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Fire to Ashes, Star to Dust

The tragedy and triumph of Rajesh Khanna, India’s first superstar

Written by Dilip Bobb |
Updated: January 3, 2015 4:15:11 am
Rajesh Khanna, Dark side, Book review These days, the word “superstar” is used so freely it has lost any meaning,which is why a book on Khanna is perhaps a fitting memorial.

Book: Dark Star – The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna

Author: Gautam Chintamani

Publishers: Harper Collins

Pages: 233 pages

Price: Rs 499

In the foreword to this book, Sharmila Tagore writes: “He made the old feel young, and the young frantic.” She should know. Her screen partnership with Rajesh Khanna was the most enduring and memorable of the era, and she was witness to the hysterical female fans he attracted wherever he went. But when he died in June 2012, it was as a lonely, broken, and forgotten figure. Yet the crowds that turned up for his last day, last show, was a throwback to the past.

In his Author’s Notes, Gautam Chintamani says: “Starting this book after Rajesh Khanna’s death only underscores the irony that he became more relevant after he died.” Today’s generation knows him through an advertisement he did for Havell fans shortly before his death, a frail, even cruel caricature of the larger-than-life actor.

These days, the word “superstar” is used so freely it has lost any meaning,which is why a book on Khanna is perhaps a fitting memorial. Through him, we get a sense of Bollywood’s evolution, from a blatantly copycat culture (Hollywood) to one that turned original, even daring and unconventional in roles and storylines, a change that made actors like Khanna, typecast as tragic romantic hero, so irrelevant. It is also a cautionary tale, about stars who become victims of their own success, about egos and arrogance, and the star system that eventually consumed Khanna.

For most cinema fans, actors become the roles they play, we tend to identify them with characters rather than think of them as real-life humans prone to failings. No one exemplifies that more than Khanna. In the space of just four years, 1969 to 1972, he appeared in 17 films and all of them were hits. Then came the decline. A refusal to reinvent himself, like his greatest rival Amitabh Bachchan was doing successfully, would be his undoing, but Chintamani reminds us that before the crash and burn, was the supernova, a man who will always be remembered for that air of vulnerability that drove women crazy.

That image defines “Kaka”, his nickname, a man who surrounded himself with sycophants, who joined him on his all-night drinking binges and sang hosannas to the star who came to believe that he was god (“Upar Aaka, neeche Kaka”). The all-nighters meant he always showed up late on the sets, straining his relationship with his co-stars and producers who were forced to work late hours. A BBC documentary on him describes Khanna as having the “charisma of Rudolph Valentino and the arrogance of Napoleon.” That really says it all.

For four decades, his career was a mad whirl of hits and then lots of misses, of misses and Mrs, a much publicised affair with Anju Mahendroo, marriage to Dimple Kapadia, another love affair with Tina Munim, and after his death, the appearance of another woman who claimed to be his live-in partner during the years when the world had forgotten and abandoned him. There was also his political
career as a Congressman, also best forgotten.

For those who would like to revisit the Khanna years, this book is a must. Elegantly written, well researched, it pulls no punches, laying bare the tragedy as well as the triumphs. It is a compelling portrait of a star with incredible talent, the movies that made him a sensation — Aradhana, Anand, Kati Patang, and Haathi Mera Saathi — the legends about his generosity and free spirit, as also the dark side of the man, a side that Chintamani brings out with great detail but also empathy. Dark Star is a fitting enough title, for an actor who went from hero to the superstar we forgot.

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