Remembering Rajesh Khanna: The Icarus of Bollywood

Remembering Rajesh Khanna: The Icarus of Bollywood

The late 1960s and early 70s in India was a turbulent time in many ways. Corruption and unemployment were ravaging the country and arousing anger in the youth. The zeitgeist of the time was quickly changing from a passive acceptance to an active resistance against all that rotten and corrupted. Mumbai, being the commercial hub of a vibrant state, was witnessing major changes and upheaval among Indian youth. However, Mumbai was also the city of million dreams- dreams fueled by the on-screen presence of heroes and their daring ambitions. Bollywood’s infectious appeal wasn’t certainly lost among the youth.

 But the rebel heroes, Shammi Kapoor or the trio of Dilip-Dev-Raj, were quickly becoming passé. The younger generation strived to see their middle-class alter-ego on-screen; someone who could portray their anguish and share their hardships. In came Rajesh Khanna, an actor of average built, average-height without any characteristic heroism, who quickly hypnotized the whole nation with his infectious charm. Avijit Ghosh writes (in his profile essay on Rajesh Khanna in Bollywood's Top 20 Superstars of Indian Cinema), “Maybe, he was the last gasp of innocence when India was getting angry by unemployment and price rise…”.  Perhaps, that was true. Rajesh Khanna’s ineffable on-screen simplicity was redolent of an earlier time- a time that was uncomplicated and perhaps more stable- without being oblivious to the present tumult that was brewing inside the hearts of the young generation. 

Read on Bollywood's Top 20: Superstars of Indian Cinema

It won’t be an exaggeration to say that Rajesh Khanna was in many aspects a one-man industry. His popularity ranged from the six to sixty, whose charm floored men and women alike, and who was a sensation from the North to the South. His gracious charm laced with a lulling smile swayed the hearts of the millions. Salim Khan, a close collaborator of Rajesh Khanna in his early years, recounts that huge crowds would cluster around him, even in the hinterlands of Tamil Nadu while shooting Haathi Mere Saathi (1971). This was surprising back then, because, for one, Tamil Nadu had a vibrant film industry with its own charismatic stars. On the other hand, the Hindi film industry didn’t have that much popularity there, at that time.  They did not have the impactful PR agencies bolstering the Bollywood agenda, or the twenty-four-hour radio, let alone television, to get people hooked to celebrity gossip. It was purely the charm and aura of Rajesh Khanna that drew swathes of people to gather around the filming locations.   

Born as Jatin Arora, on December 29, 1942, in Amritsar, Rajesh Khanna was raised by his uncle and aunt. Young Jatin used to frequent the INT Drama Company’s rehearsals, soaking up the creative ambience of the smoked-filled rooms where he learned from the performances of other actors. From lurking in the corner for months and playing bit parts in plays, he finally started participating in inter-college theater competitions and slowly learned the craft of acting. 

In one such performance of Andha Yug, the chief guest was so impressed with his performance, that he advised him to try in films, an advice he promptly took. It was his maternal uncle who advised to change his name from Jatin Arora to Rajesh Khanna, when the 23-year-old Jatin decided to become an actor. Later, after winning the All India Talent Contest in 1965, organized by United Artists of India, he landed his debut role in the 1966 film Aakhri Khat and Raaz (1967). 

Chetan Anand’s Aakhri Khat was a momentous film revered for the director’s avant-garde style. Narrating the story of the loss of innocence in the city of Bombay (now Mumbai), he cast a fifteen-month-old toddler. Rajesh Khanna played the role of a sculptor, Govind, and delivered an impressive performance that was unexpected from a newcomer. It was the raw emotion he portrayed without resorting to any gaudy theatrics and the refreshing charm of his elegant smile that drew the attention of other filmmakers and actors towards the newcomer. That very charm would go on to become the characteristic elan of Rajesh Khanna. In an interview, he said that Waheeda Rehman, impressed with his performance, recommended his name for Khamoshi (1969). 

Even though shooting for Raaz had begun earlier than Aakhri Khat, it was released later in 1967. Raaz, like many of the heroine-oriented musical films of that time, was a cheap thriller. But Rajesh Khanna, already having made an impression with his debut role, pinned his hopes on this for commercial success. However, like Aakhri Khat, it too tanked at the box office. To make matters worse, unlike Aakhri Khat, Raaz couldn’t win the hearts of the critics either. His next two films Baharon ke Sapne (1967)and Aurat (1967)met with the same dismal fate at the box office. 

However, despite four flops, fate was on his side, as he kept getting offers from other directors and producers.  It wasn’t until in 1969 that Rajesh Khanna tasted commercial success with Ittefaq (1969). Although being a low-budget thriller, Rajesh Khanna’s powerful acting was praised by the public and critics alike. 

In late 1968, he was called for the shoot of Aradhana (1969), helmed by the formidable Shakti Samanta. Aradhana, starring Sharmila Tagore, opened with a lukewarm response at first, proving the apprehensions of the producers right, that the audience might not accept a newcomer in a double role of father and son. But, as word of mouth spread, the film eventually became a blockbuster and garnered accolades that even the director or the producers didn’t imagine initially. The slight tilt of his head, the flamboyant avatar of a pilot, an effortless manner of delivering the sincerest of dialogues- it was his ‘aada’(mannerism), as a film journalist, Rakesh Rao, very eloquently put it- all worked like a charm among the audience. Days were drawing nearer when Rajesh Khanna would eventually become the beacon light for a generation to come. 

After that, it was a meteoric rise to success for Rajesh Khanna, who quickly became the heartthrob of the nation. His elegant smile, suave charm, and a poised gait made him the icon for the youth. His early success soon followed with Aan Milo Sajna (1970), Kati Patang (1970), and Haathi Mere Saathi (1971). At the peak of his career, he delivered 15 consecutive solo superhits, which earned him the epithet, ‘the phenomenon. 

Throughout his long career, he had donned many hats. It was his tragic but infectious smile as Anand, in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s eponymous film, that resonated with the audience most. Through sheer brilliance, he evoked a dying man’s stoic acceptance of the inevitable fate, smiling all the way through. It also earned him his second Filmfare Award in 1972. 

Remembering Rajesh Khanna: The Icarus of Bollywood

A still from Anand.  (Image Courtesy: Shemaroo)

Whereas, in Bawarchi (1972), he left the charm and aura, which became synonymous with him, to play a comic role in solving all the problems in a family. The film, with an interesting twist, in the end, was a major success at the box office. Namak Haraam (1973), another collaboration with Hrishikesh Mukherjee saw him opposite Amitabh Bachchan, once again. Rajesh Khanna’s impactful portrayal of a man, torn between his duty to his fellow mill workers and his love for his friend, cemented his legacy as one of the best actors in Indian cinema. During that time, he was working with the crème de la crème of the industry, be it directors like Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Shakti Samanta, or screenwriters like Salim-Javed or music composers like R.D.Burman or singers like Kishor Kumars- all of who were at their creative best. 

However, the super-stardom started taking a toll on his mental health too. The more maddening his work schedule became, the more he became nervous, agitated, and restless during shoots and the severer his drinking habits became. Mehfils, as he and his peers used to call them at his sea-facing bungalow, Ashirwad, was a way of unwinding for him after a hard day’s work. But, what started as a means of relaxation soon became a costly indulgence. Evening parties went on till late at night which obviously meant late arrival for the shooting on the next day. The vicious cycle continued throughout the 1970s.   

Rajesh Khanna enjoyed a God-like status among his fans and like a deity, he demanded unwavering allegiance. He wanted the who’s who of Bollywood to attend his durbars and mehfils on a regular basis. Slowly, he became trapped in the bubble of his superstardom, where even the most minimal criticism or disagreement was met with a severe reprimand and demeaning insults. Eventually, those mehfils, which once were used to be crowded with people like Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Shakti Samanta, Salil Chowdhury, R. D. Burman, Kishore Kumar, Yash Chopra, became a hotspot of mere sycophants and parasitic actors who buttressed the superstar’s ego for their own gains. Furthermore, his insecurity and possessiveness irked quite a few in showbiz. His fallout with major directors and script-writing duo Salim-Javed meant that he lost some great opportunities.

His superstardom coupled with glib praises from his obsequious acolytes made him believe that he could carry a film with a weak plotline on his shoulders. But, after a successful period that threw him to the top of everything that a star could hope for, came the rude shock of failure. Once again! Shehzada (1972), Joroo ka Ghulam (1972), Mere Jeevan Saathi (1972)all tanked at the box office. Though it was shocking for many, Rajesh Khanna was a firm believer in his fame and stardom.  So he tried salvaging his past glory for the success of his next venture Maalik (1972)It was a disaster in epic proportions, more so, because the film was solely marketed as a Rajesh Khanna starrer to pull the crowds. Although, it wasn’t the end of Rajesh Khanna’s stardom, it was surely a sign of the passing of his supremacy. His latter works in Yash Chopra’s Daag (1973), and Basu Bhattacharya’s Avishkaar (1974) though made a mark among the filmgoers, they failed to bring him back to the top of the fame that he once enjoyed. 

His fall from grace was as bewildering and harsh to witness as had his rise to superstardom been spectacular and fascinating to document. The fall from the top bruised Rajesh Khanna. The late 70s and 80s passed quietly for him. Even though he was very much active in Bollywood, the fame, the glamour was all for Amitabh Bachchan, the zeitgeist has changed and Rajesh Khanna failed to take notice of that. In the early 90s, he dabbled in politics and became a Congress MP in 1992. After 1996, he resigned from active politics and went back to acting. In the late 90s and early 2000s, Khanna appeared in four TV serials and some minor films. He cited lack of good roles was the major reason behind this. Honoring his legacy, he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by Filmfare in 2005. 

Remembering Rajesh Khanna: The Icarus of Bollywood

Rajesh Khanna (Image Courtesy: Indian Express)

In 2011, he was diagnosed with cancer and had been undergoing chemotherapy sessions since then. July 18, 2012, witnessed the demise of India’s first superstar. He was survived by his wife Dimple Kapadia, daughters Rinke Khanna, Twinkle Khanna, and son-in-law, Akshay Kumar. Mahesh Bhatt, in his obituary in Times of India, wrote, “But just as the story of the mythical Icarus is incomplete without his fall, the story of Rajesh Khanna does not end with him being a superstar.” Looking back at his days of superstardom and cascading fall towards oblivion, the comparison seems well justified. But, as Amitabh Bachchan’s character in Anand says, “Anand mara nahi… Anand marte nahi”, Rajesh Khanna, still remains a phenomenon, a mythical hero whose hubris brought his tragic downfall. 

Courtesy: 1. Yasser Usman: ‘Rajesh Khanna: The Untold Story of India’s First Superstar’ (2014)

Rajesh Khanna : The Untold Story of India's First Superstar


              2. Bhaichand Patel: 'Bollywood's Top 20 Superstars of Indian Cinema' (2016)


Author’s Biographical Note: Parnab Bhattacharya is a freelance writer, currently working as an intern at Explore Screen.

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