There was a period in Rajesh Khanna’s life when the word “failure” held no meaning for him. During this period, from 1969 to 1972, Khanna delivered fifteen blockbusters in succession. But as you read Gautam Chintamani’s Dark Star, a book that chronicles Khanna’s life in the movies, you begin to understand that numbers do not — or possibly, cannot — do any justice to the Rajesh Khanna story. These numbers, for instance, can’t encapsulate the mass hysteria that followed the star wherever he went. These numbers won’t tell you that when Khanna parked his car, hordes of women crouched near its tires, took some dirt off it, and applied it like sindoor. These numbers won’t tell you that he got angry letters for dying on-screen in Safar; they will also not tell you that the chants of “Upar Aka, neeche Kaka (God in the heavens, Kaka on earth)” had convinced the star’s fans that their object of adulation was not just an actor: he was indeed, what they wanted him to be, a god. In turn, Khanna convinced himself that he was every bit what he was made out to be; that his show was destined to last forever. That he would never fail; he would never fall. Folie à deux is a psychiatric syndrome where the delusion of one person is transmitted to the other. If his fawning fans can be clubbed under one unit and Khanna under the other, then it’s not difficult to understand why Khanna believed stories of his own mythic, invincible stardom.
When a mortal convinces himself that he’s godlike, that the rules for others don’t quite apply to him, he sacrifices rationality. So did Khanna. From making producers wait endlessly for him to making a junior artiste hold his cigarette while he was in the middle of a shot to insulting his peer (Amitabh Bachchan) without any reason to holding a durbar at his bungalow, where he sat on an elevated chair so he could — quite literally — look down on others, Khanna made narcissism and pettiness a way of life. He was ruling, and he made sure that plebeians knew they were being ruled.
And then Khanna began to totter. After 1972, hits—or even passable commercial successes—began to elude him. Accustomed to prevailing all the time, Khanna didn’t know how to react to the new tag that had been slapped on him: a failure. The erosion of a superstar’s façade had begun, and it left in its wake an emotionally fragile man, continually scheming and feverishly hoping for his peers’ downfall. The man putting up a show for others was still present, but his audience had left, for there was no show. Someone had cruelly switched off the lights, and the man, once in the spotlight, had been caught unaware in the middle of an act that had barely begun. If Bachchan revelled in new, unprecedented successes post-Zanjeer (1973), then Khanna took refuge in that maudlin cliché — he hit the bottle. It’s heartening to note that, when required, Chintamani isn’t timid of painting an unflattering portrait of Khanna, especially since the star is no longer alive. Smoothening and embellishing the narrative of a complex, troubled life is a kind of backhanded compliment no one deserves. In Dark Star, Rajesh Khanna’s flaws are not glossed over; they are intimately observed and made humane. And it’s interesting how Chintamani keeps digging into Khanna’s past — by revisiting newspaper/magazine pieces and interviewing some of the earliest collaborators of the actor — and brings to light motley questions that don’t — or didn’t — have definite answers.
As Khanna’s inner demons slowly acquired gargantuan proportions over time, somewhere around the book’s third-way mark, a morbid question struck me: did Khanna, who was more troubled by his colleagues’ success than his own failure, at some point become so tired of catching up that he contemplated suicide? My crass curiosity and voyeurism made me a little uncomfortable because I didn’t deserve an answer for someone’s personal anguish. But I had barely flipped a few pages that I chanced upon the following lines: “In an interview given almost a decade and a half later, Khanna recalled how the period between the last few months of 1973 and early 1974 was the loneliest phase of his life. (…) Khanna went on to say that he had even contemplated suicide, but never saw it through as he didn’t want the world to remember Rajesh Khanna as a failure.” The import of these lines acquires a disturbing poignancy when juxtaposed with the following two facts: Khanna eventually died of cancer, 38 years later, in 2012; he was 32 years old when he, presumably for the first time, thought of killing himself.
It’s in these bits, where Chintamani’s an empathetic humanist devoted to relentlessly probing, without sensationalising, the mindset of a self-doubting artist, that Dark Star shines the brightest. Chintamani examines the psyches of both Khannas — the man and the actor, that is, if at all they were separate — and the end result is a layered, conflicting account of a tormented man. For every account of Khanna’s pettiness, there are also stories about the man, desperately trying to overcome his moral turpitude. Stories of how he had waived his fee for many films for emotional reasons; how he had been a father figure to a rank outsider; how he was petrified of his vulnerabilities, which once caused him to confide in Rinki Bhattacharya (Avishkaar’s costume designer), “I am not a bad man.” So if you are looking for a bunch of simplistic adjectives to pigeonhole Rajesh Khanna, then Dark Star is not going to be your guide; it doesn’t want to be.
The authorial voice, too, for the most part is suitably melodramatic, bracing the reader for subsequently disturbing and profound revelations about the actor. Chintamani adeptly deconstructs what catapulted Khanna to stardom, but most importantly, notices the echoes of Khanna-the-person in his various on-screen personas. “Looking back, it’s almost surreal how Anand Bakshi’s words for Zindagi ke safar mein guzar jaate hai jo makaam woh phir nahin aate summarised as well as predicted not just Kamal’s [Khanna’s on screen character in Aap Ki Kasam] but also Khanna’s life. The manner in which Bachchan was pulling the rug under his feet was evoked in aadmi theek se dekh pata nahin aur parde par manzar badal jata hai (before you know it, the scene on the stage changes), his insecurities can be gauged from doston, shaq dosti ka dushman hai, apne dil mein ise ghar banane na do (suspicion can ruin relationships; don’t let it find place in your heart).” There are also few bits, however, where the writing falters. Chintamani goes overboard with his melodramatic flourishes, at places, which results in clunky, cloying prose (“Like it had happened a million times before, it was Khanna’s soul that lit up the moment he found himself in front of the lens… ”; “Rajesh Khanna, the man who devoured Jatin Khanna”); Dark Star also contains detailed synopses of Khanna’s films, and although at times, they are neatly tied with the subsequent paragraphs that give a peek into the actor’s professional choices at the time, most of the time, they add precious little to the text, and slacks off the tension Chintamani had so assiduously built. But these parts don’t come across as false notes, rather a case of an earnest writer flinging everything he had on the page.
However, Dark Star’s most notable triumph lies in faithfully following Khanna’s rise to stardom till his dying days. The result of such persistence is a haunting portrayal of a movie star who never gave up. And it’s a fitting tribute to the actor: Rajesh Khanna tried every trick in the book to reclaim his lost stardom, by both conforming to and bucking the trend — he began acting in multi-starrers, which were in the vogue in the late ’70s; he took on roles that no actor of his stature would have played then (he played a psychopath in Red Rose); he even managed to stage a fleeting mini-comeback with Souten in 1983; he joined politics in the late ’80s so he could still be in the reckoning; he even tried to make a final comeback four years before his death with a B-grade film Wafa: A deadly love story, and during the same period, Khanna met Shakti Samanta (Aradhana’s director) and decided that they should remake one of his well-known hits, Aradhana. Rajesh Khanna refused to believe that the industry didn’t need him, that 1969 was more than four decades ago.
Dark Star leaves you with some genuine moments of disquietude, making you think about the life of a larger-than-life actor who was forced come to terms with his unique anonymity. While reading about Khanna’s solitude in Aashirwad (his sprawling bungalow in Juhu, Mumbai), my mind wandered more than once to Charles Foster Kane’s similar fate in Xanadu (Kane’s palatial estate) in Citizen Kane. Kane’s final words were “Rosebud”, an allusion to his childhood (a much simpler, innocent time). Khanna’s final words were reportedly, “Pack up”. As in life and so in death, Jatin Khanna (Khanna’s name before he joined the movies) could never truly step outside Rajesh Khanna’s shadow.
An edited version of this review was published at The Sunday Guardian