Rajesh Khanna, who passed away recently, will be remembered for his romantic roles, evergreen numbers and the frenzy of his female fans.

Every generation of movie fans created their own heroes depending on the environment of that age. The discontent among the Americans, particularly its youth, led to the emergence of ‘rebel’ stars such as Marlon Brando, James Dean and Paul Newman. The troubled times of the Vietnam War and the continuing campus riots, coupled with disgust at the illegal acts of the Nixon presidency, spawned a series of dark movies, which did not hesitate to question the cherished American values.

India, which produced the largest number of films per year, followed this trend. The early years of independence, the acceptance of socialist ideology, the gaping gulf between the rich and the poor, inspired directors such as Raj Kapoor and Bimal Roy to come out with movies such as ‘Awara’, ‘Shri 420’ and ‘Do Bigha Zamin’.

Raj was one of the leading stars of that period and diluted the sufferings of the people with his Chaplinesque portrayals of the hero. In a different and more personal manner, Dilip Kumar, was the eternal tragic hero who loved but often lost. The prevailing social conditions, the rich-poor divide made the hero baulk from claiming the hand of the girl he loved. Dilip did this with an intensity that was disturbing at times. The ‘third’ in this triumvirate was Dev Anand. He had no great acting skills, but wowed the girls with his looks and mannerisms.

By the end of 1960s, the era of this trio was also ending. Their successors had already arrived. Shammi Kapoor was terrific but then put on weight, Rajendra Kumar, despite bearing the tag ‘Jubilee Kumar’ was not much of a heart throb and Sunil Dutt ended up as a dacoit or a family movie hero. National spirits were high. Indira Gandhi and India had won the Bangladesh war. There was elation; a mood of celebration in the air.

Around this time, Rajesh Khanna, who looked like the nice boy next door, had been transported, by a stroke of luck, to the top of the league with the release of ‘Aradhana.’ And the younger generation was enchanted.

In his earlier films, Rajesh Khanna did not promise to be the answer to the country’s dreams. Of medium height with a slightly pimply but a nice face, he looked an average young man. But ‘Aradhana’ changed that.

The dream lover

A new era of screen romance dawned. Wooing a pretty girl who was travelling by train, while driving a jeep was something new on celluloid and added to that he was singing ‘Mere Sapno Ki Rani’, which became a hit number.

There was more to come: the come-hither looks, the rain-drenched sequence, the burning fire and the passion-filed lyrics, ‘Roop Tera Mastana’.

In the past, Hindi cinema did have scenes of romantic love, but this was sizzling, sensual passion. I remember even now the total silence in the theatre when this scene as playing out on the screen, and it was followed by a deep sigh when it ended.

The new king of romance had arrived and how! It was a coup of sorts. The next few years belonged to Rajesh Khanna, as he romanced almost all the top heroines of that era. But no role matched the sexual passion of ‘Aradhana’.

In other movies, the romance was often tinged with values and problems. ‘Do Raaste,’ which had an equally long run as ‘Aradhana,’ dealt with middle class family problems; ‘Apna Desh,’ corrupt politics and greed; ‘Haathi Mere Saati’, animal love; ‘Roti,’ economic inequality; ‘Sachha Jhoota,’ sibling love and ‘Amar Prem,’ love and social stigma. These were not pure love stories but they established Rajesh Khanna as an actor of considerable talent. The raja of romance became a craze. Girls swooned in his presence. They wrote letters to him with their blood and kept them under their pillows. Such a frenzy has not been repeated in the country.

Romance took on a new meaning: crinkling one’s eyes, the tilt of the head and a certain gesture of the hand.

Two films stood out in his glittering career and strangely enough, both of them stayed away from romance. Directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee, ‘Anand’ and ‘Namak Haram’ were gems that offered the scope to act not only for the hero but everyone in the cast. Anand in ‘Anand’ dared death with a smile on his lips and a joke. But the audience wept. If there had been any doubt that Rajesh Khanna could not handle delicate emotional scenes, they were blown away. Even here, there were hints of an aborted romance but the brilliant script did not focus much on it.

‘Namak Haram,’ based on ‘Becket,’ was all about greed, power, ambition and how these could destroy a durable friendship. With two brilliantly etched roles, it was hard to rank Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan, but once again the ‘phenomenon’ had scored in a movie without romance.

The golden era of Rajesh Khanna was between 1969 and 1973. Six releases in one year, all hits! But this profusion could not last long.

Was the emergence of Amitabh Bachchan responsible for this? Amitabh established himself only from the mid-1980s and for a time shared top spot with Khanna. While Bachchan, ambitious by nature and stung by failures of the past, played his cards carefully and cultivated friends and directors, Rajesh Khanna became careless. He became fat, took success for granted, chose scripts which did not suit his talent and listened more to his sycophants than his well wishers. Slowly, the gentle romantic hero was replaced by the angry, young man. And the era of romance faded as the action hero stepped in.