Rajesh Khanna: Alone In The Multitude
Although one had been a great admirer of his abundant talent, there was something about him that was foreboding about the actor who had come to redefine romance on the Hindi film screen in the late 1960s. One shied away from getting any close even after he had lost his unprecedented super stardom. Actually, one had seen it coming watching him perform on the sets of P N Arora’s Dil Daulat Duniya in 1972, the year he gave six flops as against two successes, Bawarchi and Anurag. Regardless of continuity he insisted on facing the camera in an orange silk lungi kurta instead of the skyblue shirt and trousers. This was a clear indication that the actor’s, who had brilliantly combined the finest nuances of Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand and developed into a unique style, days were numbered because unlike his other contemporaries, or even his seniors, the heady wine of stardom had completely numbed his senses.
Rajesh Khanna had become arrogant, prompted by a sense of invincibility inculcated in him by a fleet of chamchas had led to his late arrival on the sets, summary cancellation of schedules, calling unscheduled pack-up (the exclusive prerogative of the director) unmindful of the losses he was putting his producers which ultimately led to a situation that meant he was UNWANTED. Sadly, the few foolhardy producers who cast him in the handful of films between 2006 and 2010 (Janna…Let’s Fall in Love with old flame Zeenat Aman; Waffa: A Deadly Love Story opposite Laila Khan lately in news because of her brutal murder; Kaash Mere Hote, and Do Dilon Ke Khel Mein) were again treated to the same old bitter medicine. Whenever one met him in those days, he would again sing the good old song of a comeback, and having lately signed eight new films.
There is no denying the fact that he raised a silent furrow through Bollywood troubled water like no one before or after him. He lived life on his own terms and dared to fend where others feared to tread, he carried the proverbial halo around his balding head. He did everything in style, romanced the way no one else could, wooed his women with generous gifts and lethal charm. They were attracted to him like bees to honey, as the phrase goes, both inside and outside the industry. But he did it all with grace, and whenever one teased him about some of his heroines a wicked smile will surface on his lips, saying Jab aradhana ki hai tau dushman ka bandhan bhi nibhana padega. The references are latent. But he would be guarded while talking about women. He had a certain look which made the other person shrink in his chair.
The only Hindi film star who moved around in an Impala even during his struggling days, Rajesh Khanna was like a spoilt brat, but he never boasted about his affairs, liaisons and romances, both within and outside the film industry, never spoke in derogatory terms even about his detractors. A great host, who took pride in serving meals to his guests with homemade food with his own hands. In an industry obsessed with Johnny Walker Black Label, he patronized Red Label. In later years, he seldom invited anyone in his earthly abode in the suburban Bandra promenade that once saw teenage girls waiting outside for hours to just have a glimpse of the actor who not only redefined romance but also stardom, a bungalow he had bought of Jubilee (Rajendra) Kumar for a paltry Rs 5 lakh, reportedly worth 150 crores today.
Once we started meeting regularly in the mid-eighties, we formed a mutual admiration twosome. There would be days when he would suddenly call up, my landlady old time actor Purnima who would pick up the phone, the instrument was in the living room, grandmother to Emraan Hashmi, experiencing a thrill run up her aging spine, excitedly calling me over, one would barely have time to react, the booming voice: “8’O clock sharp, third floor through the lift only, lest you forget. One is reasonably certain he would have several regrets, several heartburns many frustrating moments but surprisingly, as is generally the practice, never voiced over drinks. He knew the columnist was close to his estranged wife, Dimple but he would never bring up the subject, or discourage one from interacting with her or associating with her, except if he wanted something to be conveyed as an order for her. He would always carry his last drink to the car during the drive back home, leaving you longing for more.
It was sometime in 1987 when he summoned this columnist, ordering one to tell Dimple he did not want to cast her in his new home production, Jai Shiv Shankar. “I am essaying the role of Arun Shourie, a daring journalist.” Shourie had then been in news for his scathing articles against the Rajiv Gandhi regime. When one confronted the lady with the curt message, a defiant Dimple stormed into his office, and took the better of him. The unreleased film had some torrid love scenes.
Fairly early during one’s interactions it became evident that the subject of women, alleged or otherwise liaisons would be taboo. He never allowed any one of them to enter the gates of his sanctum sanctorum, ‘Aashirwad’ after Dimple walked out of his life, he was dead against her working in films, but there was precious little he could do to stop her. Even during his romantic dalliance with Tina Munim (Ambani), he moved into her Versova bungalow, spending a fortune getting it redone to his taste.
He was always so full of himself and his bygone stardom to even ponder over personal or professional disappointments, except, maybe, once. Apparently, he had been Raj Kapoor’s original choice for Satyam Shivam Sundaram. “Raj-ji and I used to mull over the details of the role, and how would I essay the intricate role. I was very excited the thought of working with a director like Raj Kapoor would be any actor’s dream. But then one night Raj-ji came home, unannounced, carrying a bottle of Black Label, his face almost turned ashen. I asked him, sahibji what happened. With all the sadness in his eyes, in a defeated man’s voice he said: ‘The film maker in Raj Kapoor has lost out to Raj Kapoor the father (Rajkapoor’s sons were not getting along with Khanna).’ But it did not take me long to live out the shock, and pulling out a bottle of Red Label from the cellar, said: Koi baat nahin, saabji, bhool jaiiye. And pushing aside the Black Label said, aaeeye aaj laal label peete hai. You will not believe it, Raj-ji had tears in his eyes until he left ‘Aashirwad’ at four in the morning.” Years later Rishi Kapoor tried to right the wrong by casting him in his directorial venture, Aa Ab Laut Chalen, only to gulp the bitter pill of infamous Khanna tantrums, resulting in the cancellation of two schedules in the USA where the unit patiently awaited his non-arrival. A sadist trait was part of Rajesh Khanna persona, it was like Jackal and Hyde act. What Mr Khanna said or did was spontaneous, he wouldn’t even know the hurt his words had caused, though sensitivity was another of his hallmarks. He was a naïve politician at heart.
The dormant seed of political ambition got unwittingly sown when one became instrumental in bringing to the capital’s Press Club for a ‘Meet the Press’ programme. The euphoria he caused amongst the journalistic fraternity was unbelievable with the dailies headlining the visit as enthusiastically, as it has done in his death. As chance would have it circumstances forced the columnist to move back to Delhi in early 1991 only to get an unexpected early morning call from his suite in Ashoka Hotel detailing his previous night meeting with Rajiv Gandhi, and the announcement of his candidature against BJP supremo, L K Advani from the prestigious New Delhi constituency.
And thereby hangs another tale, gulping down gallons of Red Label over the next five years. One was often pulled out of drunken stupor by the wife because of a midnight call from the abhineta aspiring to be a neta because one had also become his reluctant word-supplier, or speech writer—an unwelcome assignment until he entered the portals of Parliament and a battery of new lackeys had replaced the good old Bollywood chamchas. It was also the rebirth of a rejuvenated Rajesh Khanna thrilled with the new role he would play, marginalized to the core, he started setting up his own kitchen cabinet both in his Linking Road Khar, Mumbai office, and the spacious bungalow in Lodhi Estate. The midnight calls almost ceased until another casual meeting in his office years later.
Now sporting spotless white khadi kurta- pyjama he was holding court one afternoon talking of his exploits in the political arena in the presence of a Bollywood delegation. Rajiv Gandhi had been assassinated, and tussle for successor between the Congress bigwigs had been going on. Seeing one enter, he said: “Come, come. I was telling them I am the only person who is not in the race for Prime Ministership because few can match the popularity that I have enjoyed.” This prompted me to say: “Khanna sahib, one’s ego should not be bigger than his balls.” It is doubtful either he or the others understood the implied, but they all joined him in his laughter—a rare gesture which was known to be fatal.
A saddened heart is unable to recall all those lovely moments spent together, more so during his sojourn in the capital, at times responding to midnight calls despite dulled senses from the soothing effects of Johnny Walker to which one had been addicted by then. Our last meeting was, perhaps, more than two years ago…after which there were only shortened bits on telephone with the promise to call back…that he never did. His ego never left him. For the past few months he had even stopped picking up the phone that once used to begin with ‘Haalo’ uttered so softly.
Goodbye, Khanna sahib… one went out last night to pick up a bottle of your favourite Johnny Walker Red Label, polished off more than half of it.