I was born in an odd generation that somehow missed the Rajesh Khanna euphoria. I missed inheriting it from my parents, who had been young and film-crazy when Ashok Kumar, Shammi Kapoor and Dev Anand had been in their prime. And I missed being part of it; I was born just after Rajesh Khanna—who had one of the shortest-ever reigns of any superstar anywhere—had come to the last of his 15-in-a-row super hit films.
Yes, I admit it: I am not too much of a Rajesh Khanna fan. I like him alright; I think he’s gorgeous in films like Aradhana, and so very poignant in Anand. But I wouldn’t go out of my way to read a biography of the man. So, when I received a review copy of Gautam Chintamani’s Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna (Harper Collins Publishers India, P-ISBN: 978-93-5029-620-2; E-ISBN: 978-93-5136-340-8; ₹499; 242 pages), I was a little ambivalent. I was not particularly interested in the life of Rajesh Khanna. On the other hand, this man had acted in some of the greatest hits of the late 60s, films that were both extremely popular as well as critically acclaimed.
And ended up being enthralled by it. Chintamani’s biography of Rajesh Khanna—a man once so popular that he received fan mail written in blood (with accompanying certificates from doctors to confirm that the ‘ink’ was indeed human blood!); women ‘married’ his photograph, or bent to the road when his car passed and put the dust in the parting of their hair in lieu of sindoor—is a fascinating account of how a man with no filmi connections entered Hindi cinema, shot to the top in what can only be called a meteoric rise—and then suddenly fell, his collapse just as spectacular as his rise.
Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna begins with a foreword by Sharmila Tagore (apt, considering she was Rajesh Khanna’s co-star not merely in his first big hit Aradhana, but also in a series of extremely popular films, including Safar and Amar Prem). The foreword, besides being a good introduction to the book, is also, perhaps ironically, very suited to what follows; it is not an unadulterated paean to Rajesh Khanna. While praising Khanna’s ‘disarming smile, youthful energy, an innate sense of drama and a well-modulated voice,’ Ms Tagore talks also of his inability to arrive on time for a shoot: for a 9 am shift, he never arrived before noon—and since Sharmila Tagore reached the studios by 8 am and wanted to be home with her family by 8 pm, it was hard on her. She writes how, when they stopped doing films together, “… it was a huge relief”.
The book itself is in a similar vein: while it acknowledges Rajesh Khanna’s contribution to Hindi cinema, and while it is a biography of Hindi cinema’s first ‘superstar’, it is not a biased, he-could-do-no-wrong telling of this man’s story. Instead, over the course of 16 chapters—from Childhood, College and Struggle to Pack-Up, Chintamani uses everything from interviews with people who knew or worked with Rajesh Khanna, to excerpts from magazine and newspaper articles, to references from blog posts (our very own Memsaab finds a mention!) to present a many-sided view of Rajesh Khanna, the man as an actor.
Born Jatin Khanna in 1942, Khanna grew up in Bombay, where he was adopted and brought up by his childless uncle and aunt. Nicknamed Kaka when he a child, Khanna had a privileged, even spoilt childhood. In college, along with his old schoolmate Ravi Kapoor (who went on to become another star, Jeetendra), Khanna took to theatre. The switch from theatre to cinema did not come easily; but when it came—with Khanna’s winning the Filmfare-United Producers Combine Talent Hunt competition—it came with some of the biggest names in the industry. Part of the contract for the winner of the competition was that each of the film makers who were part of the United Producers Combine was to make a film with the winner. Considering these included stalwarts like Nasir Hussain, BR Chopra, Bimal Roy, Shakti Samanta, HS Rawail, GP Sippy and Subodh Mukherji, it meant the moon and the stars could be within the grasp of the winner—and Jatin Khanna it was.
But, since ‘Jeetendra’ (almost the same as Jatindra, Jatin’s official name) was already taken, he chose another name: ‘Rajesh’ Khanna. And debuted in one of the most offbeat films—and role—a Hindi film actor of the 60s could have chosen: that of Govind, a man who deserts his pregnant lover, in Chetan Anand’s Aakhri Khat. Aakhri Khat, along with Rajesh Khanna’s next two films—Raaz and Bahaaaron ke Sapne—made little impact on the box office. Aurat (1967) didn’t do well either, but with his fifth film—Aradhana—Rajesh Khanna struck gold. There was no looking back then, as he piled up one hit after the other, in a straight run of 15 films, leaving the rest of the competition behind and creating a sensation such as Hindi cinema had never seen before.
A sensation, as it happened, that actually lasted for only about 3 years—because, by about 1972, Rajesh Khanna’s luck had begun to run out. It wasn’t just the fact that a certain young man who’d acted the earnest doctor to Khanna’s dying but ebullient patient in Anand had suddenly started to shine. It was also that Hindi cinema was changing, its dynamics and metaphors and what worked (or didn’t) were changing.
Gautam Chintamani shows the road Rajesh Khanna travelled, and in the process shows us much of the man himself: generous (even effusively so) at times, ruthless, imperious, labouring under the weight of his own stardom at others. There are stories of the darbars he used to host at his home; of his high-handedness when dealing with film makers; his attempts—sometimes failed, sometimes successful (as in Kudrat) at reinventing himself.
The book touches briefly on Khanna’s personal life, but the emphasis remains on the professional. And the end result is an interesting look at Rajesh Khanna. There is trivia (one that stood out for me was the fact that Rajesh Khanna could—without the help of glycerine—summon tears, at one word from the director). There are anecdotes (an interesting contrast, for instance, between how Khanna gave 7 difficult retakes for an emotional scene in Aap ki Kasam, even though the retakes were not his fault; but—just a few years later—was insufferably high-handed about giving a retake for a scene he couldn’t get right in Mehbooba). There is stuff about how films came to be made (and there’s a brief synopsis for each film), and there is, now and then, an account of Khanna’s relations with film makers, other actors, his fans.
But what I came away with when I finally closed Dark Star was not a head full of trivia and Rajesh Khanna anecdotes, but a feel of what a complex character this man was. How successful, how longing for that now-elusive success shortly after. How apt an example of ‘fallen star’. How much more than just his roles.
A satisfying book, even for someone who’s not a Rajesh Khanna fan, or not much.
P.S. And yes, one thing that I liked a lot: each chapter heading has a subject-appropriate tagline drawn from a Rajesh Khanna song. Pack-Up, the last chapter, for instance, has the tagline Achcha toh hum chalte hain. Very clever, and it reminded me, even as I read the book, of all the many hit songs picturised on Rajesh Khanna.