In the 1970s, Rajesh Khanna achieved the kind of fame that no film star had ever experience before—or has since.
But then he saw it all vanish. They say superstardom destroyed him. But was it something else buried deep in his past?
In this riveting biography, award-winning journalist Yasser Usman examines Rajesh Khanna’s dramatic, colourful life in its entirety: from little-known facts about his childhood to the low-down on his relationship and rivalries, from his ambitious hopes to his deep-seated insecurities. What emerges is a tantalizingly written, meticulously researched chronicle of a fascinating and mercurial man—one who was both loved and feared by those closest to him. It is a story that encapsulates the glittering, seductive, cut-throat world of Bollywood at its best and its worst.
Yaseer Usman is a journalist by tribe, a television producer by creed and a film commentator by caste. He has been recipient of the prestigious Ramanath Goneka Award for excellence in journalism and the NT (News Television) Awards thrice over. A Master's in environmental science, he remembers more films and songs than classroom theories. He has worked for over a decade in leading TV news organizations and is currently with ABP News (formerly Star News). He is also a bilingual columnist for Dearcinema.com and News Today.
By early 1970, both Rajesh Khanna's career and mine gathered momentum, almost around the same time. When Javed Akhtar and I first met Rajesh Khanna, he was already proclaimed a superstar, and two of his films Aradhana and Do Raaste had been released. Then we worked together for the first time in G.P. Sippy's Andaz. It was during the production of this film that we got to know each other better. We would discuss several new story ideas with him, and we gradually became good friends. We were also neighbours in Bandra and used to meet almost daily. When his star was in the ascendant, I was a regular part of the gatherings at his bungalow, Aashirwad. I got to know him at close quarters. But even after years of getting to know him, he remained a particularly baffling man-not someone you could easily categorize as just good or bad. He was different from everyone.
In those days, the film industry was much smaller in size than it is today, but it was no less competitive. The industry was ruled by actors like Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand, Sharnmi Kapoor and Rajendra Kumar. With them around, it was no mean task for any new actor to find a niche and be recognized. Rajesh didn't just make a name for himself, but in a short span of time took his stardom to a new peak. From 1969-75, I saw his superstardom at dose quarters and I have no hesitation in stating that the heights of stardom he reached have never been achieved by any other star in the world of Hindi cinema. His success was exemplary.
Today, my son Salman Khan is a big star. Crowds duster daily in front of our house to catch a glimpse of him. People often come to me and say that they haven't seen such a craze for any star before this. But I tell these people that just a small distance away from here, on Carter Road, I have witnessed many such sights in front of Aashirwad. And I have never seen that kind of mass adulation for any other star after Rajesh Khanna.
Rajesh Khanna's fans ranged ftom six to sixty years of age. Girls were passionately excited about him. I too had a hand in writing his career's biggest hit film, Haatbi Mere Saathi. I remember I had gone with him for this film's shooting to Madras and many other locations in Tamil Nadu, where huge crowds would gather on hearing that Rajesh Khanna had arrived. This was a surprise because Hindi films weren't that popular there. The Tamil film industry itself was robustly successful and had its own big stars, but it was the charisma ofRajesh Khanna which could transcend the barrier of language. Remember, this was purely his charm and charisma at work, because it happened in an era when there was no television, no twenty-four-hour FM radio stations or big PR agencies.
But then in four or five years his career started to slide a bit. Just like there was no singular reason for his stupendous success, there wasn't anyone particular reason for the descent of his career graph. The tension in his family life, the behaviour of people in the industry towards him and, to an extent, the fact that he was not doing anything new ... there were many such reasons. But I feel that fate also played its part. And when his films started flopping, he didn't look within to evaluate what was going wrong and where. He started blaming others. He used to feel that there was some conspiracy against him.
You would be amazed to know that a superstar like him was an introvert, a shy person, and that often he wasn't even able to express himself properly. I was also witness to his great hospitality. He was a large-hearted man and loved hosting feasts. And if he felt someone was a good man, he would go all out to please him. I know that he gave houses to members of his staff and, on occasion, he was even known to gift cars. I recall he once gifted a car to his friend Narender Bedi. Then slowly his star faded, but I feel that in his heart he could never accept this.
Many books have been written on the big stars of the film industry. Most of these have been on stars who came before Rajesh Khanna, like Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor and Shammi Kapoor, or on star who followed Rajesh Khanna, like Amitabh Bachchan. In his time, Rajesh Khanna was a one-man industry, and one can say that it was not the films which were hits, it was Rajesh Khanna who was the biggest hit.
It is not easy to write a rigorously researched book on the life of an artist. Ai; time passes, the memories of those who knew the artist start fading. It is necessary to talk to them and glean glimpses of the artist's personality, which can then be documented. Why was someone the way he was? His acting, films and life-all are part of the history of cinema about which one needs to write.
Ai; part of his research for this book, Yasser Usman has talked to many such people who knew Rajesh Khanna up close and personal or had worked with him. Apart from this, the author has beautifully recreated his life and times through old interviews of the actor, his producers and directors, the experiences of his co-stars and the fruit of rigorous research. Yasser writes with such flair that it brings to life the story of Rajesh Khanna in a manner as gripping as one of his major films. The book conjures some memorable images of the superstar-in some, Rajesh can be seen blinking his eyes in his own characteristic way and £lashing his beautiful smile; in others, one sees him as a star of a later era, struggling with anonymity and loneliness.
We often forget when we talk of film stars or public figures that they are also mere human beings who also make mistakes, face failure and are scared of losing their successful run professionally, like everyone else. This book talks about Rajesh Khanna's superstardom and his talents as an actor, but it also delves beneath the surface to talk of both his good qualities as well as his weaknesses as a human being. Overall, the writer has been able to bring out the many dimensions of Rajesh Khanna with great finesse. Lots of people claim to know him. Nobody really knew Rajesh Khanna, but this book comes the closest to understanding him.
Often, books or articles written about the real lives of famous personalities either praise them to the hilt or are deeply critical of them, and so they end up becoming unidimensional. But Yasser's book is different. He writes with a lot of empathy for his subject and substantiates his facts with thorough research, all the while writing with great panache. The result is a deeply engaging and balanced account of Rajesh Khanna's life. Especially towards the end, the way in which Yasser examines the factors that shaped Rajesh Khanna's personality clearly shows his command over language as well as his rigorous training as a journalist.
I had never imagined that if one unravelled a person's life so many layers would emerge, and these layers give so many dimensions to one's personality. When writing a film script, I used to pay special attention to these things while creating new characters, but when I read this book I feel that, really, truth can be stranger than fiction. A person whom I knew as a living, vibrant being now appears to me through a different prism, and I can see new facets of his life in this book.
I am sure that as you read this book you will smile at some places, while your eyes will be moist with tears at others. In a sense the experience will be similar to the one you used to have when you watched a very successful Rajesh Khanna film. This book has tried to bring alive an era of the Hindi film industry to which even I have been a witness. I believe that this book is an important document of writing on cinema, which will, in times to come, become part of film history. I congratulate the author, Yasser Usman, for his tremendous effort.
I was in Mumbai at the time. Working with the national news channel ABP News (formerly Star News), I was shooting for a special show in Kamalistan Studios (also called Kamal Amrohi Studios) in Mumbai on 18 July 2012, when I got a call informing me that Rajesh Khanna had passed away. Everyone was talking about it. Facebook and Twitter were abuzz with the news. In any case, the media had been constantly reporting on his terminal illness for several weeks by then, so the news of his death did not come as a total surprise. But the longer I thought about it, the more dispirited I felt. I suppose the news of a death-anyone's death- is always a bitter reminder of human mortality. And ironically, Rajesh Khanna was a movie legend who had been immortalized on celluloid. He was India's first superstar. But unfortunately, though his star burned bright, his success was short-lived.
I must admit I wasn't a huge fan of Rajesh Khanna. Sure, I loved him in films like Anand, Aradhana and Namak Haraam, where I'd always been floored by his innate charm and essential honesty. And of course, I knew about his superstardom and the stories about the mass hysteria he generate~-girls pledging their love to him in letters written in blood; boys striving to imitate his hairstyle, mannerisms and gait; crowds who waited for hours to catch the merest glimpse of him, after which they screamed and wept for joy. But all this seemed remote to me, growing up as I did in the 1980s.
That evening, before the shoot got over, I received a call from our group editor, Shazi Zaman. Our channel was producing some special shows on the death of Rajesh Khanna, and he wanted me to take a closer look at the forgotten superstar's last few years and interview some people close to him for the same. Thus started my journey to unravel the enigma that was Rajesh Khanna.
Early next morning, 19 July 2012, I was sitting at the ABP News guest house in Vile Parle, watching the coverage as all the news channels got ready to cover Rajesh Khanna's funeral procession. On an impulse, I decided to be a part of it.
The procession seemed to be a massive affair, a ceremony befitting a king. The fact that it was raining only enhanced the sense of tragedy, as though the heavens were sharing in the grief of the crowds who followed the funeral procession. Mumbai had cleared its roads to make way for the superstar's final journey. As 1 walked shoulder to shoulder with his many fans, their sorrow acutely sharpened in the rain, I couldn't help but wonder how the city must have treated Rajesh Khanna in the early days.
I was struck by how many people in the procession did not seem to be a part of the film industry. They seemed to be lost in the memories of a bygone era-a time when they were young and very much in love; an era when Rajesh Khanna gave words and expression to that love in his own inimitable way. On that day, the final passing of their hero perhaps made them feel more keenly-that, like him, their youth would never return.
I felt like saying a final goodbye to him,' said sixty-four-year- old Surjeet Singh Chaabra, an NRI from Vancouver, when I tried to speak with the people around me. 1 asked Surjeet if he had known the superstar personally, and he replied, smiling, 'Oh yes! 1 spent a lifetime with him through his films and songs. I was struggling in my life in the '70s, and he was a balm for everything sad happening in my life.'
1 thought this was a bit too melodramatic and mushy, but as I spoke to more and more people, I found that many of them were equally emotional or sentimental in their responses.
A lady from Bengal claimed she was his biggest fan. She added, 'You will not be able to understand what he meant to me. Now times have changed. But back then, going for a Rajesh Khanna film was like going on a date with him! No matter whom he romanced on screen, I always felt that I was the one he was really in love with!'
Yes, I could not relate to her point of view, especially since I had never been witness to the zeitgeist of Rajesh Khanna's popularity in the 1970s. But, from the frenzy I personally witnessed that day at the funeral procession, it was clear that Rajesh Khanna was a giant in terms of the sheer magnitude of his fandom. This intense devotion from his fans made me all the more curious. What charm did this man possess that no one has matched before or since? What was it that made him such a phenomenal success? And how did he come to lose it all, spending the last years of his life in relative obscurity? What had transpired in the journey from superstar to forgotten star, a quirk of destiny that only his death could revoke?
Honestly speaking, Rajesh Khanna had almost been a long- running joke for the people of my generation. Movie folklore was dominated by many stories of his eccentricity, his temper tantrums, his seemingly absurd refusal to accept that his heyday was over as well as the inevitable comparisons to the mega-star Amitabh Bachchan. In fact, it was often said in jest that Rajesh Khanna's biggest problem in life was that he wasn't Amitabh Bachchan. However, Khanna himself claimed to be the' reference point' for Amitabh Bachchan. Many said Rajesh Khanna could not handle his stardom while others said he couldn't handle failure. For many, he was the incandescent star who did epic films like Amar Prem, Anand, Avtaar... and for others, he was the ageing actor who did small-time television roles or some ridiculous films like Wafaa and Jaana. Some hailed him as the epitome of charm, others of arrogance. Some called him a man of humour, others of insecure spite. Contradictions, contradictions, contradictions. But what was Rajesh Khanna really about?
One could even see this sort of polarized opinion in the glowing tributes that poured in for more than two weeks after his death, saturating all forms of media-radio, print, television and even the Internet. While a good deal of it was all-out worship, some of it, if read closely, was dripping with sarcasm.
So as I set out to understand who Rajesh Khanna truly was- sifting between facts and opinions, gossip and myths-I realized that there would be no easy, clear-cut answers. What I discovered was a very intriguing individual: a man of great contrasts; a man who experienced both epic success and immense failure; a man of great talent and deep insecurities; a man determined to fight for his place in the sun; a man who ultimately distanced those closest to him. A star who was only too human.
I spoke with numerous people who had been part of Rajesh Khanna's dramatic life and career-some who had worked with him, some who had been close to him during certain phases of his life, and some who had extensively interviewed him as journalists. My inquisitiveness about him mostly drew apprehension from the people I spoke to. They always questioned my intentions. 'What exactly are you writing about him?' was the most common question thrown at me. People were curious about whether I was seeking to exalt Kaka (the name used to affectionately refer to Rajesh Khanna by those close to him) or denigrate him-it was as if they had not considered the existence of a third scenario: a balanced portrait of a complex and fascinating man.
Secondly, I found that most people do not like to talk ill of the dead. This is especially true for the Indian society. Hence, some important people who had worked with him or knew him closely just gave long interviews in which they diplomatically stated, in different ways, that Rajesh Khanna was a great man ... a wonderful actor. When pressed further, they would say, Ab toh Kaka chale gaye ... ab kya bolna?' [Kaka is gone now ... So what's left to say?] Or else they would request that I leave them alone. I tried wherever possible to speak to those people who were instrumental in his life. I even tried reaching out to his wife, Dimple Kapadia, but she remained unavailable whenever contacted. Such times obviously were disheartening for me. I am convinced that the testimony of these people would have resulted in a richer, more nuanced account of this important piece of cinematic history.
But luckily, there were always others who willingly opened the door for me into a different era, and it was a wonderful experience to see the Bollywood of the '60s and '70s come alive through their memories and insights. Nostalgia has its own infectious charm, and their reminiscences served as a time machine that transported me into another age: back when Bollywood was swinging to the hip, new tunes of R.D. Burman; when the sombre cinema of the 1950s had paved the way for movies that revelled in mischievous yet wholesome romance; when film-making was driven by passion and fandom was sincere; when actors were not closely guarded by public relations firms, and movie stars were synonymous with national heroes. This does not mean that those times did not have their own share of turbulence and strife, and I was constantly aware of this fact during my research.
A fighter to the end, Rajesh Khanna once said in an interview, 'I would love to live my entire life again and experience the same successes, same failures, same women and also the same heartbreaks.' I had once briefly met him long ago, but in no way was that meeting substantial enough for me to draw inferences about his life and personality. I strongly feel that this was, in a way, an advantage, because it allowed me to write about him without any preconceived notions. In my effort to fully understand the enigma that was Rajesh Khanna, I have attempted to tackle all the divergent facts and opinions about him in a manner that, I hope, pieces together a balanced, coherent story in all its three- dimensional complexity. In telling his story, I have also retained the original names of cities like Bombay (now Mumbai), Madras (now Chennai) and Calcutta (now Kolkata) as they were called at the time.
If one looks beyond his legion of fans around the country, reminiscing about the superstar, perhaps reverberating in the air is a story that had been left unfinished ... untold.
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