Museum of Art & Photography
Curated by Kaushik Bhaumik
Rajesh Khanna is probably the greatest romantic superstar of classical Bombay cinema, probably only trumped by the superstardom by KL Saigal. Between 1969 and 1971 he delivered 15 consecutive hits and that too as a solo star in the films. No one has come close to beating this record since.
The crazed adulation and obsessive love he received from his women fans are matters of legend, something Bachchan at his height of stardom could not achieve.
Khanna’s early career was in some ways a glamorous fruition of the romantic 1960s- shiny cars, romance in lush landscapes, wooing heroines with pizazz, but all done with a zing and speed that would make the cinema of the 1960s look like a spluttering vintage car to Khanna’s sports cars.
Beyond Khanna’s staple roles as the greatest romantic star of Hindi cinema, we cannot but admire the sheer diversity of roles that Khanna essayed during his career. He begins his career in an offbeat Chetan Anand film (Aakhri Khat 1966). From young adult dramas (Haathi Mere Saathi (1971) at the top of his career to absurd action romps (like Chailla Babu (1977) mid-career, to a series of career survival moves from doing multi-starrers Dharam Kanta (1982) to making films in South Masterji (1985) to finally finding his niche in family melodramas about progeny torturing a benign patriarch Avtaar (1983) being a classic example), Khanna did them all and remained a star well into the 1980s. Only Shah Rukh Khan can match such sheer diversity of star roles. Even in the 1980s, Khanna could, in a film like Kudrat(1981), a film which reunited him with Chetan Anand, revive the magic of his heydays as romantic superstar in a film like Kati Patang (1970).
Lobby cards for Khanna's film debut Aakhri Khat directed by Communist filmmaker Chetan Anand.
Khanna won an All India talent contest organized by some of the biggest director-producers of the Bombay film industry in 1965 which led to his casting in this film.
Poster for MA Thirumugam's Haathi Mere Sathi (1971), one of Khanna's all-India blockbuster hits early in his career. The film is notable for the break Khanna gave to the scriptwriting duo Salim-Javed who went on to script all of Amitabh Bachchan's biggest films of the 1970s
Lobby card produced for Hindi thriller, 'Chhailla Babu' (1977) by UnknownMuseum of Art & Photography
The Chhailla Babu Suite
Khanna's career went into a slump in 1976. Joy Mukherjee's Chhailla Babu (1977) revived his career.
An enjoyable comic thriller, the film is considered to have provided the backbone for Don (1978), one of Amitabh Bachchan's biggest hits ever. Nariman Irani the cinematographer of the film produced Don repeating Zeenat Aman as the lead heroine. Plot similarities include a man who is both a working class bumpkin and a Mafia don and a girl seeking revenge on the don for the murder of a family member.
A pop post-modern pastiche film it repeats motifs from contemporary low budget Hollywood thrillers of the 1970s such as the action-vamp female villain in hot pants, a figure who would be, many years later, important in the postmodern imagination of Quentin Tarantino as well.
Yet another example of the delightful pastiche that 1970s masala Bombay cinema was- an Egyptian pharaonic scene in the middle of 1970s high espionage!
The film is supposed to have earned rupees 4 crores at the box office coming in at a decent position of No.5 in the list of top grossers of the year.
Film poster for 'Masterji' by J.P. Mehta & Sons, Bombay (printer)Museum of Art & Photography
The 1980s saw Khanna try out a variety of roles in all kinds of genres.
From Southern sex comedies...
To violent multistarrers and tearful family melodramas...
Poster for Mohan Kumar's Avtaar (1983), one of Khanna's biggest career hits. The film was re-adapted by Ravi Chopra as Baghban (2003) featuring Amitabh Bachchan.
The Eternal Romantic Star
From start...to finish. Which would also mean that alongside the decidedly anti-romantic anti-hero persona of Bachchan in the 1970s, Khanna managed to keep his niche as a top romantic star of Bombay cinema going despite the plunge in his fortunes. Of course, he did not get films of the kind he did in his early career- films with the biggest budgets that translated to great scripts, lush romantic landscapes, customised bound-to-succeed great song and music and so on. Yet, the need for a romantic hero of his kind was needed in Indian society of 1970s. More importantly, he had accumulated a huge world of die-hard fans who would watch his films come what may out of sheer devotion.
Khanna in 1971
Ten years later...Khanna in 1981
Film poster for 'Thodisi Bewafaii' by Studio Link (check whether printer or artist)Museum of Art & Photography
His Remarkable Achievement in Hindi Film History
But what people don’t notice is that with the eclipse of Khanna’s romantic cinema by Bachchan’s action stardom, Khanna carves out a remarkable space for himself in a genre of cinema that was new to Bombay cinema, a genre that remains his undisputed star domain till date- the marriage problem film. From Daag (1973) to Aap ki Kasam (1974) to Ajnabee (1974) to Thodisi Bewafaii (1980) to Souten (1983), in film after film Khanna portrayed the troubles of modern love marriage.
He gets divorced in Aap ki Kasam, almost so in Ajnabee and Souten fights his wife for the custody of his child in Thodisi Bewafaii, Playing out breakdowns of sexual relationships in law courts, that ultimate mark of public humiliation in Indic feudal cultures of shame, Khanna becomes a star of Indian modernity of a very different kind from any other actor in Bombay cinema’s history.
In real life too, Khanna chalked up a first by becoming the first superstar of Bombay cinema to move in with his girlfriend Tina Munim in an open-to-paparazzi live-in relationship.
Film poster for 'Roti' by Amar Arts (artist)Museum of Art & Photography
The Extraordinary Career of Mr Rajesh Khanna
And in 1974, the same year as "Aap ki Kasam" right at the moment when his career was beginning to careen down a slippery slope, Khanna did "Roti" (1974) with Manmohan Desai, definitely Desai’s greatest film and an extraordinary film in Khanna’s own oeuvre, where Khanna showed what the true worth of his stardom was- a man of the ordinary masses, a bazaar India of traditional middle classes being shaken up by a consumerist modernity for the first time in history.
Khanna was always a measure of the limits of glamour that an ordinary mass consumerist middle class that was coming into place for the first time in modern India’s history could aspire to. But also he was in equal measures a measure of the progressive ideals that such a modernizing traditional middle class could embrace. In that, his films do surprisingly well when compared to that which followed.
Film poster for 'Avtaar' by J.P. Mehta & Sons (printer)Museum of Art & Photography
And thus, he also becomes a measure of maybe a lost moment of modernist progressivism within traditional middle class India, an archive of an occult stream of Indian modernity that we may well revisit to understand our present. Here, Khanna’s crossover into New Wave territories in Basu Bhattacharya’s Avishkaar, again made in 1974, the first marriage problem film pertaining to the corporate class in India’s cinema history, is significant.