Remembering Rajesh Khanna

By Dr Mohammad Taqi
Many say Jitin Arora was born in Amritsar, India,
while some others claim he may have been born in Burewala in what is now
Pakistan, but most agree that as Rajesh Khanna, he lived in the hearts of
millions from Kabul to Kolkata and beyond. I say most, as even when the prince
of romance is mourned everywhere Hindi and Urdu are understood, some like a
Pakistani television anchor Talat Hussain opted to deride him quite viciously.
In his show dated July 19, 2012, which can be found at, Mr
Hussain disparages the media coverage of Rajesh Khanna’s demise on the pretext
of evaluating its news value. The anchor’s barely concealed xenophobia is most
unfortunate but let it not take away from what Kaka, as Rajesh was
affectionately called, meant to literally hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis.

Pakistani governments had opted to first levy heavy
taxes on Indian films to curb imports and then banned them after the 1965 war.
But it is still hard to erect barriers to popular culture, especially where the
historical and linguistic bonds unite people despite the state ideology or
political dispensation. When Doordarshan India started its telecast to Lahore,
it attracted not just the locals but also many others who could manage to travel
to Lahore. On the other hand, Peshawar’s lifeline to the Indian cinema turned
out to be the metropolitan Kabul of the 1960s and 1970s. Theaters like the
Temurshahi, Kabul Nandareh, Zainab Nandareh and Behzad screened new Bombay
movies in Kabul. And as one Peshawari elder put it, they “descended upon Kabul
to watch Aradhana in hordes”. Indeed one need not look beyond that 1969 release
to grasp the magic of Rajesh Khanna.
The chemistry between Rajesh and his leading lady,
Sharmila Tagore in Aradhana, and thereafter, was almost palpable. Add to it
Kishore Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar’s playback rendition to Sachin Dev ‘S D’
Burman’s music and there was no looking back for Rajesh. The beat, rhythm and
use of orchestra to produce an exceedingly contemporary melody — as against S
D’s semi-classical and folk-based tunes — in one song at least, also had the
unmistakable fingerprint of S D’s son Rahul Dev Burman, whose name appeared as
the assistant music director. Kishore Kumar and RD Burman became to Rajesh what
Mukesh and Shankar-Jai Kishan were to the great Raj Kapoor. The trio did some 32
movies together. Rajesh was to later say to the documentary filmmaker, Jack
Pizzey, about Kishore, “This is one of those playback singers...I mean
hear the playback singer and you feel it is me who is singing...more or
less...lots of similarity between his voice and my voice...only thing is that he
can sing, I can’t!”
About that song, Nilanjana Bhattacharjya notes in a
2009 study on the Hindi film song sequence in the periodical Asian Music: “Roop
Tera Mastana (Your beauty intoxicates me) from Aradhana, for example, unfolds in
a secluded log cabin in Kashmir. The lyrics to the song annotate the rising
level of passion between the couple amidst their awareness that despite having
eloped, they approach dangerous territory. The lyrics effectively rule out any
need for dialogue as the song sequence depicts a young man and young woman drawn
increasingly closer before cutting to an unrelated scene the next morning.”
Hindi film music and lip-syncing are virtually
synonymous but this song sequence perhaps is unique in that Rajesh matched the
range of Kishore’s voice only through the panoply of his expression without
moving his lips. And the male protagonist Arun’s body language and gaze fixed on
Vandana, the female lead, delivered, and evoked, every emotion it could. Perhaps
inspired by this and similar song sequences, Jack Pizzey had to say, “Kissing
may be forbidden on the Indian screen but Rajesh has found more ways of implying
love than the Kama Sutra has of making it!”
Little wonder that the movie, which on the face of it
was a maternal melodrama, practically broke every taboo on sensuality in the
Indian cinema and established Rajesh Khanna as the unmistakable prince of
passion. He essayed the double role of a father and son, both dapper air force
officers, in a movie that condemns a woman’s victimization at one level and at
another more sublime one, punishes her for a ‘lapse of judgment’. Unlike the
majority of Hindi movies, the real protagonist of the movie is Vandana and no
surprise that Sharmila Tagore’s powerful performance landed her the Filmfare
Award for best actress that year. Rajesh, however, came out of Aradhana as the
heartthrob, whose mention forever would entail anecdotes about how girls would
slap kisses on his car, write letters to him in their blood or marry his
The Rajesh Khanna phenomenon was actually the
subcontinental middle class finding its first original celebrity post-1947.
Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand were past their prime in more ways than
one. The Nehruvian ethos of the former two especially was ready to be replaced
by something more compatible with the increasingly urbanizing masses that were
craving, yet not willing, to let go of the tradition. In Pakistan, Rajesh was
not quite the idol of the anglicized upper crust and obviously not of the
ideologically anchored-types. That is in fact true for the entire commercial
Hindi cinema. But Rajesh’s appeal was in the muhallahs (small neighborhoods) and
streets of the large and small towns where the arrival of the videocassette
recorder (VCR) in 1980s provided the young and old an opportunity to cram
through his entire filmography. There was hardly a neighborhood in any town
where the local ‘music center’ would not have at least his first 13
blockbusters. In a way, arrival in the Pakistani market via the VCR gave Rajesh
certain immunity against the box office as the barometer of success and forever
archived his image as the quintessential flamboyant romantic.
Rajesh Khanna was a Bollywood icon when there was no
Bollywood, Bombay had not become the puritanical Mumbai yet, and Pakistan, of
course, had not produced its own version of Bal Thackerays. The news value of
anything and how it should be slotted is certainly debatable but let there be no
doubt that to Pakistanis too, Rajesh Khanna’s death means the passing of an era.
He will always be remembered as The Superstar — the one for whom the term was