Raj Khosla, the director of all seasons, by Khalid Mohamed
During the 1960s-‘70s, besides the super-showman Raj Kapoor, he was the other RK. Today, he is remembered affectionately, essentially by the senior generation of Bollywood cinephiles.
And to think his dacoit adventure ‘Mera Gaon Mera Desh’ turned 50 years old this year. Among its many recallable elements, besides the do-or-die combat between Dharmendra, the saviour of a beleaguered hamlet, and Vinod Khanna, as the fearsome antagonist, its music score by Laxmikant-Pyarelal with lyrics by Anand Bakshi and the luminous photography by the rarely-feted Pratap Sinha have stood the test of time.
A director of all seasons, Khosla had essayed every genre – crime thrillers, love stories (at times, tragic), family plots, action adventures you name it. When Filmfare commenced a series of extended interviews with topline directors, I was fortunate to land that assignment with Raj Khosla Through the editor’s recommendation, the first step was finally achieved, he had agreed to a conversation, however tentatively, on a weekday around 5 p.m. So far, so mercy be.
However,that evening was going, going, gone. It was 7 pm, 8 pm, then 8.30 pm… then… The office phone remained stubbornly silent. He had promised to call, confirm the venue for the interview, pukka pukka, no last-minute cancellation. I was getting as impatient as someone waiting for a long-delayed flight to a much-dreamt-about destination.
Or to reach Raj Khosla, the man who had raised the bar of the director. Schooled in the Guru Dutt and Navketan styles, he had evolved his own identity. Hoardings of his films would carry an insignia of the director’s chair and his hand-written signature.
In retrospect, every Khosla aficionado has a Raj Khosla personal favourite. The most undervalued is the black-and-white ‘Bombai Ka Babu’ (1960) in which Dev Anand romanced Suchitra Sen; it boomeranged at the cash counters because it touched on the taboo topic of incest. Partly inspired by O’Henry’s short story ‘A Double-Eyed Deceiver’, its music score by S.D. Burman and lyrics by Majrooh Sultanpuri yielded the imperishable songs “Chal Ri Sajni Ab Kya Roye” and “Deewana Mastana Hua Dil”. It’s believed that Madhubana had been firmed for the part of the leading lady but had to drop out because of her weak heart condition.
To date, music lovers rewind to the melody-suffused songs Khosla extracted from O.P. Nayyar in ‘Ek Musafir Ek Hasina’ (1962) and Madan Mohan in ‘Woh Kaun Thi’ (1964). As for yours sincerely, I’m truly convinced that ‘Mera Gaon Mera Desh’ (1971) is an outstanding, hidden precursor to ‘Sholay’ (1975). In it Laxmi Chhaya stole the thunder from its leading lady Asha Parekh. Chhaya twirled to “Maar Diya Jaaye Ya Chod Diya Jaaye” a lyric that’s so simple and yet Rampuri knife-sharp.
The frontline director Raj Khosla actually looked like one: tall, ramrod straight, with a thin bristly Errol Flynn moustache. A neat dresser, hair pomaded, combed and parted. So there I was hell-bent on adding him to the analaytical series on directors — a trifle heavy for the fanzine approach of Filmfare. Still, as long as I could make the copy readable, the editor was okay about apportioning me six to eight pages.
Great, after chewing the brains of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Anil Ganguly (Mr Kora Kagaz), Prakash Mehra, J. Om Prakash, Khosla was next on my hit list. Editor sir said, “But I’m warning you.When he says yes, he means NO.”
Why, why? Because there were some dark areas in the director’s life, he didn’t want to be asked about that. Editor — Bikram Singh — was his long-time friend from Dehradun. The director called editor by his pet name “Folton”, the editor called him “Impossible”. And so there I was, still waiting for that expressionless, black desk phone to ring. It will ring, it will not, it will ring… dammit, forget it. Newsroom buddies suggested a beer at the Press Club to drown my disappintment. Then it rang, a raspy voice announced, “No interview please. I have another evening engagement.”
“So what? I’m coming with you to this engagement,” I said coolly.
“You heard me. You can’t cancel…no way.”
“Sorry, I will explain to Folton.”
“You won’t. And sir, I won’t ask you any questions about your private life. I’m just crazy about Mera Gaon Mera Desh…”
“I also love CID (1956) , Kala Pani (1958), Woh Kaun Thi… didn’t like Anita (1967) so much… Do Badan (1966), Do Raaste (1969)… should I sing you ‘Bindiya Chamkegi’?”
“’Or Yeh Reshmi Zulfein’… should I?”
“Nahin baba nahin,” he laughed. A pause, and then he said generously, “Bachche, come, aa jaao. Aaj tumhen meri duniya dikhata hoon.”
Zoom over to the bar at the Juhu Centaur Hotel, which was utterly classy then. Raj saab stood up courteously to usher me into a chair between him and a pleasant-natured woman in a blue, sequined sari. It was said that he was in love with her. My homework told me that he felt guilty about his ailing daughter, that his marriage was rocky, that he drank too much because of such fissures in his private life.
Surprisingly, then, over Scotch, he told me details about what was eating him up. I didn’t have to ask any questions, he told me his story, unpunctuated. In essence, his story was that he fell in love… but not out of love easily. Frankly, he admitted that he was just not cut out be monogamous, his instincts would take the better of him. Added he in a sweeping statement, “That’s how most men I know are but they lead a secret life. I’m just not the sort who can play game with my feelings.” The woman with him didn’t flinch, she let him speak. Unaccustomed to Scotch (neat!), I was flying.
Worried that I wasn’t getting my ‘serious, analytical’ interview, I rounded off with film-related questions. He answered them, too, getting particularly sentimental about Sadhana, who had excelled in murder mystery triptych ‘Woh Kaun Thi’, ‘Mera Saaya’ (1966) and ‘Anita.’ “Now that’s a woman. God must have created her with special care,” he sighed. The woman smiled, “Raj-ji… he’s mad about his heroines, falls in love with all of them.”
Expectedly, then, his women characters were infallibly steel strong. He wept a bit, then, recalling the memory of his mother.
“If you see ‘Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki’ (1978) closely,” he remarked. “It’s the closest I’ve come to baring my real self to the audience. It did very well too commercially and critically, maybe because the story was like a direct confessional. I was fascinated when someone told me the gist of the Marathi novel ‘Ashi Tujhi Preet’ by Chandrakant Kakodkar. The dialogue co-written by Dr Rahi Masoom Raza was like my own heart speaking…and maybe I was exorcising my guilt. The character of the wife, Nutan, dominated the show. Yet the women audiences also identified closely with ‘the other woman’ played by Asha Parekh. They were in tears during her death scene.”
About his apprenticeship stints with Guru Dutt and Dev Anand, he had responded, “They were my schools of learning. I would be a nobody without them. They detected that I knew how to tell a story with a camera, that I wasn’t just a yes-man, agreeing to everything they said. I would have plenty of arguments with Guru Dutt, especially. And it’s true that I wasn’t too happy about introducing Waheeda Rehman to the Hindi screen in ‘CID’, produced by him, in a key supporting role. It seemed to be a preparation in a way for her to star in his ‘Pyaasa’.But she turned out to be fantastic. Guru Dutt had proved me wrong and I accepted my error of judgement. When the film became a hit, he even gifted me my first car!”
Incidentally, the riff of the iconic song of ‘CID’, “Yeh Hai Mumbai Meri Jaan”, was suggested by harmonica player Milon Gupta, which was then set to music by O.P.Nayyar with lyrics by Majrooh Sultanpuri. “Magic happened,” Khosla recalled. “ The basic tune was from the American song ‘Oh My Darling Clementine’ but thanks to Milan Gupta and O.P. Nayyar, it became a thorough original.”
Alas, I’ve lost my issues of vintage Filmfares, to transcribe more of our q and a.The interview did its eight-page spread. Folton shook his head, “Don’t know how you did it.” Neither did I. Khosla saab had said it all, without a prod.
I met the master director once again at Folton’s house, his valet was carrying an ice-box, Scotch, and the only crystal glass he drank from. Looking at me, he chuckled, “You are dangerous.” Editor and I watched him drink through the afternoon. Again, his eyes moistened, he left abruptly, saying that he needed a nap.
His oeuvre had kept fluctuating. The Rajesh Khanna-Mumtaz ‘Prem Kahani ‘ (1975) was unredeemingly turgid. However, three years later, ‘Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki’, had returned him to the peak of form, his last hurrah as it were.
Clearly within him, something was eating him, his heart was breaking. During the shoot of ‘Dostana’ (1980) – headlined by Amitabh Bachchan, Shatrughan Sinha and Zeenat Aman -- which uncannily has shades of Hollywood’s much later ‘Indecent Proposal’ (1993) — trade types whispered that Raj Khosla wasn’t quite there. The buzz went that he wouldn’t show up on the sets often, and his assistants had to complete the remaining footage. The film was a huge success at the cash counters, but his signature didn’t quite seem to be legible.
The usually fluent director, could no longer be the raconteur he was, as asserted by his latter-day body of work: Do Premee (1980), Daasi (1981), Teri Maang Sitaron Se Bhar Doon (1982), Maati Maange Khoon (1983), Sunny (1984), Mera Dost Mera Dushman (1984) and Naqaab (1989).
Raj Khosla died at the age of 66 in 1991. And no one even asked me to write his obituary.
Khalid Mohamed is a well known film critic, screenwriter & director