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Rajesh Khanna was the Shah Rukh, Tom Cruise and Cary Grant of my generation

By Aseem Chhabra
July 20, 2012 12:54 IST
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The man lived a life so grand, touched and entertained millions. He defined my early teenage years and in some ways who I am today. For that I will always be grateful to him, says Aseem Chhabra.

In 1969 I went to see Shakti Samanta's Aradhana with an aunt visiting from Bombay. I was super excited since my mother had a strict rule of ten or less films a year. Aradhana with its very catchy songs -- especially Roop Tera Mastana and its for-adults-only forbidden tone, was already a huge hit. And Rajesh Khanna was the toast of the Hindi film industry -- young, handsome, quite unlike the actors who came before him, and already on the verge of becoming a superstar.

We got tickets for the noon show, but by the time we reached Rivoli Theatre in Delhi's Connaught Place, the film had already started. I remember walking in the dark theater. There was Sharmila Tagore in a tiny train pretending to read an Alistair MacLean novel, while Rajesh Khanna in a jacket, green turtleneck and a Nepali hat, was nearly falling off a jeep, singing in Kishore Kumar's voice Mere Sapno Ki Rani Kab Aayegi Tu.

I was in heaven, although we still had not found our seats.

The next few events happened very quickly. An usher saw us, and objected to the presence of a child (that would be me) in the theatre. It was a noon show, government schools were still open and kids were not allowed to watch films at that time.

My aunt tried to argue that I attended a public school and my vacation had already started, but the usher was strict. We were escorted out of the theatre. I was heartbroken, more so because I could still hear the song play behind me.

Two decades later I finally watched Aradhana on a VHS tape in Boston. By then my man crush on Khanna was long over. He had evolved into an uninteresting actor, having lost his youthful charm and he had not aged gracefully.

The songs of Aradhana held the magic (as they still do if I watch them on YouTube), but the film appeared dated, packed with melodrama and cliches. I never got to enjoy one of Khanna's biggest hits, his first definite celebrated film.

I did see my favourite star once. A few years after the Aradhana incident my family and I were in Bombay, visiting the same aunt. Another relative arranged for us to go see a film shoot. We landed at a studio and were told that Khanna and Tagore were on the set of Yash Chopra's Daag. We were escorted inside and I saw Khanna pass by. I remember his hair was long.

But that moment was very brief. Suddenly someone walked over to us and said that Khanna had objected to the presence of outsiders (that would be me and my family) on the set and we had to leave.

I was once again heartbroken and it is still a wonder how I remained a loyal fan of his for at least another half a decade. I saw his last good films during that period -- Daag, Avishkaar, Aap Ki Kasam, Anurodh and Hrishikesh Mukherjee's terrific Namak Haraam.

Khanna was the Shah Rukh Khan, the Tom Cruise and the Cary Grant of my generation, the brightest of the stars that lit up my teenage years. But his star dropped as fast as it rose in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

I never got a chance to meet him or interview him. But I would have liked to ask him what did it take for him to become the ultimate romantic hero of that era, to be loved and admired equally by men and women? And how was he able to deliver so many significant hit films in such a short span, always with his winning smile and slightly tilted head -- Anand, Safar, Kati Patang, Aan Milo Sajna, Haathi Mere Saathi, Do Raaste, Amar Prem, Dushman and more?

Why did he lose his sense of self after becoming such a big star? Was it his personal life, or the politics where he did not seem to belong, or was it the film industry that would not give him roles to match his charisma? And what was it with the henna-coloured hair? What was the statement he was making?

But those answers are not important anymore. The man lived a life so grand, touched and entertained millions. He defined my early teenage years and in some ways who I am today. For that I will always be grateful to him.

On Tuesday I woke up in New York City to read about Khanna's death. I was sad, although I had expected the news, given his deteriorating health. Like many of his fans, I went to YouTube, searching for his hit songs. The music, lyrics and voices belong to others, but those songs will always represent what we best remember of Khanna.

I watched the black and white masterpiece Woh Shaam Kuch Ajeeb Thi from Khamoshi. In the song Khanna is wearing a white or beige-coloured knitted turtleneck sweater. I remember I had my mother knit me an identical sweater after we saw the film and I would walk the streets of Delhi in winters wearing that sweater, with a little bit of Rajesh Khanna's spirit in me. It was a good life.

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Aseem Chhabra