It is hard to believe that Rajesh Khanna is no more. The news gave me a jolt when I first saw it on TV. It was so unexpected and seemed so unreal that it saddened me more than I would have imagined. It felt as if Rajesh Khanna with his departure from the world has also taken a part of my dreamy childhood with him.
Rajesh Khanna. The name still has a magical ring to it, even after all these years. The square features, the twinkling smile, the disarming charm, the romantic voice – every one of these characteristics were personified by Rajesh Khanna on the silver screen to such perfection that, even today, it is impossible to think of him as a man separate from the characters he portrayed. There never has been, and perhaps never will be a taller icon of romanticism in Bollywood and Indian cinema. Rajesh Khanna is one of my earliest memories, and someone I had begun to love and admire long before I even began to understand the language of movies.
My mind floated back to those carefree days when we – my brother and I – were half-grown kids and we labored at work in the hope of sweet rewards. The work consisted only of studying and going to school, and the rewards – comic books, playing with neighboring kids, going on an outing, eating out, and on extra-special occasions, going to a movie. Movies for us meant only War movies, Cowboy Westerns and Hindi movies featuring Rajesh Khanna. Among all the heroes of the various films we watched, the image of Rajesh Khanna towers above the rest, and reminiscences of scenes from his movies are the among our sweetest memories. For us, Rajesh Khanna had that aura of a super-hero akin to the superheroes of our comic books. We often compared him to The Phantom, our favorite comic-book hero, and many a debate as to who would emerge the winner in a Rajesh Khanna-Phantom fight, would invariably end with the conclusion that it would be a draw. Rajesh Khanna was, for us, no less than a superhero, and he fed all the puerile fancies in our minds as he must have done in the minds of so many others like us. There were no private TV channels, no TV promos of films. We only got to know of a Rajesh Khanna movie through the cinema section in the daily newspaper, or the posters on the walls in the street. We would scour the newspaper every Friday for new movies starring Rajesh Khanna. Whenever the name of Rajesh Khanna was discovered in any of the casts, the clamor to go to the movie would begin, and would not end until the movie was seen. The movie itself carried little meaning for us until Rajesh Khanna made his entry, and every scene that did not feature him was considered waste material. We used to go to the theatre to see Rajesh Khanna and only Rajesh Khanna, and the way he posed, the way he dressed, the way he fought the villains, and the way he danced to those fantastic songs. For us, all the songs portrayed by Rajesh Khanna were sung by him, and nobody could ever make us believe anything to the contrary.
As we grew up, the aura of Rajesh Khanna in our minds did not fade in the least, but was further enhanced, as we came to know that there was much more to the man than the chiseled features, the heavenly smile and the golden voice. The tremendous acting skills that he displayed in memorable films like Anand, Safar, Namak Haram, Agar Tum Na Hote, Kati Patang and his intense portrayals of the various characters made it impossible to believe that his true self was any different from the characters he played. He was used to being flamboyant and lavish in real life but the roles of the common man that he portrayed in films like Anand, Namak Haram, Bawarchi, Aavishkar and Aan Milo Sajana are models of perfection in acting till this day.
With the rise of Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna’s aura and dominance came under stress, but we were among those die-hard Rajesh Khanna fans, who would not acknowledge Amitabh’s growing ascendancy, but looked upon him as an upstart and an usurper instead. However, as time passed, we could not but love Amitabh as well, although he never could take Rajesh Khanna’s place in our hearts. Rajesh Khanna’s fans, and Rajesh Khanna himself perhaps, had to accept the fact that India was transiting from the age of romanticism into the age of realism and struggle, and that Amitabh had asserted himself as the most apt personification of the common man’s smoldering anger and frustration. In fact, Rajesh Khanna himself was modest enough to comment on Amitabh’s fiery performance in Namak Haram, that “India’s new superstar has arrived”. But the truth behind the magnificent stories of India’s two greatest stars is that they symbolized the Indian psyche of two different eras, although they existed side by side, and were born in the same year. Rajesh Khanna was the supreme romantic, the king of the romantic age, while Amitabh symbolized the anger of the common man.
Rajesh Khanna’s reign in Bollywood lasted a mere four years, although he continued to act well after his prime, but the kind of effect he had upon the minds of the masses had to be seen to be believed, and will perhaps never be equaled. For many people like me, Rajesh Khanna is an inextricable part our childhood, an infallible idol, just like the famous comic-book heroes, who can do no wrong, and can never be defeated. Just like The Phantom, who lives on and on, Rajesh Khanna to me will always be what The Phantom is - The Man Who Cannot Die.