A top actor of her generation, she had had the masses drooling over her. Every word she spoke as part of the election campaign was lapped up by men, women and children, most of whom were born a few years after she gave the last of her hits. Women in burqa longed to touch her and in a conservative Muslim town they even wanted to shake hands with her. Men unabashedly admired her beauty. For long hours, through dusty tracks of western Uttar Pradesh, she was a purveyor of dreams to the masses, already drunk on the opium of her stardom.
For a few days, she could scarcely put a foot wrong. Every gesture was loved, every word cheered. Yet a little later, sitting at a five-star hotel in New Delhi, she let her guard down. “All that love of people moves me, it brings a responsibility upon me. However, they all come to see the star, they love me as an actor. When at the end of the day, I go back to my room, I am alone. When I stand before the mirror to remove my makeup, there is nobody to call me, nobody to ask me to take rest after a long day, put my feet up, relax. Next morning when I step out, there are hordes of people waiting for my attention. Such is life. When I was a young girl, I used to dream of getting married, how my husband would bring a salary at the end of the month, give me a sum to run the kitchen and a little pocket money; how I would make rangoli with my sister-in-law, how I would make him coffee in the evening….,” she said wistfully. That she shared her husband with his first wife added a touch of sorrow to it all.
These touching words betrayed a woman not quite at peace with herself, with her life. All the adulation was for public consumption; she was not taken at her real worth. Her words came back to haunt me as I went through Gautam Chintamani’s The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna: Dark Star.
Rajesh Khanna was a bigger star than the aforementioned actor. In fact, he was the man because of whom vocabulary was enriched, the word superstar added to the film lexicon. For half a decade or more, through 17 blockbusters, he ruled the roost. He chose his films; his directors did not choose him, he chose them. Scripts first went to him; then he suggested the director, the cast. Or he chose one script from multiple options put before him by directors. And yes, he had the option of choosing his life-mate from among millions of adoring fans. Women wrote letters in blood, many used lipstick on his collar. Films were sold by his name; he easily upstaged the triumvirate — Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor.
With films like Dushman, Aradhana, Safar, Aan Milo Sajna, he was almost immortal. He enjoyed, as Chintamani says, “That God feeling.” His 10-minute cameo, including a song, ‘Zindagi ek safar hai suhana’ turned Andaz (1971) into a roaring hit, from the sleeper hit it would have been without him. He could snub Amitabh Bachchan more than once; he would refuse to take calls from even Shakti Samanta with whom he had delivered Aradhana and Amar Prem.
Kaka could make his producers wait for hours before granting them an audience at his residence, Aashirwad, in Bombay, where, his chair would be placed significantly higher than the seats of others. He played god. And producers said, “Upar aka, neeche Kaka” (God in the heavens, Kaka on earth).
Soon though he realised, this earth, usually accommodative, can be a very unforgiving place. And the film industry loved to hoist a new deity every Friday. Soon Bachchan upstaged him. Salim-Javed, who had initially suggested his name for Zanjeer, started writing for Bachchan as the Angry Young Man. Manmohan Desai-Prakash Mehra and others joined the Bachchan bandwagon. And Kaka, for all his hits in the 1980s — films like Avtaar, Souten, Maqsad worked at the box office — knew these were little swallows for a generation of Bachchan faithful that feasted on Lawaaris, Coolie, Mard, Sharabi and the rest. He tried to stay relevant, first by playing a lover boy in the mid-70s with Mehbooba. Despite its hit music, as Chintamani writes in his meticulously detailed book, the film tanked. And Kaka went into a free fall. He was no longer people’s favourite: even the poet’s role in Kabhi Kabhie, for which Rajesh Khanna seemed ideal, went to Bachchan. He tried once more to reinvent himself but films like Chhailla Babu, despite their box office success, only helped underscore the point that Kaka was beyond his moorings, and out of his comfort zone of a romantic hero he cut a sorry figure. It was to be proved more cruelly with Aaj Ka MLA Ram Avtar a few years later. His fortunes nosedived, and Khanna as a leading man in Thodisi Bewafai was reduced to a character artist. The film’s lyrics ‘Hazaar rahein mud ke dekhin, kahin se koi sada na aayi’ summed up his predicament.
The best, though, deservedly came at the end of his career, indeed towards the end of his life itself. Noted director Balki came up with a campaign for Havell fans which had Rajesh Khanna in a rare commercial ad shoot — his only other ad was for Bombay Dyeing. Kaka was game enough to mouth lines like ‘Fans kya hote hain, mujhse poochho…hawa badal sakti hai, lekin fans hamesha mere rahenge’. It evoked nostalgia. It left a wistful feeling.
This book, some 40 years after the ‘Rajesh Khanna phenomenon’ swept the nation, is a wonderful tribute to a star who burned bright, very bright, but all too briefly. He reached the heights nobody did before him, and hardly anybody after him. But, as Kaka was to realise to his dismay, life can be lonely at the top. And there is only one way from the top — down. ‘Gila Maut se Nahin Hia…Mujhe Zindagi ne Maara’, a sub-title of a chapter in the book, says it all