The first Hindi film I saw which I also happened to follow and recall was Aradhana. It was in a large group of uncles and aunts and cousins that we went to watch the film in a modest theatre in Behala of Kolkata. I think that Bulimashi got married and she being the youngest of her eight siblings, the large family of my mother’s decided to celebrate the moolah obtained from her husband as the gatekeeping money to the hilt by watching the new release called Aradhana with Sharmila Tagore in it. This was the film that also catapulted Rajesh Khanna to superstardom. The fall out of this film on us children was that my cousins and I could mimic the film, scene by scene and dialogue by dialogue. In such acts of imitation, we would identify with the heroine. Rajesh Khanna was not the principle point of view.
But for the world around me, Dola Aunty, my private tutor, Geeta, our young maid servant, Saloni Pandey, my class friend were all ready to swoon by Rajesh Khanna. Dola Aunty bought piles of magazines those carried stories of the star; she would conspire to teach children of those mothers who subscribed to a large number of film magazines. Geeta lived from one Rajesh Khanna film to the other while Saloni Pandey showed an amazing academic talent in referencing enormous material on the star. Soon we were inundated by Rajesh Khanna look alikes; the tailor, the barber, the vegetable vendor started sporting the Rajesh look. Baidyanath, my grandfather’s driver from Chaibasa tried to have a wave of hair over his forehead notwithstanding the “tiki” at the back of his skull. He was the repository of the lyrics of the songs of Rajesh Khanna. Even my young cousins proudly wore “Guru shirts”, shirts more like kurtas and designed after the ones that Rajesh Khanna wore in the film Kati Patang.
Frankly, I remained out of all this. Rajesh Khanna invoked femininity. I was not a pursuant of such sentiments. So when Amitabh Bachchan came, I took to him like fish to water. I also revelled that he and not Rajesh Khanna was the superstar. But even as I worked on Amitabh Bachchan, I could never quite get over the fact that it was Rajesh Khanna who brought forth the first ever idea of a superstar. I heard these stories that Geeta collected; she was illiterate and the media not being what it is today, I have no idea where she got her facts from. We made fun of her when she would tell us that women wore sindur on their partings with Rajesh Khanna’s photograph in front of them. Later I read from published sources that these stories were true. Rajesh Khanna was God and Geeta was the devotee; his exploits had a way of reaching her, I don’t quite know how. In one of his interviews Amitabh said that he has seen women take the dust from the tyres of the car that carried Rajesh Khanna and rub that on their heads. Such was the madness that Rajesh Khanna commanded. The more I worked on Amitabh Bachchan, the more uncomfortable I felt about not being able to analyse Rajesh Khanna well. After all, he was India’s first superstar and generated certain madness about him that no one but no one has ever been able to match.
Many decades later when I moved in Delhi’s Sarvapriya Vihar, Rajesh Khanna was my neighbour. There was a tiff with him once or twice over parking of cars and hence with much trepidation I used to often peep into his ground floor drawing room to see whether he had retired for the day. He often had curtains drawn open, would change into his night clothes and with his reading glasses on would handle high piles of files using the centre table as his writing desk while he sat on the floor. Those days he was in the Congress Party and had rented the flat in our locality. I was always struck by his single minded focus on the files; such attentiveness I have never witnessed in anyone I knew. This power of concentration struck me with an extraordinary amazement.
One day I sent him a note saying that I wanted to see him. In the note I said that I was sorry that I never made efforts to study him while I worked on my doctorate thesis on Amitabh Bachchan and if possible I wished to now start the process of unpacking his magical appeal. He granted me an appointment immediately. As I sat sipping Lopchu tea, Rajesh Khanna was very angry that when I was Amitabh’s house guest in Mumbai, the latter had misled me into believing that Rajesh never wanted to see me. How untrue all this is, he exclaimed. He believed that Amitabh had played really dirty politics with him especially manipulating Hrishikesh Mukherjee. Rajesh Khanna was also angry with Rishi Kapoor, who according to him was even more serpentine in crookedness. Clearly Rajesh Khanna was a person who had resentments. After he had spoken his mind and was more receptive to my presence, I asked him, where does Rajesh Khanna live now? Rajesh Khanna? He repeated; well Rajesh Khanna is a very big star, he told me, a larger than life figure, he overshadows everyone else on screen but I am Jatin Khanna yaar. It was this sentence alone that made me interested in Rajesh Khanna the person ever since.
Truly, as Jatin Khanna had said, Rajesh Khanna is a shadow; he lives nowhere. He is actually no one. He never was anything except an illumination. Very recently, Cine Durbaar arranged a memorial service for Shakti Samanta, the director who created the superstar called Rajesh Khanna. In the memorial service the director’s son gave us a snapshot of his father’s life. Shakti Samanta’s father was in the airforce and was martyred in the 1947 war. He came away with his young widowed mother to live among his relatives. In Aradhana, Rajesh Khanna too is an air force pilot who loses his life in a campaign and Sharmila Tagore is widowed pregnant with her dead husband’s child. Aradhana was Shakti Samanta’s story around his mother. The image of the young widow has featured also in Kati Patang and Rajesh Khanna is the angel who comes in to rescue this widow out of her loneliness. I had a distinct feeling that Rajesh Khanna was Shakti Samanta’s search of a lover for his young widowed mother. Rajesh is a saviour who comes in to breathe life and loveliness into women, ignored and isolated. No wonder then Rajesh Khanna is a fantasy for those who are hemmed inside homes, pincered inside spaces defined for them for incarceration into their fixed social roles with predefined expectations. He is an invitation for such souls to fly out, to float out, and to experience the openness of space and the lightness of air. This openness was his appeal; this lightness, his illumination.
Rajesh Khanna’s progenitor was Shakti Samanta, but the man who settled him in superstardom was Hrishikesh Mukherjee. In two films namely Anand and Bawarchi, Hrishikesh makes the final articulation of Rajesh Khanna’s spirit; the man who provides pleasure, the man who assures but he himself remains unnoticed and unseen. This is why the huge life giving force of Anand had to be concealed in his imminent death and he had to disappear into oblivion after he settles everything for the chaotic household in Bawarchi. Oblivion was Rajesh Khanna’s final destiny for the light giver cannot be seen; for in order to be seen one has to absorb light. Rajesh Khanna could never have been “around” in the way Amitabh Bachchan is. Principally such continued presence beyond the screen would have been contrary to Rajesh Khanna’s appeal.
The time that I met Rajesh Khanna Shah Rukh Khan’s Devdas was released. Rajesh told me that he wanted to watch the film. I offered to take him to take him to PVR’s Premier Class. He did not agree. He said that he wanted to whistle wildly at Madhuri Dixit and that was not possible in civilized society. He would not like to stay on in Aashirwaad because while his daughter really looked after him well, he would like to open the verandah door and stand in the rain and that would wet the carpets and cause inconvenience for everyone. He wanted to be just wild, melt into the nature, mingle into the light, and dissolve in the rain. He could not be among people with routine, with lives to lead and schedules to abide by.
I suddenly realized that Rajesh Khanna was also the person who created two other superstars, namely S.D.Burman and later R.D Burman and Kishore Kumar. Kishore Kumar wanted to expand; give me more space to move he would say; make me faster, carry me further, lift me higher. S.D would despair at Kishore because the scale had only seven notes. Then all of them found Rajesh Khanna, the body so rhythmic, one that had such lightness of being, such potential of dissolving into emptiness, just like S.D’s rhythms. In the opening song of Aradhana, Rajesh Khanna atop the jeep drives alongside the train singing in Kishore’s voice, Mere Saapnon Ki Raani, with Pancham’s mouth organ keeping the beat and as Rajesh sways almost like the thin breeze against the vast landscape and rolling hills, Kishore’s voice gets the broad movement that he has always looked for. Kishore’s voice leaves his body and embraces the world, moving at the speed of the train. Rajesh carries the voice, impersonates the spirit of the music and together with Kishore Kumar’s voice and S.D’s music weaves together the vastness of the landscape and the pace of the train. One wonders whether S.D.Burman and R.D.Burman or Kishore Kumar could have been what they were had Rajesh Khanna not lived on screen to embody the music. I sometimes feel that Rajesh Khanna was the personification of the song in the Hindi film; that song which is supralingual, comes into play where articulation must be transcended. No wonder it is difficult to talk about him but easy to sway in small pulses to the softer rhythms of music, just like his mannerisms were.
We left Sarvapriya Vihar to come away to our present locality. Rajesh Khanna also changed his flat to occupy the one adjacent to the one that had been ours. Our maid Tara continued to work with the new occupants of our flat. Rajesh Khanna would often stroll in the terrace right next to her. We used to be Tara’s confidantes; the last time we met Tara it seemed that Rajesh Khanna was her advisor in matters of daily interest.