There is no disputing the fact that Rajesh Khanna was a cultural icon. His contribution to the world of movies defines that specific period of Indian Cinema that belonged to innocence and romance. He kept the fairy tale of enduring love and the triumph of goodness alive till the angry young man, Amitabh Bachchan, tore that narrative to shreds with Salim-Javed’s Deewar and Zanjeer.
‘And then one day, the flowers stopped coming …. They used to come in truckloads. My entire bungalow would be converted into a garden. There wouldn’t be an inch that wasn’t filled with flowers. The entire house became a perfumed garden! And then, one birthday, there was nothing. Not one bouquet. Nothing,’ said Rajesh Khanna to me unflinchingly, looking at that painful moment with an almost masochistic half smile on his face. ‘That was the day I realised that the best years of my life were behind me. There wasn’t going to be a second innings. I will never be Rajesh Khanna again.’
I had run into Rajesh Khanna on a flight from Patna to Mumbai. He looked like a King who was without his Kingdom. But even in that mournful state, he had this air of splendour about him.
I was moved by the strength and audacity with which Rajesh Khanna spoke. After all, here was the man whom I had seen at the pinnacle of his glory. The year was 1970, and I had started my career as a production hand with Raj Khosla’s iconic film Do Raaste, and which worked as a springboard to his superstardom. I remember being privy to a conversation at the Golden Jubilee of Do Raaste, in the early hours of a breaking dawn, at the Sun-n-Sand Hotel in Juhu, Mumbai, where seniors like Anand Bakshi, Laxmikant and Raj Khosla still sat down and drank and we menials attended to their needs, and played bartenders. The greatest showman India has ever seen, Raj Kapoor, who had just had the debacle of Mera Naam Joker, was in a melancholic mood, and I overheard him wooing Rajesh Khanna to star in his forthcoming film, thereby, averting his landslide into the abyss of oblivion. ‘Don’t punish me for my stardom Sir, please’, Rajesh told Raj Kapoor. ‘The manner in which you are talking to me, demeans me. I can’t have greats like you speaking to me like this. Order me and I will play the role of an extra in your film,’ he said.
Such was the stardom of Rajesh Khanna. When he walked into that party, I was serving whisky to the he-man Dharmendra, who had just started working in one of our forthcoming films, Mera Gaon, Mera Desh. Suddenly, Rajesh entered the room and the whole room gravitated in his direction, leaving Dharamji alone with me in that corner. Dharamji looked with admiration at that sight, as flash bulbs went off blindingly, and turning to me generously conceded, ‘Now that is what I call a superstar!’
But just as the story of the mythical Icarus is incomplete without his fall, the story of Rajesh Khanna does not end with him being a ‘superstar’. I am reminded of a day 2 years ago. I am at Kolkata airport waiting for my late night flig
ht. A good looking ground staffer walks up to me and asks me why we contemporary film makers don’t look after the icons of yesteryears. ‘It was very sad Sir, to see the great Rajesh Khanna, whom we have loved, sitting in the airport lounge, weeping inconsolably and totally drunk,’ he said to me. ‘Can’t you people make a system to protect your screen idols of the past? They need to be protected, Sir. They are our national treasures. Our memories are attached to them.’
Wisdom speaks through the lips of the common man always.
But little did this well-meaning young man know, that in showbiz, when the arc lights go off someone, they become invisible. No one sees them. This is the journey of the ‘alone to the alone’. Unless a star who is way past his prime re-invents himself, like some have done, they just fade away like dying meteors. This business chews you up and spits you out on the sidewalk. This is planet Bollywood after all. The ‘has beens’ are only pulled out from the dustbin of history and written about when they die.
The extensive media coverage of Rajesh Khanna’s death has kept journalists and camera crews occupied for more than 36 hours now. Alas, he had to die to be on every headline once again. If only there was a way to make him see that with his death he has once again touched the ‘glory’ which had abandoned him years ago. That bitch goddess called fame was once again seen hovering around his abode ‘Aashirwad’, which was once upon a time in the seventies, a kind of a shrine for the who’s who of the film industry.
There is no disputing the fact that Rajesh Khanna was a cultural icon. His contribution to the world of movies defines that specific period of Indian Cinema that belonged to innocence and romance. He kept the fairy tale of enduring love and the triumph of goodness alive till the angry young man, Amitabh Bachchan, tore that narrative to shreds with Salim-Javed’s Deewar and Zanjeer. Once that happened, it was beginning of the end of this superstar called Rajesh Khanna.
It is said that great people die twice. Once when their greatness dies; and secondly, when they physically die. And if the time gap between these two points is a long one, the icon suffers unimaginable anguish.
As a public figure, Rajesh Khanna’s slow and painful death forces us to deal with the passage of time and mortality – his and ours. I believe the enormity of the response to Rajesh Khanna is more about us. As someone else’s death always does, or at least should, it reminds us that we too are mortal. For people of my generation, the passing away of Rajesh Khanna is a profound loss, because our lives played out against the backdrop of his superstardom. And with his passing away, a bit of us dies. The human race creates heroes just so that they can insulate us from the terror of death. We do not like it when a hero like him, whose movies have enchanted us, is devoured by time. And with him dies our fairy tale dream of immortality.
The death of Rajesh Khanna has brought the dread of our own mortality into the centre stage of our consciousness. It will take a lot out of us to cope with this huge event. For me and most of us, living with the certainty of death is like trying to enjoy a car ride knowing that the road heads straight down off a cliff. Rajesh Khanna had kept us distracted for a while. But with his absence, the cliff seems to be coming closer.