Rajesh Khanna returned to theatre after a cinematic exile of 23 years.
The year was 1992 and we were celebrating Ruchika theatre group’s 20th year. As the founder and director of Ruchika, I wanted to do something special for the occasion.
I chose Nobel laureate Albert Camus’ well known play “Caligula” which portrays the supremely powerful Roman emperor as he destroys Gods, men and himself in his search for freedom. “Caligula” is Camus’ exploration of a possible route to humanism through nihilism, hedonism, Nazism, instinctualism, tragic stoicism and self-indulgent paganism.
As I have a penchant for autobiographical works, almost all of the 60 plus plays I have directed have an exclusive narrator - a symbol of one lonely man walking through their entire duration. The narrator of Caligula had to mouth powerful dialogues like “I am not a mere king. I am God” and “Saara vishwa bhi haasil karne par kya laabh agar manushya apni aatma hi kho baithe (what use in conquering the world if humanity loses its soul in the process).”
The only person I could choose for eloquently delivering these powerful dialogues in the whole of India was superstar Rajesh Khanna and he obliged immediately without charging a penny, for he fully realised the financial constraints theatre groups face in India.
We met him at his temporary residence in Vasant Kunj in New Delhi. I was accompanied by my leading lady Tarranum Ahmed, an educationist, Aswani Chopra, ace photographer Avinash Pasricha’s assistant, and sound expert Bittoo alias Navneet Wadhwa of the ever helpful Modern Stage Service and Audio Design.
We nervously rang the door-bell and were floored as it was answered by the great superstar himself. Tarranum was immediately greeted with a charming compliment from Rajesh Khanna. “Aap Lakshmi bhi hai aur Saraswati bhi.” He was very impressed with Bittoo for being equipped with the Niagara tape recorder with spools, the last word in recording sound those days. He served tea to all of us and patiently gave as many takes and rehearsals as were required. When a take was disrupted by the doorbell ringing, he helplessly gestured to the skies singing “ting-a-ning”, displaying his sense of humour.“Aaj aatma shuddhi mili (my soul is pure today),” he exclaimed, referring to his return to theatre from a 23-year-exile, and what rave reviews he got!.
His voice is recorded with us on the Niagara tapes for posterity and even now his dialogues, “Saara vishwa bhi haasil karne par kya laabh agar manushya apni aatma hi kho baithe” with the unique stress on the word kya haunt me again and again. Most NSD actors like Om Shivpuri, Manohar Singh and Uttara Baokar trained in the Alkazi school would emphasise the word laabh as became evident in a mock exercise. But Rajesh Khanna was unique.
Thank you Mr. Rajesh Khanna for your loyalty to theatre, and for being one with us.