BENGALURU: Yasser Usman’s biography, Rajesh Khanna, The Untold Story Of India’s First Superstar (Penguin) reminds me of the Motown gala in 1983, when Michael Jackson at the peak of his powers debuted the moonwalk. Throughout the performance, he was in a zone, not really aware of how many people were dancing in the aisles, screaming in disbelief when he glided backwards across the floor. It was when the song was done that he appeared to emerge from a haze. This zone when inhabited by artists, athletes and actors takes them to peaks we can only imagine but once they scale those peaks... that is when they must pause. And remember that a body of work is not just a series of highs. It is about work finally. A peak leaves the best of climbers breathless and it is a rocky place. And a dangerous one whether you are an Elvis. Or MJ. Or Rajesh Khanna because as Salim Khan opines in the book, success has destroyed far more people than failure. Because when it gives too much, in Khanna’s case, an unrepeated string of hits and then begins to retreat, you can either reinvent yourself, negotiate new paths, accept failure gracefully or be thrown off the mountains you had climbed, screaming and flailing all the way down. Khanna like many actors before and after him had begun to believe in the mythology of his success. He had begun to confuse his reality with the hyper reality of adulation and to believe in the industry’s belief of, “oopar Aaka, neeche Kaka (God above, Kaka below). Those stories of women using the dust of his car as sindoor, marrying his photograph, decking up to see his films as if they were going on a date with him, the actor carrying a suitcase full of money, turning a sea-facing bungalow into a landmark with fans gathered to catch a glimpse of him?
These stories are not imagined by hacks. They really did unfold in real time. As did that surreal episode when more than 50,000 people gathered at a venue in Bengaluru and you could hear them all breathe in unison for one man who cried that day because he felt like God. Like Javed Akhtar recalled, “He was like Caesar. It was crazy!’’
Mahesh Bhatt is also quoted in the book as saying that Khanna was like Bahadur Shah Zafar who even without a kingdom behaved like a king.
The book is basically a summary of the rise and fall of a man who was destiny’s favoured child and so spoilt by her that a single flop, a lost election, a girlfriend who refused to treat him like a superstar were enough to throw him off balance. Yes, it is all there. A 10-year-old Dimple Kapadia waiting outside his home with muddy shoes wistfully and then one day entering Ashirwad as his child bride. Anju Mahendru, his modern, outspoken girlfriend of many years, who he punished by making sure that his wedding procession went past the very bungalow he had once gifted her. His late night binges with cronies. His belief that regardless of what film he signed, it would run.
The ominous signs that success was not going to last forever. When his favoured columnist Devyani Chaubal told him after a screening of Anand, “Don’t work with that lambu again. Teri chutti kar dega.” Or Jaya Bachchan telling him on the sets of Bawarchi, disgusted by his arrogant comments about Bachchan, “Ek din tum dekhna... woh kahan hoga aur tum kahan hoge.’’ Or his insistence that the climax of Namak Haram be rewritten so that he could die and walk away with the sympathy of the audience and not Bachchan. His mistreatment of producers and directors.
That surreal moment of supreme arrogance when he asked his subordinates just who he should marry, “Hun tussi decide karo..Dimple ya Anju? Main bathroom jaa ke aata hoon.”
His petty jealousies. Most of what Usman has put together is via archived interviews of the star and others who worked with him or had shared a relationship, be it personal or professional.
He has also spoken at length to Salim Khan, the man who wrote with Javed Akhtar some of the biggest hits of Khanna’s career and then unwittingly penned his downfall by scripting Zanjeer. There are interviews with people who managed his career and life, with journalists and of a friend or two but none of Khanna’s family members agreed to share personal details.
So the book is a collation of information that is part filmlore, part a cautionary tale with occasional pieces of rare trivia like how after sensing the presence of another woman in his life, Dimple scribbled a goodbye on Khanna’s hotel room mirror with her lipstick.
And how the other woman, Tina Munim, bid him farewell too a few years later but not before gifting him meticulously wrapped copies of 20 of his best films. Or how in the twilight years, he one day called Anju and healed the past though he could not change it. And how when cancer struck after years of heavy drinking, it was Dimple and his daughters who came back to Ashirwad to nurse him and took him for one last memorable holiday to Goa before he passed away in a hospital where Anju and Dimple often stood together along with the rest of his family, watching over him.
Khanna had a thing for full circles. And life did come full circle in that room and in Bengaluru where he shot for his last commercial, the same city that had once made him feel like a God and where he now returned as a mortal. And consummate performer that he was, he knew all about perfect timing because when he said, Time up ho gaya, pack up,’’ neither life nor death could argue with him.