The charisma of Rajesh Khanna

Remembering the romantic icon, whose rise and fall were equally steep

July 20, 2018 01:53 pm | Updated 01:53 pm IST

 FULL OF LIFE: Rajesh Khanna in “Anand”

FULL OF LIFE: Rajesh Khanna in “Anand”

Had it not been for listening to the Khayyam-Rafi classic “Aur Kuchh Der Thaher, Aur Kuchh Der Na Jaa” on my laptop, I would have missed the death anniversary of the one and only Rajesh Khanna. The date had elapsed in my mind but the lilting song from Rajesh Khanna’s debut film “Aakhri Khat” brought back memories of a wonderful actor who, besides giving Hindi film romance a fresh energy in the 1970s, also provided it with some of its most arresting moments. Alongside Shashi Kapoor, he was the first of the trained actors who not only dazzled but also ruled showbiz with a tornado of hits.

Some happenings may lapse momentarily yet never get erased from memory. The making of Rajesh Khanna into a phenomenon was one such unparalleled event for us who saw his lacklustre debut as well as subsequent rise to dizzy heights. It would be wrong to portray Rajesh Khanna as the first superstar of the film industry since Rajendra Kumar had unleashed public hysteria in the 1960s with his run of silver jubilee hits. However, what changed later was the phenomenal modification in public expression… an unabashed outpouring of adulation wherein women folk were the major cheer leaders! Until Rajesh Khanna’s advent, hero worship was confined to applause from the sidelines or penning of teary-eyed letters but Khanna unhinged the conventional chains of restraint, making teenagers to adults go berserk in their emotional support for the actor.

So what accounted for the societal transformation in a nation shackled with tradition and dogma? As the victory over Pakistan in 1965 war brought a lot of hope and cheer to India, its teenage generation looked for a change. Earlier audiences may have revered middle aged heroes for their romantic pleas and mushy ballads but the new generation wasn’t prepared to accept them as their idols. They say “cometh the hour, cometh the man”; as nature prompted Rajesh Khanna to step in, a young class of film audiences immediately connected since they saw themselves in the pimply hero! Identifying with the tears and laughter of this hero, with boy-next-door looks, was easy and soon Rajesh Khanna’s romantic actions became the subject of their dreams, discussions and desires. Backed by several Gulshan Nanda screenplays, Khanna’s fluttering eyes and syrupy dialogues, delivered with a tilting head, were lapped up by a bubbly generation to create a new screen lover who could do no wrong. His sartorial fashion of Guru kurtas only added to a unique persona that had a mix of defiance and romantic pedagogy rolled in one. Therefore, if he was an ideal dream lover with lot of gall as well as élan for the youngsters, aged cinegoers too found in Rajesh Khanna a worthy upholder of chivalry, decency and morality!

It is true that every age creates its own superstars due to the prevailing social and political environment. So while the era was right for Rajesh Khanna getting on to the big stage, yet none can undermine the storehouse of talent that he carried within himself. With the help of his directors, he brought upon a rare stamp of class as well as sensitivity to his characters which exemplified his strength as an actor. Imbibing his portrayals with characteristic vulnerability of an average citizen, helped him make his way in to the hearts of the audiences. While he did impress with his initial films like “Aakhri Khat”, “Raaz” and “Baharon Ke Sapne”, Rajesh Khanna’s calibre subdued all opposition with his majestic portrayals in “Aradhana”, “Do Raaste”, “Ittefaq”, “Safar”, “Kati Patang”, “Khamoshi” and several others.

What made him ride the crescent of success was that in each film, he was a star performer but not a star! Neither statuesquely built, nor blessed with a face or voice to stop people in their tracks, yet Rajesh Khanna had a remarkable capacity to emote with passion before the camera, giving his screen personae oodles of good charm and realism. Understanding logistics of camera angles early in his career, Khanna, like Dilip Kumar, knew the sub-text and needs of a scene so perfectly that his specific movements and emotive intensity were sublimely realistic and precise to resonate with the character.

Winning hearts

And with “Anand”, a character he was born for, he not only broke barriers of cinematic expression but also captured the imagination of the masses. From school going children to aged grandparents and rural folk to business honchos, everyone empathised with Khanna’s performance and they all gave a collective roar of approval of Rajesh Khanna being the nation’s heartthrob.

Alas, this overwhelming adulation led to a gradual downhill slide. Though he gave several sterling performances in “Haathi Mere Saathi”, “Dushman”, “Bawarchi”, “Amar Prem”, “Namak Haraam” and others, this intuitive performer became a prisoner of his own self-absorption that made him choose films and characters ill suited to his persona. It is a mistake to believe Khanna was swept away by the Bachchan wave since, like in “Anand”, he was the fulcrum of poise and dignity in “Namak Haraam” and proved his mettle with a moving performance.

Unfortunately, the tide of time had changed and the roll of dice went against Rajesh Khanna. Kaka, as he was fondly called, was by all accounts an extremely intelligent and magnanimous person but somehow he faltered with his selection of films. Even until 1990s, Kaka gave some fine performances but the film directors, scripts and productions were so flawed that they all rendered his good work to a naught.

As he grappled with numerous professional and personal problems, it almost seemed as if he had a foot on a self destroying accelerator . Like the Greek tragedy heroes, Rajesh Khanna suffered a gigantic fall . Yet, Hindi cinema was blessed to have had a star in its orbit like Rajesh Khanna

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