Sister, older to me by some 14 years, brought Rajesh Khanna home for the first time. As a family, we were hooked to Hindi cinema, with no clear preferences. Any movie, released in the neighbourhood theatre was good enough for a Saturday outing, followed by Masala Dosas and Rasmalais in Bombay Sweet Mart, that faced our favorite cinema hall. The actors were all interchangeable. From Dilip Kumar to Rajendra Kumar to Shammi Kapoor to Sanjay Khan. Or for that matter Mala Sinha or Waheeda Rehman or Nutan or Mumtaz.
We relished their company on screen and ate heartily afterwards before heading home to have Eastman colour dreams. Hoping the next Saturday would happen soon. Movies ran for a long time those days. There were maybe four to five theatres in a small town like Jamshedpur and most of them were not considered respectable for families to patronize. So the interval between the viewings could stretch to be as long as two to three months, maybe more if the film decided to celebrate a 100 days run.
Sister went to Patna to study medicine and came back on a vacation with a picture of Rajesh Khanna hidden in one of her text books. She shared it with the rest of us, away from mother’s eagle eyes. The capital of Bihar had many more theatres and the girls in her hostel had turned into ‘fans’ after watching Aradhana.
He played a double role in that one, the father and son. There was little to distinguish one character from the other. There were no nuances in the interpretation of the two. He crinkled his eyes just the same while singing songs in both the avatars. But sister told us that he was awesome. In a manner of speaking that is. I don’t think the word awesome had found its way into the dictionary in that era. As the oldest, she set the trends at home and the rest of us followed blindly. Because she told us she was a fan, the rest of us turned into fans too. All of us except one of my brothers, that is. He wanted to build muscles like Dharmendra and did not want to be distracted by the limp wristed antics of Khanna. We felt let down by the betrayal.
Memory is an unreliable ally. However looking back, it does seem the man who had turned into a phenomenon in the film industry caused the first major rift among the five of us siblings. But we were fortunate in comparison. There were other families we knew of, with young girls, who decided to get married to Khanna’s picture. He was the first Indian actor to generate mass hysteria. There had been other rakes before him like Dev Anand who blinked more furiously than Khanna could ever manage. But no one had the kind of impact the superstar wielded on the women of India.
Khanna unshackled the urban Indian woman and taught her she had the same right to lust as her male counterpart. What reality denied her, she could access in her dreams when Rajesh Khanna serenaded her by a bonfire and turned her pregnant.
I think this was Khanna’s biggest contribution to Indian cinema. I don’t think he planned to be a feminist icon. If one goes by what film journalists have to say, he was quite a cad. Dumping his live-in girlfriend of many years to marry someone who was in her teens. But despite all the tales of his meanness, Khanna prevailed in the national consciousness like no one else did. He even caused the heartbreak of the meanest scribe of his times.
Maybe we lived in simpler times. If an actor had to hold the attention of the audience for the entire duration of a three hour movie, he had to exude charisma. Otherwise he had to graduate graciously to be a character artist like Balraj Sahni. Acting chops were secondary. Cute mannerisms ruled. And Khanna came armed with a boxful of them. He chose them at will, tilting his head when he wanted to, shaking his waist whenever the fancy caught him, admonishing the women around him for falling prey to tears.
They say Anand was his best performance. I am not so sure. It was all Khanna even in that one. We didn’t feel for the character, we felt for the actor. When Anand died, it made us sad to think Khanna is mortal too. That accounted for our tears, our pain when the movie ended, with his voice teasing from a recorder. Not having Rajesh Khanna in our lives meant we could no longer have romance in our lives. That’s how it feels even today.
Now that he is really dead, will we ever have romance in what remains of our lives?