Decoding a Phenomenon

A review of Rajesh Khanna – The untold story of India’s first superstar by Yasser Usman
In a scene from Kati Patang, Rajesh Khanna says, on a rather philosophical and romantic note, to a gathering of pretty girls – Kavita banayi nahi jaati, ban jaati hai, apne aap…. Jab kisi ki sundata, ankhon se hokar mann mein sama jaati hai. Sundarta aisi jo apni nazuk dor se kisi ko apne aur kheech ke sab kuch bhula deti hai, madhosh kar deti hai… ek khoobsurat shaam ki tarah. (Poetry is not written. It just happens when a piece of beauty enters your heart through your eyes. Beauty such, which draws you towards it and makes you forget everything, much like a beautiful evening).

He breaks into Yeh shaam mastani, listening to which an entire generation of women believed that Rajesh Khanna was singing for them. There is a similarity between Khanna’s explanation of poetry and his own phenomenon, for no one really knew what drew millions towards him. His superstardom was like the twilight; it existed for a short while but then, his story could never be repeated by any superstar after him. Something similar to Yeh Shaam mastani, madhosh kiye jaaye!
Each woman in the audience believed that every blink of his eyes and every nod of his head was only for her. Girls of the 1970s did not simply go for a Rajesh Khanna movie to see it; they went on a date with him with every movie outing of theirs.

Aradhana, the blockbuster which changed his fortunes,
establishing him as the King of Romance

You get many such details in Yasser Usman’s biography of Rajesh Khanna, whose meteoric rise was not only unprecedented, but also quite undecipherable. It’s quite tricky for a writer to completely fathom the zenith of a superstar’s appeal if he has not grown up watching him. Which is why Yasser begins his book saying, “To Rajesh Khanna. Wish I had witnessed your superstardom.” This book helps a reader experience an era, when films didn’t run, Rajesh Khanna did.

Yasser begins his journey with the end – the funeral procession of Rajesh Khanna. The sea of humanity that swarmed the streets of Mumbai made him wonder what it must have been like, when Kaka, as Rajesh Khanna was known to all, was at the peak of his superstardom. The author admits that he wasn’t a big fan of Khanna himself, which actually lends an element of objectivity to the book. At a time when biographies usually end up as hagiographies, with a customary innocuous negative remark here and there, Yasser’s account of Rajesh Khanna brings out the superstar’s failings with the same candour with which it brings his dizzying heights of success.  

Rajesh Khanna’s fans returned albeit, in his death
The writer has based his research on a plethora of stories and interviews that appeared in the 1970s and 80s in film magazines and journals, such as Star & Style, Stardust and Filmfare. He wasn’t able to talk to actress Dimple Kapadia. Hence her side of the story is put together like a jigsaw puzzle from the interviews she gave in the 1980s to various magazines after she walked out of Khanna’s home. He has spoken to Khanna’s contemporaries as well, but we do not know who they were, for they chose to remain anonymous. But a credible chunk of the story has come from script writer Salim Khan, who has also written the foreword for the book.

Khanna’s comic outing with Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Bawarchi
The book reads almost like a movie. Yasser ends the chapters at crucial turning points and the book is well-structured. A couple of editing errors, which are very few in number, could have been avoided. There is an account of Khanna’s life before he became a superstar. While his personal life gets a lot of mention, Yasser also analyses the success of his landmark films, such as Anand, Bawarchi and Amar Prem. His rivalry with Amitabh Bachchan and his descent are elaborately written.

Does this book help a reader understand the phenomenon of Rajesh Khanna, the superstar? To a great extent it does. You can almost feel the hysteria around Khanna and will agree (even if you are not his fan) that no superstar could ever achieve the zenith that Rajesh Khanna did. But does it explain the psyche of Jatin Khanna, the human being? To some extent. In parts, the writer is as puzzled as the people who lived around Khanna at that time, for Rajesh Khanna seldom revealed what was in his mind to anyone. The most beautifully written chapters of the book describe the fame that came to Khanna after the unexpected blockbuster Aradhana, his meeting with Anju Mahendroo, many years after their split and the last years of his life, when Rajesh Khanna fought hard to win back his fans. And the fans did return, though with his death.
It’s quite strange that while many books have been written on Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Amitabh Bachchan and even Shah Rukh Khan, Hindi cinema’s biggest superstar was left untouched by many biographers. This one could very well be a benchmark for a biography on Rajesh Khanna.

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