Rajesh Khanna, the legendary filmstar of yesteryears, who left us for his heavenly abode on Wedneasday, would be pleased with the tribute offered to him by members of the Goa Legislative Assembly, where some MLAs actually tried to out-sing each other his popular hits. This was while discussing a condolence motion tabled to mourn the actor`s death. The mood was set in by former journalist and well known poet and dramatist BJP MLA Vishnu Wagh with the hit Nafrat ki duniya chhod kar, pyaar ki duniya mein, khush rehna mere yaar from the film Haathi Mere Saathi.
Wagh recalled the times, decades ago, when Khanna was bedridden with fever, women would actually hold a cold compress or run ice cubes over his forehead (in posters and photos). Admittedly, the craze for this man at his peak was virtually unparallel. He was the quintessential romantic hero —- “soft” unlike the present day heroes who are “action packed.” Perhaps, this was why women often sought the image of Khanna in the man in their life. This itself is a tribute to Khanna’s ability to connect.
His popularity went far beyond borders, so much so, that even fans in Pakistan paid tributes to the Bollywood actor, including Pakistan’s leading daily Dawn which had a separate section Zindagi kay safar mein: Remembering Rajesh Khanna.
He is perhaps the only star who featured in maximum number of songs, eulogizing the virtues of Zindagi or the futility of it. His evolution as a superstar was abetted by the voice of Kishore Kumar, the lilting music of Pancham aka R D Burman, and the directors of the likes of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Shakti Samanta, Yash Chopra, Dulal Guha etc. Such was his popularity, that in 1973 BBC had a documentary on him entitled `Bombay Superstar’.
That in seven years since his acting debut, he attracted the attention of BBC to emerge as a subject of a documentary, was indeed a tribute to the sway the man had on the Indian audience and the changes he introduced in the film industry. His Carter Road Bungalow, Aashirwad was one of the favorite spots for tourists, who waited outside to get a glimpse of his face.
Evidently, the actor was the phenomenon. Songs sung by Kishore Kumar was central to Khanna’s screen appeal, so much so that he claimed that if he was the body, then Kumar was the soul of the Rajesh persona.
The film star had brought in a new formula in Bollywood movies: Producers saw that his formula was a thumping success and therefore all roles, even scripts and music began to be scripted keeping his character in mind. The style of romance and rendering a song sequence —- almost everything was with the actor in mind. Following the 1969 hit `Aradhana’, Khanna had no looking back, so to say.
His scene on a Bullet with Hema Malini, while enacting the aria Zindagi ek safar hai suhana, in `Andaz’ was the perhaps the best publicity the Bullet motor cycle company could dream of. One is not quite certain whether this was the catalytic factor or not, but in his native stage Punjab, a young boy when he grows up still aspires to ride a Bullet!
Admittedly, Khanna has hardly played any negative role. In any case, he may have been a failure, if ever he tried to do so. He was cut out to be a classical hero, in the original mode of the Mumbai film industry, and he played that role effectively with astounding results. It was when cine-goers were tired of his romance formula, action scenes crept into the film industry.
In retrospect, the actor reflected a middleclass dream. He brought the age of romance with him, and those who watched his films dreamt to be like him — to such an extent that there were even efforts to serenade their beloved in the same style adopted by the actor on the silver screen. A museum of his memorabilia would be a fitting tribute to the country’s first hero.