battling his failing health. When he passed away, he once again dominated the media for a few days. I wish he had seen and heard all the good things people had to say about him. It was yesterday once more.

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