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Rajesh Khanna’s obsession with death and his songs that celebrated mystery of life

“He isn’t just a star. He’s my world.” These obsessive words belong to the super-fan Gaurav (Shah Rukh Khan) of Fan (2016) as he stares at his bedroom wall peppered with pictures and memorabilia of his movie idol Aryan Khanna (also, Shah Rukh Khan). The refrain, one imagines, easily echoes ‘the Rajesh Khanna craze’ back in the 1970s decade when the original King of Romance (sorry, SRK) was at his peak and inspired such devotion among Hindi audiences that a new term had to be invented to define his unprecedented stardom. Thus, ‘Bollywood’s first superstar‘ tag was born to suit his godly status. There were stars before, but none quite like Khanna — both screenwriter Salim Khan and co-star Sharmila Tagore vouch for this fact in two different books on the star fondly known as Kaka. Yet, nothing lasts forever, least of all fame. Imprisoned by his own myth in some ways, Kaka’s downfall was equally swift. One of his own dialogues from Daag (1973) encapsulates the ups and downs of his euphoric life (he later reprised this verse on stage, with knowing slyness and irony and for all you know, intended to serve as a reminder of the ephemerality and uncertainty of stardom to much of the film industry in attendance), “Izzatein, shohratein, ulfatein, chahatein, sab kuch iss duniya mein rehta nahin/ Aaj main hun jahan kal koi aur tha/ Ye bhi ek daur hai woh bhi ek daur tha.”

Besides his charming persona, romantic mannerism and a disarming smile, one huge reason for Khanna’s stupendous popularity was the chartbuster music in his films. Throughout his career, the well-picturised songs and melodious duets starring him opposite some of the top-flight actresses of their time (Mumtaz, Sharmila Tagore, Hema Malini, Asha Parekh) have conveyed all the dramatic moods and moments that a Hindi film hero has to undergo, like a rite of passage, before he can find a permanent spot in the audience’s heart.

rajesh khanna birthday Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore in Aradhana. (Photo: Shakti Films)

Between 1969 to 1975, Khanna belted out a record 15 consecutive golden jubilees under the legendary direction of such names as Shakti Samanta, Yash Chopra, Asit Sen, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Ramesh Sippy and Manmohan Desai. Shakti Samanta’s Aradhana was his first bona fide blockbuster that catapulted him into a national heartthrob.

In the film, he makes his screen entry singing ‘Mere sapno ki rani’ in an open jeep while Sharmila Tagore, around whose gritty character the plot revolves, is seen traveling in a toy train, cradling a book. In much of the movie, she plays Khanna’s mother trying to hide her identity and living more in shame than guilt. In Kati Patang (1971), he serenades his childhood friend’s widow (Asha Parekh) on the piano with ‘Pyaar deewana hota hai.’ In Amar Prem (1972), merely minutes after delivering the famous ‘I hate tears, Pushpa’ line, he takes the courtesan (Sharmila Tagore) on a boat outing, which becomes the setting for ‘Chingari koi bhadke.’ In Bawarchi (1972), which was Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s personal favourite OST, his flawless classical rendition of ‘Hum bin jeevan’ is met with puzzled looks, especially by the aspiring in-house music director (played by Asrani) even as the daydreaming Jaya Bachchan’s imagination gives the song its doleful visuals. Though no great shakes as a dancer he manages to put up an entertaining show with Mumtaz for company in the Lord Shiva-influenced ‘Jai jai Shiv Shankar’ from Aap Ki Kasam (1974). If you thought he couldn’t do sexy, try watching him get all mushy with the sultry Zeenat Aman in the rain-drenched ‘Bheegi bheegi raaton mein.’ For more swag, he swoons atop a moving wagon train (move over, ‘Chhaiyyan Chhaiyyan’) in the same film.

And though he was the ultimate lover-boy of his era — his successor, Amitabh Bachchan, was an antithesis in every respect — many of Khanna’s iconic songs that were integral to his success envisioned him as a melancholic outlier wallowing in poetic gloom. ‘Kahin door jab din dhal jaaye’ (Anand), ‘Jeevan se bhari’ (Safar), ‘Mere naina sawan bhadon’ (Mehbooba), ‘Mere naseeb mein ae dost’ (Do Raaste), ‘Woh shaam kuchh ajeeb thi’ (Khamoshi), ‘Maine tere liye hi’ (Anand) and ‘Hazar rahein mud ke dekhi’ (Thodisi Bewafai) to cite just a few. The last three were penned by Gulzar. Yet, within that there is a subgenre of Kaka numbers that are solemn and serious, handing out life-affirming philosophies.

For Kaka’s 79th birth anniversary today, we have shortlisted five such tunes which have ‘zindagi’ in their lyrics. Taken together, they articulate the mystery and marvel that is life — perhaps, apt for a man who redefined superstardom and lived life king-size and on his own terms. After all, wasn’t he the one who cheerfully quipped in Anand, “Babumoshai, zindagi badi honi chahiye, lambi nahin?”

‘Zindagi kaisi hai paheli’ (Film: Anand)

Quite possibly Khanna’s best film as well as performance, it’s also, one dare says, his finest soundtrack. Picturised on a beach in Mumbai, ‘Zindagi kaisi hai paheli’ captures the sorrows and dilemmas of cancer patient Anand’s (Khanna) life, which we know is about to be snuffed out. More than a lament, it’s an ode to life. Gregarious and a ball of energy, Anand uses prankish humour to hide his pain while making others happy. At one point in the song, Anand releases balloons in the sky. We follow him as he strolls into the sunset — Anand, perhaps, is ready for his close-up.

‘Zindagi ka safar’ (Film: Safar)

In Safar, too, Khanna’s intense character Avinash is all alone and dying. Journalist Ali Peter John once told that the actor was “obsessed with death,” because every film in which he had died had become a hit. Written by Indeevar and composed by Kalyanji-Anandji, ‘Zindagi ka safar’ gives voice to Avinash’s futile attempts at understanding the meaning of life, compounded further by the fate of his tragic love story with Dr Neela (Sharmila Tagore) who ends up marrying another man (Feroz Khan).

‘Zindagi ke safar mein guzar jaate hain’ (Film: Aap Ki Kasam)

Kamal (Khanna) is poor but idealistic while Sunita (Mumtaz) is Ms Richie Rich. Sparks fly. They get married and just when they think it’s a happily-ever-after, in walks Kamal’s best friend, Mohan (Sanjeev Kumar). Kamal soon suspects Sunita and Mohan are having an affair. The betrayed husband and his jealousies bring Kamal to a near-collapse. The song expresses Kamal’s repentant sentiments.

‘Zindagi ek safar hai suhana’ (Film: Andaz)

This uplifting ballad has three versions, picturised on the three stars of the movie. Mohammed Rafi, the go-to voice for Shammi Kapoor, sings it for the Yahoo star as he tries to woo Hema Malini who’s still mourning her husband’s (Khanna) untimely death. Malini gets her rendition in the form of a lullaby. But it is the Rajesh Khanna-Kishore Kumar one that remains the most popular in public memory and has become one of the emblems of Khanna’s dazzling success story. With that motor bike and the Dream Girl on pillion, he yodelled straight into the matinee magic.

‘Zindagi pyaar ka geet hai’ (Film: Souten)

This Saawan Kumar Tak film has given us such isms as ‘Shayad meri shaadi ka khayal’ (marriage proposals have never sounded more fun) and Prem Chopra’s oft-repeated quote, ‘Nanga nahaayega kya aur nichodega kya.’ No prizes for guessing, Hindi cinema’s famous villain plays a version of the evil Kans mama here. The movie is a reworking of the Lord Krishna-Rukmini-Radha triangle. One Edenic variant of the song is performed by Radha (Padmini Kolhapure) while the sadder one is shot on Shyam (Khanna), at a moment in his life when his pious relationship with Radha is being misinterpreted by the world.

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