The rise of Jatin Khanna, better known as Rajesh Khanna, Bollywood’s first superstar who commanded a colossal female fan following, reflected the socio-political changes simmering in India of his time, according to his biographer, Gautam Chintamani, whose book is the starting point for Nikhil Dwivedi’s just-announced biopic.
The 1962 Sino-Indian War, said the author of ‘Dark Star: The Loneliness Of Being Rajesh Khanna’, led to the questioning of the Nehruvian worldview and his version of socialism, and for the first time since Independence, the vote share of the Indian National Congress dipped in the third general election. The rise of the actor mirrored the growing sentiment against the status quo.
In a conversation, Chintamani shared anecdotes from the actor’s life, demystified the enigma that Rajesh Khanna was and spoke about the subsequent dethroning of the actor by Amitabh Bachchan, who continues to be very much a part of India’s showbiz story.
Explaining why he chose Rajesh Khanna as the subject of his book, Chintamani said: “If you think of filmstars or cultural icons such as Rajesh Khanna, then there are very few people whose life warrants to be told like a story. For me, he’s someone who captured the zeitgeist, redefined it and left such a big impression that for generations, film actors have followed that template. That’s what got me interested in Rajesh Khanna.”
Despite his success, the superstar never meddled with the scripts or the director’s vision. “He never forced filmmakers to change their scripts for the purpose of accommodating his stardom,” Chintamani said. “He was a very confident actor.”
Talking about the skills of the superstar, Chintamani underlined two of them. One was the actor’s way around with silences and the other was how he blended seamlessly with the staging, blocking and overall arrangement of a scene.
“An actor’s prowess also comes across in his silences,” Chintamani said, adding: “And if you see some of the best Rajesh Khanna films, he is a part of the whole mise en scene, where he may not have dialogues at times, but his presence is so powerful that you get an idea of what a confident actor he is.”
For all his superstardom, Khanna couldn’t escape a dramatic reversal of fortunes. Khanna had a falling out with the screenwriter duo Salim-Javed, who, just like Khanna, changed the rules of the game (in terms of writing) and played a huge part in the creation of Amitabh Bachchan as a subsequent superstar.
Chintamani explained: “The writing on the wall became clear with the arrival of Amitabh Bachchan as the angry young man in 1973 and the falling out Mr Khanna had with screenwriters Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar combined somewhere. It was very clear that Rajesh Khanna’s romantic films would no longer be the mainstay of the industry. The emergence of Amitabh Bachchan, along with the popularity of Rishi Kapoor as a young hero, all happened at the same time.”
Chintama added: “Between 1973 and 1975 there were films such as ‘Aap Ki Kasam’ and ‘Roti’, which were very big hits, but post 1975, with the success of ‘Deewar’ and ‘Sholay’, the entire scenario changed.”
It is not that Rajesh Khanna did not keep in touch with the changing times. What changed was how the audience perceived him. And it coincided with the rise of a new and brighter star. Bollywood’s first superstar soon found himself being sucked into a black hole.
“He did try to shift gears and keep up with the times, but he was so good in what he did as a romantic hero or a dramatic star that it was difficult for people in the industry to imagine him doing action films. If you see the transition between 1975 and 1980, it was a very difficult phase for Rajesh Khanna,” Chintamani pointed out.
The author concluded by talking about the man behind the superstar. “He was very close to his daughters and he counted that as one of his greatest achievements,” Chintamani recalled. “Although my book doesn’t look at Rajesh Khanna as the family man because it doesn’t focus a lot on that, he was very fond of his grandchildren and children.”