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The charisma & calibre of Rajesh Khanna by Murali Gopalan

My mother would often pull my leg about my fondness for Rajesh Khanna. Never mind that she loved listening to numbers from Anand, Daag and Safar and would grudgingly concede that he had a unique charm.

It is now five days since my mother passed away and Rajesh Khanna’s ninth death anniversary is on the 18th. I was determined to write a tribute about my all-time favorite actor but the sudden departure of my mother left a raw wound that will take time to heal.

Yet, she would have wanted me to carry on with life and not sit in a corner and brood thinking about her. It also seems the most appropriate thing to do since she was the one who introduced me to Kaka over five decades ago.

It seems like yesterday when my mother and I saw Aradhana along with a family friend. We were living in Durgapur, the steel township near Kolkata, which was then the closest to paradise on earth. There were two movie halls — Chitralaya and Anuradha — which screened Hindi and English films with rapid regularity.

I still remember posters of Jewel Thief and The Sound of Music so vividly even though these releases were way back in the 1960s. I would stop by and gawk at them while my father would pick up Enid Blytons and Phantom comics for me. There are some moments in life which the mind just does not erase and thankfully so.

So we were here at Anuradha movie hall watching Aradhana and I remember how the opening sequence of Mere Sapnon Ki Rani... had the audience electrified. I was a kid and yet the magnetic charm of Rajesh Khanna left an indelible mark on a seven-year-old’s mind. Even today, the Roop Tera Mastana... number remains such a vivid memory though I am sure there was an awkward and embarrassed silence within the movie hall!

Rajesh Khanna became an integral part of my growing up years in Durgapur. My dad, who worked in the steel plant, loved films and the family of four more than had its share in this memorable period. Kaka dominated the landscape though none of us were aware of his superstar status in Hindi cinema. It just seemed natural for everyone in this steel township to fall in love with him.

It was a time of innocence when movie halls had this mysterious aura about them. My father would ensure that my sister and I had our quotas of Coca Colas and cutlets whilst watching films. Meanwhile, my mother would hold my hand tightly since I had this habit of running all across the movie hall and creating chaos.

It was during these heady times in the early 1970s when the whole of Durgapur soaked in the charm of Rajesh Khanna. There would be complete silence within the movie hall watching his inimitable death sequences in Safar and Anand while Sacha Jhutha had us engrossed with the bad vs good guy feud.

We kids went berserk watching Haathi Mere Saathi and our hearts surrendered completely to Rajesh Khanna. By this time, I was a diehard fan except that I was not alone — he dominated everyone’s lives, and not just in Durgapur. My father was hooked to ‘Achcha to hum chalte hain...’ from Aan Milo Sajna and would constantly hum the song while shaving or reading the Statesman in the morning.

It seems so bizarre but I can swear that the whole of Chitralaya was electrified when Kaka made his appearance on a motorcycle with Zindagi Ek Safar Hai Suhana... in Andaz. All this happened 50 years ago but the memory of that song and his stylish glasses was something else. This was a special appearance which perhaps lasted 15 minutes but it remains the fulcrum of Andaz where his abrupt death left us stunned.

My dad left Durgapur with a heavy heart in 1972 but even in our new home in Chennai, Rajesh Khanna continued to be part of our lives. Among the first Hindi films we saw in this largely Tamil-dominated terrain was Amar Prem. It was particularly painful since the setting was in Kolkata and our hearts were still aching for Durgapur. Yet, Rajesh Khanna’s presence was enough to double up as a balm and even today, this film continues to be a favorite.

With the move to Chennai, life was not going to be the same again for the family with my dad’s new job while my sister and I were getting used to our schools and classmates. By the end of the year, there was also an addition to the family when my little brother arrived and quite clearly the routine changed. Nobody was complaining though as my sister and I played around with this bundle of joy.

We had a neighbor though who would generously lend me copies of the weekly Screen newspaper and I kept tabs on Rajesh Khanna’s new releases. Despite the hectic work schedule in Chennai, my dad would still indulge my whims and take me along to see Bawarchi, Roti and Aap Ki Kasam. There were also enough wall posters on the way to school which gave an update on other films like Mere Jeevan Saathi, Shehzada, Raja Rani and so on.

It was also increasingly evident that Rajesh Khanna was not quite the same person I had grown up with in Durgapur. He now sported long hair, had put on weight and did not quite have the same allure any longer. His star power was clearly on the wane and I just think that the impact of Sholay in 1975 and the debacle of Mehbooba a year later pretty much changed the equations in the film industry.

It was hard for me to accept that my all-time favorite star had been dislodged from his pedestal but I still remained loyal to him even while my classmates would pull my leg mercilessly. Amitabh Bachchan was clearly the new monarch but to me, it was only Rajesh Khanna who mattered even though he looked older and heavier on screen.

He had a string of big hits in 1983 — Avtaar, Souten and Agar Tum Na Hote — but could not quite capitalize on this momentum. The audience liked the new crop of actors and Kaka just could not recapture his magic of the 1970s when he was the undisputed king of the Hindi film industry. He was now ready to begin his new career in politics and gradually exited from the glamorous Mumbai landscape.

When news of his illness began doing the rounds, not many people really thought that he would deteriorate so rapidly. Watching him in the Havell’s advertisement was painful for those who remembered the handsome superstar of yesteryear. When his end came in July 2012, I remember being gutted and it seemed as if a part of me had been carved out. The same feeling has come revisiting, with even more severity, with the passing of my mother now.

Rajesh Khanna made my childhood extra special and I owe him plenty for this. Adulthood made me appreciate his later movies too, especially gems like Palkon Ki Chhaon Mein in 1977 which sank without a trace simply because it was during the down phase of his career. Likewise, his performance in Rajput was something else even though the film was all over the place with its theme of violence and vendetta.

My all-time favorite Rajesh Khanna film is Daag where no other actor, in my view, could have pulled off this complex role of a man caught between two relationships. The trauma and struggle he endures was wonderfully interpreted by this actor who truly was in a league of his own. You only need to watch Avishkaar to understand what Kaka’s calibre was all about.

I can see my mother smiling while I am writing this essay for my favorite actor. “You and your love for Rajesh Khanna!” she would have indulgently laughed. I am sure she liked him as much as I did!!

Murali Gopalan Consulting Editor Autocar India Group.

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Dec 18, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Interesting read

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