The first time I heard Rajesh Khanna’s name was in Vummidi Bangaru Chetty’s shop, when the jeweller whisked out a necklace and reverently said, “This is called the Aradhana necklace—you know, after that Rajesh Khanna film". My aunts nodded briskly, and my cousin, the bride-to-be, and the reason for the shopping expedition, giggled. “If you speak to Nalli (the saree shop), they will design a matching saree,” he added.
My aunts were ecstatic, until an old fuddy duddy said, “What! You are mentioning an actor? And following cinema fashion?” she thundered. Luckily, one of my quick-witted aunts told her “Hema Malini knows him, and she said that Rajesh Khanna is a good man, and this film Aradhana won't be a corrupting influence,” she added blithely, knowing the great aunt wont go anywhere near a cinema.
You see, Hema Malini was the passport to get through 'Tambrahm' fuddy duddies, and therefore anyone she endorsed was acceptable. It may seem laughable to you and me (I was not even ten years at that time) today, but then Aradhana, the beginning of Rajesh Khanna’s superstardom happened when Madras was still uncomfortable about exploring fresh, young cinema from elsewhere.
In the Madras of those days, the few young couples who went to the theatres to watch a ‘romantic’ film, would usually keep such information from their families. But Aradhana made a huge difference. Two years later, when Rajesh Khanna’s Haathi mere Saathi released, the clinching argument to gain parental approval to watch the movie was that this was a film about adorable animals—‘you know, like Panchtantra.’ These are the ways in which Rajesh Khanna snuck into the lives of Chennai that was Madras then.
This was the pre-satellite channel television days. A time when entertainment was not 24x7. And film journalists were not part of the city/state bureau reporting team. Of course, the film magazines and paisa vasool treasures such as Kalkandu were full of him, and girls began drooling over his ‘style’. To a generation of young women who would grow up calling themselves the sandwich generation (caught between the old and the modern) in a Madras where young girls were thought as ‘forward’ for tweezing their eye brows, but had liberal access to Mills & Boon romances, he was the ultimate handsome man who would take them riding on a motor cycle along the beach. Far more educated than their mothers, the women of the seventies in Madras were stepping out to solid careers in banking and teaching, the two acceptable professions. Men and women were working together, and the recipe for romance was ripe everywhere. Romancing the Rajesh Khanna era of the early 70s was not just escapism, it was the trail that many ordinary people chose to walk.
To the young Madras man of the seventies, Rajesh Khanna was simply a ‘style statement’. Thanks to their barbers who displayed Rajesh Khanna posters in their ‘saloons’, a generation of young men got their first lesson in ‘grooming’. They also learnt to ‘talk’ to a girl. The Kamal Haasan and Rajinkanth era of influence was still a couple of years down the road. Of course, Tamil cinema had produced Gemini Ganesan , hailed as the king of romance. While he had his own following, that appeal was still very localised, very Madras.
To a generation that was waiting to spread its wings, Rajesh Khanna films seemed to offer the perfect aerodynamics. He pulled it off in this Tamil heartland, when Hindi was a complete no-no and at a time when Madras’s Hindi Prachar Sabha would pay students money if they signed up to learn the language.
Boys secretly dreamed of tailors who would stitch clothes in a way that would turn them into a stylish Rajesh Khanna, and girls would religiously pray to god hoping to be blessed with a husband like Rajesh Khanna who would always keep them smiling—that was the Madras interpretation of ‘Pushpa, I hate tears.’ In the evenings, the girls would sing a MS Subhalakshmi number, but at night the Madras girl went to bed, with Roop tera mastana humming in her mind.
Madras says RIP Rajesh Khanna, 1942-2012.