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Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna

Gautam Chintamani

HarperCollins

Pages: 242 Rs. 499

How a superstar ‘devoured’ a man called Jatin Khanna

Gautam Chintamani's biography of Rajesh Khanna does not flinch from the actor's seamier side. It is a balanced and entertaining account of an often turbulent life, writes Tanul Thakur.

TANUL THAKUR  18th Oct 2014

Rajesh Khanna

here was a period in Rajesh Khanna's life when the word "failure" held no meaning for him. During this period, from 1969 to 1972, Khanna delivered 15 blockbusters in succession. But as you read Gautam Chintamani's Dark Star, a book that chronicles Khanna's life in the movies, you begin to understand that numbers do not — or possibly, cannot — do any justice to the Rajesh Khanna story. These numbers, for instance, can't encapsulate the mass hysteria that followed the star wherever he went. These numbers won't tell you that when Khanna parked his car, hordes of women crouched near its tires, took some dirt off it, and applied it like sindoor. They won't tell you that he got angry letters for dying on-screen in Safar.

And then Khanna began to totter. After 1972, hits — or even passable commercial successes — began to elude him. Accustomed to prevailing all the time, Khanna didn't know how to react to the new tag that had been slapped on him: a failure. The erosion of a superstar's façade had begun, and it left in its wake an emotionally fragile man, continually scheming and feverishly hoping for his peers' downfall. If Bachchan revelled in new, unprecedented successes post-Zanjeer (1973), then Khanna took refuge in that maudlin cliché — he hit the bottle. It's heartening to note that, when required, Chintamani isn't timid of painting an unflattering portrait of Khanna, especially since the star is no longer alive. In Dark Star, Rajesh Khanna's flaws are not glossed over; they are intimately observed and made humane. And it's interesting how Chintamani keeps digging into Khanna's past — by revisiting newspaper/magazine pieces and interviewing some of the earliest collaborators of the actor — and brings to light motley questions that don't — or didn't — have definite answers.

As Khanna's inner demons slowly acquired gargantuan proportions over time, somewhere around the book's third-way mark, a morbid question struck me: did Khanna, who was more troubled by his colleagues' success than his own failure, at some point become so tired of catching up that he contemplated suicide? My crass curiosity and voyeurism made me a little uncomfortable because I didn't deserve an answer for someone's personal anguish. But I had barely flipped a few pages that I chanced upon the following lines: "In an interview given almost a decade and a half later, Khanna recalled how the period between the last few months of 1973 and early 1974 was the loneliest phase of his life. (...) Khanna went on to say that he had even contemplated suicide, but never saw it through as he didn't want the world to remember Rajesh Khanna as a failure." The import of these lines acquires a disturbing poignancy when juxtaposed with the following two facts: Khanna eventually died of cancer, 38 years later, in 2012; he was 32 years old when he, presumably for the first time, thought of killing himself.

It's in these bits, where Chintamani's an empathetic humanist devoted to relentlessly probing, without sensationalising, the mindset of a self-doubting artist, that Dark Star shines the brightest. Chintamani examines the psyches of both Khannas — the man and the actor, that is, if at all they were separate — and the end result is a layered, conflicting account of a tormented man. For every account of Khanna's pettiness, there are also stories about a man desperately trying to overcome his moral turpitude. Stories of how he had waived his fee for many films for emotional reasons; how he had been a father figure to a rank outsider; how he was petrified of his vulnerabilities, which once caused him to confide in Rinki Bhattacharya (Avishkaar's costume designer), "I am not a bad man."

he authorial voice, too, for the most part is suitably melodramatic, bracing the reader for subsequently disturbing and profound revelations about the actor. Chintamani adeptly deconstructs what catapulted Khanna to stardom, but most importantly, notices the echoes of Khanna-the-person in his various on-screen personas. "Looking back, it's almost surreal how Anand Bakshi's words for Zindagi ke safar mein guzar jaate hai jo makaam woh phir nahin aate summarised as well as predicted not just Kamal's (Khanna's on screen character in Aap Ki Kasam) but also Khanna's life. The manner in which Bachchan was pulling the rug under his feet was evoked in aadmi theek se dekh pata nahin aur parde par manzar badal jata hai (before you know it, the scene on the stage changes), his insecurities can be gauged from doston, shaq dosti ka dushman hai, apne dil mein ise ghar banane na do (suspicion can ruin relationships; don't let it find place in your heart)."

There are also few bits, however, where the writing falters. Chintamani goes overboard with his melodramatic flourishes, at places, which results in clunky, cloying prose. ("Like it had happened a million times before, it was Khanna's soul that lit up the moment he found himself in front of the lens... "; "Rajesh Khanna, the man who devoured Jatin Khanna.") But these parts don't come across as false notes, rather a case of an earnest writer flinging everything he had on the page.

However, Dark Star's most notable triumph lies in faithfully following Khanna's rise to stardom till his dying days. The result of such persistence is a haunting portrayal of a movie star who never gave up. Khanna tried every trick in the book to reclaim his lost stardom, by both conforming to and bucking the trend — he began acting in multi-starrers, which were in the vogue in the late '70s; he took on roles that no actor of his stature would have played then (he played a psychopath in Red Rose); he even managed to stage a fleeting mini-comeback with Souten in 1983; he joined politics in the late '80s so he could still be in the reckoning; he even tried to make a final comeback four years before his death with a B-grade film Wafa.

Dark Star leaves you with some genuine moments of disquietude, making you think about a larger-than-life actor who was forced come to terms with his unique anonymity. While reading about Khanna's solitude in "Aashirwad" (his sprawling bungalow in Juhu, Mumbai), my mind wandered more than once to Charles Foster Kane's similar fate in Xanadu (Kane's palatial estate) in Citizen Kane. Kane's final words were "Rosebud", an allusion to his childhood (a much simpler, innocent time). Khanna's final words were reportedly, "Pack up". As in life and so in death, Jatin Khanna (Khanna's name before he joined the movies) could never truly step outside Rajesh Khanna's shadow.

 
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