The Leadership Review Team

The Shooting Star: Rajesh Khanna

The Leadership Review Team

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The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long. The life and times of Rajesh Khanna, a man of many contradictions and complexities, are a testimony to this fact. Born Jatin Khanna in 1942, into a family of railway contractors, Kaka – as he was fondly called was adopted by his paternal aunt and uncle. He was pampered to no end in the joint family set up. More often than not, his adoptive parents overindulged him, so much so, that his mother would not allow anyone to go near his room in the mornings till he woke up on his own. He was reticent as a child, but truly came alive when he was performing on stage. Performing locally, then in schools and finally at the college level strengthened his resolve to become an actor. A thespian of many shades, Khanna was famous during his struggling days for turning up for auditions in the latest sports car, when most struggling actors would walk to the auditions. But, one cannot ignore the fact that his struggles were as real, and the rejections as heartbreaking, as that of the next fellow who harboured the desire of making it big on the silver screen.

Luck would have its part to play in the career of Jatin Khanna, for in 1965 an All India Talent Contest was organised by United Producers and Filmfare. Out of more than ten thousand contestants, it was he who ultimately won the competition after a riveting final round. This win contractually bound the top producers and directors of the era to cast Khanna in a leading role in at least one of their movies. With this win his endless wait for something worthwhile to come along was finally over. It was then that Jatin Khanna decided to shed his given name by adopting the screen name of Rajesh Khanna. His manic journey to the top of Hindi cinema was well and truly on its way.

The Birth of a Superstar

Kati Patang Poster.jpegHis first theatrical release Aakhri Khat (1966) wasn’t a commercial success. Unlike the Rajesh Khanna that is embedded in our minds, this movie directed by Chetan Anand, devoid of any melodrama and antics, was theatre transposed on celluloid. His luck would not change as his next few films didn’t go down too well with the audience. Even though he acted well in these movies, something or the other seemed to seal their fate. It was by virtue of his first release in 1969 that Khanna truly arrived. Aaradhana, was a stop gap movie made by Shakti Samanta who was waiting on a bigger project. Being a part of the United Producers Alliance, he was contractually obliged to cast Khanna into one of his movies and thought this to be the best opportunity. What he didn’t anticipate was the phenomenal success that the movie would turn out to be. But more than Khanna’s acting, it was the pot boiler script and the mesmerizing musical score that would contribute to the movie’s success. For a person who had acted his heart out in his earlier films only not to taste success, it must have been bitter sweet happiness to be successful without majorly contributing. Thus began his transition from merely being Rajesh Khanna the actor to Rajesh Khanna the star. If Aaradhana touted him as the next big thing, his next two releases of 1969 made him an overnight sensation. In all these films, his star quality was highlighted over his acting prowess. It was then that the actor within him took a backseat and the star took precedence. Unsurprisingly, this attitude also spilled into his real life.

By the time 1970 arrived, he was well established and did a spate of films which were blockbusters. His onscreen death in Safar (1970) did not go down well with the audience. It was then he learned about the expectation of the fans each time the hero appeared onscreen, something he wasn’t able to live up to in his post 1973 roles. During the shooting of Kati Patang (1970), he did not like the film’s heroine oriented script and lack of arresting dialogues for the male lead which, in his opinion, was taking the limelight away from him. Despite such reservations, the film was a resounding success. By this time, he was crowned India’s first superstar, and expected to be treated like one.

The World At His Feet

During this time the going was good and so anything that Khanna did was forgiven because he was a superstar. Forgiven, but not forgotten. During shoots Khanna was extremely picky about the persons he would associate with. Barring a few, he never really connected with the members of the crew. His high handed attitude did not go down well with the cast and crew, but there was little that they could do. A factor which may have led to his inflated sense of self was the fact that he was the first actor to truly break free of the pattern that had been put in place by the holy trinity of Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand. Besides, Khanna was also a trend setter of sorts. Be it popularising the on screen demise of the protagonist through Safar (1970), Anand (1971) and Namak Haram (1973) or starring in the the Bollywood remake of films from down  south in Aurat (1967), Apna Desh (1972) and Red Rose (1980), he never hesitated in venturing into unchartered territories. His contribution to parallel cinema has also been immense for he was probably the first popular actor to successfully star in both mainstream and alternate cinema.

Aradhana PosterBy the beginning of 1971, Rajesh Khanna was the ‘be all and end all’ of Bollywood. During this time anything he touched turned to gold. Arrogant as he was, he rubbed people the wrong way, prominent amongst which were the screen writing duo of Salim – Javed. Even though it was Khanna who gave them their first independent screen credit in Haathi Mere Saathi (1971), he never gave them respect or appreciation. Salim Khan says that Khanna didn’t maintain relationships that he ought to have taken care of. That he didn’t show large – heartedness where it really mattered. The repercussions of this would be felt not much later when post 1973, Salim – Javed, who were the flavour of the season, never wrote any roles for Khanna. 1971 also signalled the arrival of another one of Bollywood’s stalwarts, the man who would prove to be Khanna’s nemesis: Amitabh Bachchan whom he snubbed on more occasions than he cared to remember.

If one were to look back at this period, there were no criteria on the basis of which Khanna chose his roles. He chose some to please the directors, some because of the production house, and some for personal reasons. Therefore, it wasn’t a surprise when Khanna signed three films just so he could get enough money to buy Rajendra Kumar’s bungalow ‘Dimple’ when it was put up for sale. Once he bought the bungalow and renamed it ‘Aashirvad’, Rajesh Khanna’s metamorphosis into a demi-god, the emperor of Bollywood was complete. It was here that the second act of his self destruction would play out for he thought his utopia would last forever. When the entire world was treating him like a king, how could he remain oblivious to it all? Through actions and words he made it known. Khanna’s act of walking into his durbar in his famous silk lungi – kurta and taking his position at a chair that was conspicuously placed a little higher than the others to differentiate between the king and his subjects explained this attitude adequately.

The fact that he garnered unparalleled success left him perplexed enough to seek positive reinforcement which would instill in him the belief that his success was well deserved. Solely for these purposes, he would surround himself with sycophants and yes men who would hang on to every word Khanna spoke, and react on cue. Copious amounts of whiskey would flow endlessly through the night, and most of those present would sing praises of King Kaka. Those who dared to contradict his point of view were more often than not shown the door with phrases such as ‘Aapko hamara durbar chhodna padega’ (You’ll have to leave my court), which sounded straight out of a film. Khanna enjoyed being starry because he could get away with it, and such idiosyncrasies were excused so long as he was able to deliver. And deliver he did, for between 1969 and 1972, he gave seventeen consecutive solo hits, a feat unequalled before or since. What is also telling is that in the remainder of his career he wasn’t able to muster seventeen more.

The Times They Are A Changing

The second half of 1972 was when Khanna tasted failure for the first time since being dubbed a superstar. Barring a few, most of his releases in 1972 were commercial duds. Though, it can also be said that the law of averages had finally caught up with him. He had given six straight flops. Seeing his career plateau, Khanna once again needed a little something that would have propelled him forward. Recognition from the film fraternity was just what the doctor had ordered. This recognition would have been the stamp of approval that he was desperate for, and deservedly so.

Released in 1972, Amar Prem gave Khanna a character that would make his persona unforgettable. The consummate ease with which he portrayed existential angst and the pointlessness of life should have made him a sure shot winner for all the top awards for the year. But, unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be. Khanna was informed that Manoj Kumar had snatched the award for the best actor which was his for taking. The result was that a jilted Khanna decided to throw a party at the very same time when the awards were being hosted and invite the entire film industry. Seeing the awards threatened in a manner never seen before, the organisers of the awards had to cajole Khanna into cancelling his party. Cancel he did, but it left a bitter taste in the mouths of everyone who was involved. He couldn’t accede to the fact that he had come second after being on top for nearly three years and in his not well thought out reaction, he spurned the people who mattered. If he thought the year was an exception, he was in for a rude shock.

Anand PosterRarely has one idea had such a profound effect on the course that a film industry takes. For it was in 1973 that Bachchan’s first of the many ‘angry young man’ movies would be released. Zanjeer (1973) began to alter the framework in which Khanna functioned. By the time it was 1975, the landscape would be totally unrecognisable to India’s first superstar. Khanna’s ability to look at a role in isolation perhaps helped him take up the kind of roles other actors wouldn’t have dared to. But, the downside to this was that he never understood, or tried understanding, the dynamics on which the industry functioned. Films after all are a reflection of the human condition. The winds of change had begun to blow and Khanna’s blissful ignorance towards them was perhaps his single biggest mistake. If one were to point out Khanna’s gravest error, it would have to be his failure to reinvent himself and keep the artist within him aware of the changing times. Working with the same formulaic script time and again was not what the audience expected of him anymore. A country undergoing social turmoil, battling rising prices, and rampant corruption wanted films to channel their inner aggression and reflect their social predicament. Very few of Khanna’s movies would provide them with this outlet; almost all of Bachchan’s would.

The year also saw him having one of his, by now common, personality clashes. This time there would be no redemption. Released in 1973, Daag would be one of the many off beat roles that Khanna took up. The film, directed by Yash Chopra was also the debut film of his production house. But Khanna’s inability to maintain relationships saw him falling out with Yash Chopra. The result was that following Daag, the actor did not feature in any of the director’s other ventures over the next decade and a half. What would hurt Khanna more is the fact Chopra would go on to collaborate with the man whom Khanna had shrugged off as nobody and the screen writing duo whom Khanna had paid no attention to. In this context Deewar (1975) was a death knell of sorts for Khanna’s career.

Paradise Lost

The cracks that had begun to appear in 1973 would gradually widen throughout his career and no matter how hard Khanna tried there was little he could do to patch it up. The next two years saw Khanna’s career graph plummet and his image took a beating. The same men whom he had paid little or no attention to while he was on the rise were now discarding him when he was on his way down. The film fraternity was now divided into two factions. One favoured Bachchan and the other Khanna, the former being far more influential by the end of 1975. Khanna’s one last throw of the die was in the form of Mehbooba (1976), wherein he brought together all the elements that had led to his success; his most successful director, Shakti Samata, music director R.D. Burman, his screen voice Kishore Kumar and lyricist Anand Bakshi. Despite all these efforts the movie flopped, and from here onwards there was no return for Rajesh Khanna. As the decade came to an end Khanna wasn’t even an A-list actor anymore.

In Rajesh Khanna’s case there was no gradual decrease. He was on top and then stopped being on top. It is apt what Shatanu Ray Chaudhuri says in his book Icons from Bollywood ‘unlike bigger icons and stars, Rajesh Khanna’s claim to greatness basically lies in his achievements over a period of barely three years. There have been actors in the limelight for longer durations, more talented artists who have shaped opinion and have continued to be talked about across generations. None of these hold true for Rajesh Khanna. But on the strength of those three years, 1969 to 1972, he will always find a place in any discussion on Hindi cinema. For in those three years he was Hindi mainstream cinema.’

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