India’s first superstar. The most handsome actor to grace the film screen. The greatest romantic hero.
These are some of the epithets being seen in headlines and news stories around the world describing film actor Rajesh Khanna who passed away Wednesday in Mumbai at the age of 69. Khanna’s passing has not only touched those who remember a certain era, but also many who did not live during that time, such as myself.
The love affair NRI families have with Indian cinema is no secret. Akin to a handwritten letter from across the miles informing us of the latest happenings in India, movies have served as a tie between the country my grandparents left and the country where I was born.
While watching Hindi films at home the adults would often add to the viewing experience by recalling what time was like when the film had released, or mentioning pieces from the hero or heroines real life. While there were many actors whose work we enjoyed, family members would speak of Rajesh Khanna with a special enthusiasm and fondness. Stories of ‘the craze’ were always shared during a viewing of his films and how women of all ages were absolutely mad for him. Unbelievable tales were recounted: females writing love letters in blood, girls running away from home in hopes of marrying the actor, or even women taking dirt from his car tires and applying it like sindoor (vermillion). Despite living in the US, my family was certain of Khanna’s popularity as news clips in film reels revealed footage of girls marrying his photograph, and would give those residing outside India proof of his massive celebrity.
The tone and content of tales involving Khanna would interestingly change depending on when the film in question was made. For the films released during the height of his popularity from the late 60s to early 70s, the comments were complimentary and enforced the image of Khanna as the biggest phenomenon seen in Indian cinema. But for the films from the 80s, including acclaimed and popular films such as ‘Souten’, ‘Amrit’ and ‘Aakhir Kyon’, the comments were about his marriage to a teenager, the live-in relationship with his girlfriend, and his tragic fall from once being the brightest star in the industry.
The same sentiments have been echoed many times by film magazines and news articles about Rajesh Khanna, detailing how he fell victim to his own fame and thought himself invincible. But how is a nation’s first superstar supposed to know how to prepare himself for unimaginable celebrity? How could a man who delivered an incredible fifteen back-to back hit films not consider himself superhuman? And how can a person who was mobbed at every turn not feel lost when the audience no longer has interest in him? No one before Khanna had reached such heights and there was no cautionary tale to evoke. It is when gods fall from grace do they become a lesson for mortals at the cusp of greatness, and the mythology of Rajesh Khanna continues to serve as an example to film stars climbing new heights.
Yet this is not necessarily how he is remembered. Recently while speaking with my mother and asking her about Khanna, I heard a woman of three adult children transform into that giddy thirteen-year-old girl who saw the actor for the first time in ‘Aradhana’ in a Colorado theater. She laughed as she remembered putting a postcard of his image, which she got from an aunty’s film magazine, under her pillow at night as she dreamed of marrying him one day. When I asked her what comes to mind upon the mention of Rajesh Khanna she mentioned handsome, romantic, charismatic and in detail described the way he would smile. Khanna’s rich films are part of the memories my family has of building a new life in America. They worked hard to establish themselves while the melodious songs from his films played in the background.
My mother hasn’t been the only one in recent days to recall the magic he created once upon a time. The incredible outpouring from around the world and by people of all ages proves Rajesh Khanna is more than a legend and much greater than a cautionary tale. He evokes a certain, special time that was made sweeter by the romance, charm and tenderness of his films. And such qualities make for evergreen cinema, and for an immortal artist.