Love, longing, Rajesh Khanna


Love, longing, Rajesh Khanna

For women, Kaka became the symbol of a collective — and safe — yearning

Demand and supply may be an inelegant way to start a piece on love, longing and Rajesh Khanna. But if Kaka sold a dream to thousands of Indian women, what was the demand? Why was he consumed so obsessively by so many women for so many years? The year 1969 came 22 years after Independence, two decades after a nation committed itself to universal adult franchise and education. It was also the coming of age of a nation and its women.

Patriotism no longer had to be worn on the sleeve. Palpitating in the hearts of women were desires of 22-year-olds, not all of them realisable in a society hidebound by cultural taboos. Kaka provided us with a collective fantasy of passion and longing long before these desires could be expressed in public. Before boyfriends and sex, and 40 years before buddies with benefits. Those were the days of implied sexual promise and oh, did he imply it with his eyes!

If he was exceptionally charming, young women were exceptionally impressionable too. Think of Raj Kapoor’s quivering vulnerability in Awara or the reclusive Dilip Kumar in Devdas, who every woman would have loved to tame. There was the gently tearful Rajendra Kumar, the macho Sunil Dutt, the devastatingly desirable Shashi Kapoor and the energetic Jeetendra. Why didn’t women become hysterical about them? Kaka’s passing away has resulted in a glut of stories of how he was pursued by women who covered his cars with sludgy lipstick marks and tore clothes off his body. They married his photographs, did Karva chauth for him and mourned when he married Dimple Kapadia. I did too as a five-year-old, wore a white frock, sat on the floor and beat my chest imitating my neighbour. Why?

The word fan derives from fanatic, someone mindlessly obsessed. Rajesh Khanna’s following among Indian women can only be compared to the hysteria that the Beatles evoked. Though these fits of collective madness happened in entirely different contexts, they can be easily employed as social commentary. In the India of the 1970s, without statistical accuracy, eight out of ten marriages were arranged; women were mostly housebound before or after marriage. If they worked at all, they were seldom in leadership positions. Those like Kiran Bedi, Anjolie Ela Menon, Mira Nair or Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw were only being minted and feminist righteousness was a decade away. Sex was a “bhool koi hamse na ho jaye (mistake)”; even the first sexual encounter must lead to pregnancy to make it worthy of Aradhana. Yet there was an intense yearning.

This yearning, framed in the lyrics of Anand Bakshi, threaded by R.D. Burman’s music, Kishore Kumar’s rendering and the inexhaustible charm of Kaka, made the supply side fabulous. It coincided with the coming out of women. Coming out may be a public idea, but it also has sexual connotations as it expresses itself by making latent desires public. Kaka was a subliminal focus for this latency. Yet, because he was a superstar and not someone you could actually kiss or fight with, he represented a “safe” way to express longing. He was the toyboy that even patriarchs couldn’t object to. That these fantasies are replete in his songs — “ab chahe maa roothe ya baba, yaara maine to haan kar li” (I’ve already said yes, now it doesn’t matter if it upsets anyone) — is no accident. Yet a father could set up an arranged marriage for a daughter even if she was married to Rajesh Khanna’s photograph.

Kaka was also a “guru” for Indian males; someone to be emulated. Men wore his kurtas in the hope that women would cast a look at their kurtas, if not them. His shining short hair, his sideburns, his mannerisms, his self-conscious love were mirrored in the attitudes of Indian males. But men got it wrong. Rajesh Khanna was a dream, a haseen khwab, jo tha bhi aur nahin bhi tha (that existed and yet didn’t). He was chased because a dream is not as intimidating as real men can be. Kaka played the role that Krishna played for his gopis — a symbol of their collective yearning.

Let’s not forget that Sharmila Tagore’s seductive simmer, Mumtaz’s pout, Asha Parekh’s palpable devotion and Hema Malini deviness (as opposed to the divaness of today’s heroines) also contributed to evoking romantic responses from Kaka.

In the rush of tributes that have upheld the romantic in Rajesh Khanna, we have forgotten that he was peculiarly two-sided. The good man of Hindi cinema was a bad boy in real life. Hardly a good husband, he became increasingly self-obsessed as his stardom peaked — indeed, star tantrums arrived with him. He drank and smoked, separated from the bride he had wooed overnight, and went on to have a live-in relationship.

If women — as relationship pundits insist — inevitably fall for bad guys, it was Rajesh Khanna’s celluloid image that made him the king of hearts. Not his real self. Let’s also thank his scriptwriters.