I saw very few films till I was about ten years old. Till then, my father had been posted in small towns that had rather dreadful cinema halls. Then, in late 1982, we acquired a TV. And suddenly, though there wasn’t a spate of films to see (Doordarshan’s Sunday 5:45 PM film was the highlight of our week), there were some films to see. And, thankfully, I was old enough to understand what was happening onscreen.
One of my earliest recollections of that period is of watching Anand. For me—exposed till then to the usual Hindi film, where the hero always had a love interest, and where there were few (and mostly pretty melodramatic) moments of tragedy—Anand was different.
There was never any doubt that Rajesh Khanna’s character was the hero. He was ebullient, full of life, charming, friendly, yet (in those moments of solitude) sensitive. I kept waiting for a heroine to pop up.
Instead, what came was the deathbed scene. There was Anand, slipping away from life, falling suddenly silent—and his friend, the helpless doctor (played by Amitabh Bachchan) breaking down, begging Anand to speak.
I couldn’t believe it. For me, heroes in Hindi films didn’t die. They were indestructible; through fire, explosions, crippling illnesses, armies of attacking villains—whatever. They came through it all. Most of all, they didn’t die of a disease I could barely pronounce. I was certain this was a ploy. Somewhere, it would turn out, someone had messed up. Medical reports had been bungled, and it would emerge that Anand was perfectly well. Just about now, he would open his eyes and smile that trademark smile. And all would be well.
And then came Anand’s voice. “Babu moshai, zindagi aur maut uparwaale ke haath hain, jahanpanah. Use na toh aap badal sakte hain, na main. Hum sab toh rangmanch ki katputliyaan hain…” (“Life and death are in the hands of the Almighty, Babu moshai. Neither you can change that, nor I. We are all merely puppets on a stage…”)
It was the tape spooling, of course. Anand was dead. Irrevocably and completely dead, and that was one of the first times I remember crying over a film.
That was what came first to my mind when I learnt that Rajesh Khanna had died, just 69 years old, yesterday, on July 18th, 2012. A life snatched away suddenly and tragically—and it reminded me of some of my favourite Rajesh Khanna films. For a blog that focuses on pre-70s films, that might be considered a drawback—because some of Rajesh Khanna’s most popular films were after 1970. But my favourite Kaka films—Anand, Khamoshi, Safar, Aradhana, Kati Patang, Ittefaq among them—are from the late 60s, or from 1970.
And if you look closely at these films, there’s an odd thread of life and death running through them. Kati Patang and Ittefaq are more mainstream (though it took guts to work in a film like Ittefaq, bereft of songs and with a very unexpected plot twist)…
…but as for the others, why was it that Rajesh Khanna—always the embodiment of charm and youth and good looks—ended up playing a man with tragedy waiting just around the corner? In Khamoshi, he was the mental patient who’s cured and falls in love with the woman who heals him—a woman who will never be able to love him because her heart belongs to the man she can never have.
Worst of all, he played men who died.
In Anand, of course. And in a film that echoes—in just the fact that its hero suffers from an incurable disease—Anand: Safar. In Safar too, Rajesh Khanna’s character, a struggling young artist named Avinash, is heading inexorably towards death, this time from leukaemia. Unlike the outwardly cheerful (almost irritatingly cheerful) Anand, Avinash finds it difficult to control his anxieties and his depression.
—and, while Anand resigns himself to the unfathomable puzzle that is life—beautifully expressed in Zindagi kaisi hai paheli haai (“What a riddle is life…”), Avinash’s thoughts are darker. “Zindagi ka safar hai yeh kaisa safar, koi samjhaa nahin, koi jaana nahin (“What a journey is the journey of life; nobody has understood it, nobody has known it”). Sad words, in both songs, for a man to sing when he knows he will die without having savoured all that life could have offered.
But both Anand and Safar prepare us for what is coming (yes, now that I’ve grown up, I don’t expect every dying hero to suddenly be cured). What came as a bolt out of the blue was the sudden death—in Aradhana, for example. This was a film that a pre-teen me watched, swooning rapturously over the ridiculously good-looking Rajesh Khanna in his uniform. As Flight Lieutenant Arun Verma, he was the ultimate in irresistibility: I couldn’t wait to see where his love story with the lovely Vandana would go.
Yes, Rajesh Khanna was (sort of) resurrected in Aradhana as Arun Verma’s son, but I still remember the jolt of seeing that photograph that Sharmila Tagore’s Vandana carried about with her, and thinking: she’s not going to see him, ever again.
And there was Andaz. Andaz, which was Shammi Kapoor’s film and in which Rajesh Khanna had a mere cameo—but what a cameo. With another song of life and death and all that it means. Zindagi ek safar hai suhaana, yahaan kal kya ho kisne jaana (“Life is a wonderful journey; who knows what tomorrow will bring?”)
Not just tomorrow, but the next hour, the next minute. The newspapers had carried photos, just a few days back, of Rajesh Khanna standing on the balcony of his home, reassuring fans that he was well. Even I, busy posting a review yesterday, didn’t realise till well into the afternoon, that he was gone. Gone, never to return, like Anand and Avinash and Arun…