Kaka was not just India’s first real superstar. He was a God. Grown women would go berserk for one sight of him, crying, screaming, fainting, as they waited for days on end outside his bungalow in Bandra. Girls would marry his photo, carve his name on their arms, apply their blood on their foreheads as sindoor. I remember one issue of Filmfare had carried a photo of Rajesh Khanna’s car covered with lipstick marks. Tailors across Bombay made merry as they copied his famous Guru shirt, barbers would chuckle as they minted money from one customer after another demanding the Rajesh Khanna haircut, mimics thrived as they imitated his characteristic style, journalists would get violent trying to get one interview with him.
One smile from him, and women swooned. One light shake of his head, and the audience would bring down the theater whistling and yelling. A hint of a rumor that he was passing through a neighbourhood would have wild-eyed fans blocking traffic for the entire day. Through the early 1970’s, whenever clips of Kaka’s unexpected wedding with Dimple Kapadia were screened during the newsreel before the main movie, women in the audience burst into tears, and beat their heads in grief.
As a lad of fourteen, my friends and I once took BEST bus number 371, in the hope of seeing him at Aashirwad, his green bungalow at Carter Road, Bandra. There was a line of cars a kilometer long, a massive crowd of bleary-eyed fans waiting since the night before and hapless police constables trying to control the baying crowds. Rajesh Khanna was the first star in Indian cinema who needed police protection from his fans.
Rajesh Khanna’s story is not exactly one of rags-to-riches. Born to an affluent family, he had a comfortable lifestyle even in his struggling days. He would arrive at film shoots in an imported sports car. After he won a Filmfare talent contest in 1966, Khanna starred in Aakhri Khat, Raaz and Baharon ke sapne. None of these films had a major impact. And then in 1969, Rajesh Khanna starred in Aradhana, and shook the very foundations of Indian cinema. ‘Mere sapnon ki rani’, his entry song in the movie drove audiences into sheer frenzy. The front-benchers in the audience would easily recover their ticket money by collecting the coins thrown at the screen!
After Aradhana, Kaka broke one cinematic record after another. The decade of the 1970’s was Rajesh Khanna all the way. He delivered fifteen silver jubilee hits in a row, a record that stands till today. And mind you, in those days, silver jubilee meant 25 weeks at the box-office, not 25 days as it is now!
In his prime, Rajesh Khanna was unmatched in his charm and style. Each mannerism, every gesture, his style of dialog delivery, everything he wore, became trendsetters. To Kaka goes the credit of inventing the Guru shirt, a unique short kurta with a belt worn on the kurta. He first presented this style in ‘Haathi mere saathi’, in 1971, and overnight, the Guru shirt became the unofficial national costume of India.
Few people know the secret behind the Guru shirt. The story is that the Guru shirt was invented to cover Kaka’s broad hips! Kaka, like many other heroes of his generation, never saw the inside of a gym. A muscle-bound stud he was not. But who needed muscles anyway? The man’s sheer charisma made muscles unnecessary. All that his fans could see and feel, was his magnetism, and his remarkable ability to command a nation’s undivided attention, without even trying.
But Khanna was not about charm and romance alone. His talent was awesome, as he proved by excelling in difficult roles, in unconventional movies like Ittefaq, Khamoshi, Amar Prem and Red Rose, to name just a few.
If I was asked to select his best work, I would without hesitation choose his lead role in ‘Anand’. Khanna won his second Filmfare award as best actor in 1972, for his work in this moving tale about a terminal cancer patient who believes in living life to the full, right upto the moment of death.
What an irony it is, that as I write these words, Rajesh Khanna is fighting for his life, allegedly due to the same ailment he so convincingly portrayed in Anand.
Here’s to you, Kaka. Don’t let go. Tujhko chalna hoga!