By Firdaus Ali
We seek our Gods in different places.
I found my celluloid God at age four, staring at me with twinkling eyes and a magical smile from the colourful billboards of Bombay. His boyishly charming face made my heart aflutter. And, the tiny multitude of flutters turned into a die-hard crush that lasted four decades and more.
I remember often being chided by cousins at family dinners about being a die-hard Rajesh Khanna “phanka.” Like all his female fans, I often dreamed of growing up and seeking my dream screen idol some day. Avidly jealous of all the heroines who sang and danced with him, I never forgot to tune into their interviews to find out if they would name the magical potion that would make Khanna mine forever.
I remember sticking colourful images from film glossies on my closet door and often whispering secretly to him about all the trials and tribulations I was facing as a little girl and all the boys who had unsuccessfully tried to take his place during my adolescent and teenaged years. Relatives and friends, realizing my frenzied craze for the star, would add to my collection of Khanna Memorabilia.
For many years my sun rose and set with his name. I, somehow, never found the courage to marry one of his photos, as many before me had done. Films that had villains beating him to pulp, were nowhere on my to-see list. Anand and Safar that ended in his death, left me want to immediately immortalize the star.
As years passed on — like Newton’s law of gravity, Khanna’s fame and popularity, which had once soared higher than the clouds, now plummeted to an all-time low. While, friends can co-fans changed loyalties and took to other “Gods” I remained faithful to mine, secretly praying for a miracle that would make the star hot and happening once again. A small part of me even believed that his failure would help our imaginary romance come to life!
He was one of the reasons I took to film journalism. And, my dream of meeting the star in person became a reality as I set up an interview with him for a local newspaper in Mumbai. With trembling knees and my voice coming out in hoarse whispers, I sat next to the king of romance asking him how it felt to be the first ever super star of India.
Khanna being the sensitive human being he was, realized my nervousness and put me at immediate ease, speaking about the mystical times of mid-sixties to mid-seventies that made him the envy of many men and the darling of many women.
He smiled modestly, as I recalled the times when newspapers published reports of female fans marrying his photograph, slashing their wrists at seeing him and writing him letters of love in their own blood. He preferred to keep his private life his own, choosing to speak of his films and the reality of life, instead.
Born Jatin Khanna on December 29, 1942 in Amritsar, Punjab – he was nicknamed Kaka by the Bollywood industry. Winning three Filmfare awards for best actor, he was among the few actors of his time to be nominated for the prestigious award 14 times. He also received a Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005 for his incredible contribution to Indian cinema.
Fans were reported to mob him at streets and public spaces, chanting his name for hours on end with girls covering his MG Sports car (and other cars) with lipstick marks. BBC later made a film on him titled Bombay Superstar in 1974 and a textbook prescribed by Bombay University contained an essay, “The Charisma of Rajesh Khanna.”
Khanna, who started off as a stage actor, was the first superstar to grace the doors of the Indian film industry. He gave a record of 35 golden jubilee hits in a span of less than 10 years. Khanna made his film debut in 1966 with the film Aakhri Khat, directed by Chetan Anand. Few may know that the film entered the Oscars for Best Film in a foreign language at the 40th Oscar Academy Awards in 1967.
Since then he appeared in over 160 films, of which he was the male lead in 128. Celluloid hits like Aradhana, Kati Patang, Anand, Do Raaste, Safar and Amar Prem among others saw his popularity rise swiftly. There were Anand pressure cookers and fans and his admirers could not enough of this rising star.
Off-beat films like Raaz, Doli and Ittefaq brought him initial fame. In one interview he revealed that his inspirations include Dilip Kumar’s intensity and dedication, Raj Kapoor’s spontaneity, Dev Anand’s style and Shammi Kapoor’s rhythm. Indeed an incredible mix for success.
Co-star Mumtaz one said that as a newcomer, she would get noticed and people would ask her for an autograph in her early years, only because of their failed attempts at meeting with the super star. Sharmila Tagore, another co-star revealed that she had never seen anything quite like the craze there was for Khanna. He always needed police protection due to girls lining up by the hundreds outside film studios, hotel room and his home.
But, like all stars that rise to fall one day – Khanna’s fame and fortune soon left him and as a fading actor and politician, he later avoided being in the public eye — living a reclusive lifestyle in his Bandra home “Aashirwad” until the very end.
All through his roller-coaster film journey, I remained a devoted fan, praising him for good films like Avataar and admonishing him when he rendered mediocre to poor performances. For many years, I continued to talk to the invisible star, who had graced my closet and heart for many years.
Many fans like me were horrified to see Khanna looking gaunt and frail at a recent film award event. While, his looks clearly showed that there was something terribly wrong with his health, he still had the same penchant for Urdu poetry, the same lilt in his voice as he recited a few lines of shayari that rekindled my old, magical romance like only he could.
Out came the flooding memories from my childhood — right from the very first time he first looked at me from that billboard with the same irresistible twinkle in his eyes. Time seemed to have frozen and the forty-odd years seemed to have caved in and vanished altogether.
The king of romance may have died but his legacy will forever live on!
My heart is living proof!