4.1.15

Rajesh Khanna - the lonely, dark star

Dark Star - The Loneliness of being Rajesh Khanna by Gautam Chintamani narrates the complex and intriguing story that was the life of Rajesh Khanna. Arguably Bollywood's first superstar, his life is almost straight out of his own movies. An actor who lived on the adulation of millions and then became a nobody, Rajesh Khanna pretty much dropped out of everyone's sight in the noughts till the disastrous Wafaa. A revival of sorts has happened with everything Rajesh Khanna in the past few years after his death and this book is a pretty good addition to that.

Chintamani does a grand job of detailing the early, halcyon years of Rajesh Khanna. It's a remarkable testament to the actor's abilities - and his luck - that most of his memorable hits came in a really short period ( 1969-73). The book traces this history tying together diverse conversations on his discovery , his explosive success, his meteoric rise, his downfall in the age of the angry young man, his days in movie obscurity and his last hurrah. Well written and fairly light on the reader, the book treats its subject with sensitivity and in some places even borderline awe. The book was written after Khanna's death, so we miss out on a direct narrative; but a supporting cast of Bollywood giants from the 60s and 70s and numerous movie magazine articles ensure a tale that you will not forget that easily.

It is perhaps easy to dismiss his acting chops and movie selection, since Khanna is mostly remembered for his mannerisms and being the vehicle for Kishore Kumar's voice. Rajesh Khanna was making movies on pre-marital sex, broken marriages, union conflicts, among a diverse array of uncommon movie topics, before they were hip. His movies appealed to every age group and if you look beyond the music and hand waves, you'll find intriguing stories backing movies like Ittefaq, Safar, Anand and Aradhana.The explosion of anger that Amitabh Bachchan ushered into Bollywood brought abrupt closure on such films till parallel cinema and it is easy to forget what a great actor Rajesh Khanna could be.

A common strand in the book is the tragic music of Rajesh Khanna's movies. Chintamani uses their lyrics imaginatively to chart the course of Khanna's life and times. They seem to almost mirror the insecurities and the road to his eventual downfall. In a fairly poignant chapter, the author traces the path of bad choices, poor decisions and worse attitude in the actor's life using the lyrics of Zindagi ke Safar Main from 1974's Aap Ki Kasam. Hindsight is 20-20 as they say and it feels like if the actor had paid more attention to Anand Bakshi's poetry, he might have lived the life of a superstar a little longer.

The sections on his personal life are straight out of a gossip rag if you are into that kind of reading (I am - guilty secret). His on-off and never quite ended affair with Anju Mahendru, his very abruptly ended tryst with Tina Munim and his age-defying marriage to Dimple will live as long as the cult of Bollywood survives. The author didn't get a lot of access to the main players, but he has made a good attempt at re-painting the drunken binges, the tantrums ( Khanna intrigued to hold a grand party at the same time as a awards show where he was denied an award), the food fests and the largess of Khanna. His inability to match Amitabh's acting curve probably played the biggest part in his dethroning, but the minor intrigues of his "durbar", his pettiness and the narcissism make for fascinating reading.

As part of a generation that came to age with the cable revolution, Rajesh Khanna has always been part of my life. Growing up to reruns of Bawarchi, Safar, Roti, Namak Haram and of course, the wonderful Anand, I spent my teenage years always one channel change away from him. I've watched him cry, love, laugh and - more often than not - die with a smile on his lips. He epitomized the tragic hero - forever caught in a cycle of destruction and death. Still, I was never part of the generation for whom he was a super star. I don't think I've ever thought much about his role in Bollywood's history or his place in the pantheon of herodom. I mostly just knew him for the songs and the (by my time) archaic and comical expressions and handwaving. That gap has been filled thanks to this quite interesting book.

Verdict - buy it, read it. 4 stars.