It was a hot, humid evening sometime in the early 70s. I was a tiny little kid in our neighbour’s house, where my mother and about five or six other women from our building were fighting to see a dull, drab photograph of some actor published in a film magazine — that was the first time I had ever eyes on Rajesh Khanna.
That image of Khanna has remained etched in my mind right through the years, right through Amitabh Bachchan’s angry-young-man reign, right through the Shahrukh-Salman-Aamir phase, down to today’s generation of Ranbir Kapoor and company.
Superstars may have come and gone but no one, absolutely no one, ever came close to generating the kind of mass hysteria that Rajesh Khanna did in his heydeys.
The word superstar was first coined to describe him and as Amitabh Bachchan himself admitted, the title was literally owned by Khanna during that delirious phase.
Making his debut withAakhri Khat in 1969, Rajesh waltzed into the hearts and minds of the nation when he crooned Mere Sapnon ki Raani Kab Aayengi Tu (When will I meet the girl of my dreams) to a coy Sharmila Tagore in Aradhana.
He never looked back.
Hits flowed one after another in rapid succession (a record 15 movies including classics such as Aradhana, Amar Prem, Kati Patang, Safar, Anand and Namak Haram back to back) as the phenomenon burst on the Indian film scene like a supernova.
And such was his brilliance during that four-five year phase, that the songs, scenes, dialogues and movies have gone on to become part of movie folklore.
He captured the imagination of an entire nation like none other with those crinkled eyes and that dimpled smile. A tilt of his head was enough to send a million female hearts swoon, while his long hair, belt-over-shirt styles were aped by men of all ages.
It is said that at the peak of his career girls sent him letters written in their blood, mobbed him wherever he went and queued up in the thousands outside his house just to catch a glimpse of Babumoshai (gentleman in Bengali langauge, as he came to be known after the movie Anand (Joy) ).
Producers lined up outside his bungalow every day in the humble hope that the phenomenon would sign on the dotted line.
Film critic Monojit Lahiri recalls. “Girls married themselves to photographs of Rajesh Khanna, cutting their fingers and applying the blood as sindoor. Rajesh was King.”.
And King he was indeed for my mother, the women in our locality and the entire nation.
As I grew up, I managed to see most of his movies on TV, but his turn as the cancer-stricken man in Anand must definitely rank as one of the defining performances in Hindi cinema. Even today the movie can make grown men cry.
As we bid adieu to the first real superstar of Bollywood and as I prepare to shed a quiet tear in his memory, I can almost imagine Khanna tilting his head in that famous way and repeating the iconic dialogue from the movie Amar Prem: “Pushpa, I hate tears.”
Yes dear Khanna-saab, I will not shed any tears, but as you go onward to the other side, I would just like to thank you for the awesome movies, songs and evergreen memories you leave behind.