Ever since he died exactly a month ago, there have been various attempts to explain the Rajesh Khanna phenomenon. His success, though short, was unprecedented and surpassed only by Amitabh Bachchan. A documentary made in the 1970s catches various facets of his persona, but does not explain his superstardom. Some analysts have said that viewers were fatigued with the triumvirate of Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor. There was a gap, and Khanna walked right in. But that is forcing a connection between events to make a case. You could find some answers in The Best of Quest (a collection of stories, essays and poems that came out in the well-known magazine; the book was published by Tranquebar Press last year), in essays written by “D” — Dilip Chitre.
Khanna, he writes in “The Charisma of Rajesh Khanna” (September-October 1971), brings freshness into his screen deaths. Before him, Dilip Kumar, the Tragedy King, died in innumerable films but that didn’t move the audiences to tears “since he moved and spoke, from the start, as if he was his own pall-bearer”. Khanna, on the other hand, is a “warm, ebullient, vivacious, blithe young man” and even if he is destined to die (of cancer in Anand and Safar, and in a motorcycle accident in Andaz), it seems “unfair and too early”. Khanna, the author says, connects well with teenagers because he shares “their norms of group behavior and mannerisms. His actions suggest a devil-may-care anarchistic attitude. Still, he adds, he can play the younger brother in a Hindu joint family (as in Do Raaste) who rises to the occasion to save it. In Khanna he finds infectious warmth and a very charming smile. His style is understated and he doesn’t show his histrionic talent by exaggeration. He has unique mannerisms which show up in all roles he plays, and the directors encourage it. “He is one of the top selling consumer products in India today,” “D” writes. “And the packaging, here too, is the product.”
And he offers a good explanation for why the battery of actors after Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor didn’t succeed the way Khanna did. Shammi Kapoor, Joy Mukerji and others were happy to play the handsome buffoon and dance and leap “energetically singing duets with their assorted heroines”. Dharmendra looked like a capable, middle-aged son, while Shashi Kapoor was the “shy lover boy of aggressively inclined heroines”. Rajendra Kumar, he surmised, had a blank face and was the poor man’s Dilip Kumar. Sunil Dutt brought a new hero concept but met with little success. “And then came Rajesh Khanna like a deluge.”
In another piece (“Women’s Lib in India”) written a few months later (March-April 1972), the same author turns less charitable towards the superstar. The context here was plump Bollywood heroines. Indians found half-naked poor women, who were slim, distasteful but ogled at overfed heroines. “One therefore sometimes wonders,” writes “D”, “whether the audience considers them literally devourable.” He then turns his attention to the men of filmdom. Raj Kapoor thus “looks like a ripe red tomato” and Khanna “looks pink to the point of seeming unreal”. With every hit, Khanna adds a few inches to his girth. Khanna finds mention in a third essay, “What has Dimple Got that Satyajit Hasn’t” (January-February 1974), in which “D” analyses why Bobby is a smash hit (“Miss Kapadia’s legs are the chief attraction”), while Satyajit Ray’s Ashani Sanket has failed to convince the audience that the film maker’s “imagination is somewhat better than the genius of the Films Division”. Riveting stuff.