Starring: Rajesh Khanna, Sharmila Tagore, Indrani Mukherjee, Farida Jalal
In the past one year, since Kaka, as Rajesh Khanna was affectionately called in the film industry, left the mortal world, all aspects of his awe inspiring rise to superstardom and an equally tragic fall, his turbulent life and times have been tabulated by overzealous, and sometimes over the top media. In the entire hullabaloo, some of his eminent films have escaped scrutiny.
These include “Raja Rani”. Released in 1973, this was to be one of the last movies amongst the Khanna gems that set the box-office on fire in the period that lasted barely four years, commencing in 1969 and showing signs of waning by the time 1974 dawned. Although in current terms, the film grossed more than Rs.100 crores, it was a tad less successful than the monster hits in which he starred during the period.
The legacy of the man is much more than his unparallel superstardom, as he brought along tectonic changes to the industry, foremost being the confluence of Kishore Kumar, R.D. Burman and Khanna in generating some of the best music Hindi film industry has ever heard. This is evident in “Raja Rani”, where at least two songs, “Jab Andhera Hota Hai” (vocals by Bhupinder Singh and Burman’s would-be wife Asha Bhonsle) and “Main Ek Chor Tu Meri Rani” (Kishore Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar) stand out to this day. The former, which plays throughout the film as a theme song, is one of the highlights, getting Asha Bhonsle a Filmare nomination, although she failed to cross the finishing line. Undoubtedly, lyrics by Anand Bakshi raised the bar by several notches.
Khanna also gave an impetus to the fashion industry, with millions donning what he wore in his various onscreen avatars. In “Raja Rani” — for most of the film — he wears a sleeveless shirt and trousers (somewhat of a safari suit). On the waist is a thick leather belt, shoes without socks and a trademark black cap. On a lesser actor, the attire would have fallen flat, but Khanna, as a small time thief, carries it with characteristic élan.
His pairing with Mumtaz and to a lesser extent Sharmila Tagore (with whom he shares screen space in ‘Raja Rani”) gave a new meaning to the word chemistry. In the film, Sharmila gives an above average performance though certainly not her best. She is convincing, both as Nirmala — an innocent and nubile orphan, who lives with her maternal uncle and his shrewish wife, and Rani — a courtesan.
Ironically, “Raja Rani” is the only film directed by veteran writer Sachin Bhowmick, in which the basic premise is very simple, and is declared at the beginning in Khanna’s voice. It is a clarion call to the society at large to give an opportunity to marginalised people, who have been thrust into a life of crime and indignity, to redeem their right to live as honest, law abiding citizens.
Janaki (Indrani Mukherjee) works as a maid servant in the house of a rich, debauched man. Her son, Raja, falls sick and the widow seeks money from her employer, which he gives in return for a favour, to satiate his lust. Caught in the pincer, she hangs herself to death, leaving a young Raja to fend for himself. Over time, Raja becomes a consummate thief, who manages to escape from the clutches of law every time he commits a crime. This game of cat and mouse lands him into a bedroom where a would-be groom has fled the ‘mandap’ after leaving a letter for his father (Ifthekar). To escape the dragnet, Raja dons the ‘sehra’ and gets married to Nirmala, but thereafter escapes without showing the bride his face.
Nirmala and her father-in-law still feel that it is their own who has fled. In the meantime, the groom whom Raja replaced is killed in an accident. Predictably, Nirmala is thrown out of the house by her mother-in-law (Dulari) and spurned by her maternal aunt where she goes for shelter, wherein she lands in a ‘kotha’. Almost on cue, Raja lands in the lockup for six-months.
On his release, he tries in vain to search for his bride. Their paths cross again, when Raja visits the courtesan Rani (Tagore) towards whom he is unknowingly attracted. In a change of heart, both decide to lead a decent life, in which they are helped by one of Rani’s ex patron and his wife (Kumari Naaz) (both are in gratitude towards Rani for weaning him away from a life of marital discord). Therein, the story takes a twist and the finale is enacted in a court room drama where Raja stands accused of murder.
Some of the scenes are shot on location in Mumbai, at night, which is handled aptly by the cinematographer V. Balasaheb. The editing, by Pratap Dave, could have been leaner; especially where the screenplay falters (Farida Jalal and Sujit Kumar’s characters have unnecessarily been introduced in the script and lead to viewer fatigue). Another irritant is the character of Tony, Raja’s friend, who, in an another caricature of Christians, is portrayed as a drunkard. The dialogues by Ramesh Pant are clichéd at times, although the signature for Raja, “Badi Kutti Cheez Hai’, used with outstanding flamboyance by Khanna, stands out. The support cast plays its part with ease.