What makes Rajesh Khanna special amongst all Bollywood personalities is that he was a bundle of contradictions: megalomaniac and loner, capricious and magnanimous, pompous and insecure, possessive and vindictive, successful and flop. A delightful new book, Rajesh Khanna, The Untold Story of India's First Superstar, by Yasser Usman, brings to light the various facets of the actor's extraordinary life. It also shows how Bollywood has changed between then and now.
Khanna made it big, even though there was no sophisticated public relations machinery to work on his image and enhance his popularity - no social media to mould public opinion. All the adulation he got, especially from women of all ages, was genuine. It shows that in his time, stars had to manage the media on their own, without advisors and specialists. And Khanna played the game really well. He handed out scoops to friendly journalists whenever he had to settle personal scores and upstage rivals. One journalist who was close to him and who made much capital of that closeness was Devyani Chaubal. So much so, the headgear at his wedding was tied by none other than Chaubal.
In spite of all his success, just one endorsement came Khanna's way, that too at the very end of his life: Havells fans. Usman recounts in great detail the shoot that took place in a Bengaluru stadium. Khanna had been diagnosed with cancer and was clearly in pain. Yet, he went through the shoot with full professional intent. That was the last time he would face the camera and the lights.
His was a simple age: Khanna's only source of income was his films. Today, the business model of stars is different: films are there just to keep them in the public consciousness, while the real money they collect comes from endorsements and stage shows. Many have transited smoothly into business.
In his heyday, Khanna was never short of money. The Mumbai bungalow he lived in was bought from actor Rajinder Kumar. Various estimates put its current value at upwards of Rs 200 crore. He named it Ashirwad, Hindi for blessing, so that all fan mail that came to him would say Rajesh Khanna Ashirwad, or Bless Rajesh Khanna, on the envelope.
Such was his success that he gifted a bungalow to his then girlfriend, Anju Mahendru. According to Usman, she still lives in that house. However, once he was forgotten and out of work, Khanna fell on hard times. He would often be seen munching on a lowly hamburger at a Mumbai fast food joint, unrecognised and ignored by the people around him. Is this what drove him to do the Havells fan advertisement? Perhaps yes. By one account, with the money he got for doing the advertisement, Khanna bought a car for his second daughter.
Khanna was extremely possessive about the people around him. That's what caused his breakup with Mahendru. So much so, when he got married to Dimple Kapadia, he insisted the raucous wedding procession take a detour and pass in front of Mahendru's house. Still, in his later years, he became friends with her once again.
Another tantalising conclusion is that he manipulated his marriage with Kapadia, who was just 16 then, to resurrect his lover boy image, which had taken a beating after a series of flops. The marriage ended in separation, not divorce, again because of the possessive streak in Khanna.
Usman traces the reasons for this obsessive behaviour to Khanna's childhood: his parents, residents of Amritsar, had given him away to his childless uncle and aunt who brought him up in Bombay, as Mumbai was called then. His original family Khanna always kept under wraps, though his private staff would recount his grief at his sister's death. They would also recall the secret visits of Khanna's brother who bore an uncanny resemblance to the superstar.
All in all, his was a life that never ran short of drama.