Jun 21, 2012

The Charisma of Rajesh Khanna

Original article from Bombay University textbook

Rajesh Khanna
Rajesh Khanna
It is rumored that his disarming smile costs Rs. 1.4 million. Young women devour him with hungry eyes in the afternoon darkness of cinema halls. Mothers witness his filmic deaths with helpless pangs of frustrated protectiveness. Young adult males project themselves into his limelit presence on the screen and later yearn to recreate themselves in his image. Millions of Indians queue up for long hours to see him break into his smile, get drunk, become furious, whisper love-words or burst forth into a husky, vibrant played-back song. If there is one person in India today who surpasses the Prime Minister’s charisma, he is Rajesh Khanna. The multimillion rupee Hindi film industry which prolifically produces stereotyped dreams unanimously regards him as the only authentic super-star it has so far produced. He is what makes a sure-fire box-office hit. Even films with all the essential ingredients for making a sure flop have run for weeks just because he starred in them. His success is so phenomenal that it challenges anyone who pretends to understand mass behavior.

He is of medium height and build. He has mannerisms of his own which show through whatever character he plays—or perhaps that is unfair to him. His producers and directors want him to play no other character but his own unique self. He has a rare plasticity: that which makes a natural actor, something which James Dean had impressed upon movie-addicts during his meteoric Hollywood career. For he gives the sense that he lives his assumed role, however crudely it is scripted and directed. Yet he will not get an Elia Kazan or a George Stevens to direct him. And his hurt-youth image, which is a factor in his success, will gradually age.
The best script and director he got so far was in the film Anand, directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee who is one of the better directors in the world of commercial Hindi cinema. His worst role was the one in Haathi Mere Saathi in which he plays a sort of elephant-boy and in which one of the three corners of the conventional love triangle is occupied, of all animals, by elephants.

Curiously, Rajesh Khanna is considered a hero worth killing—which is amazing since in Hindi films it is a taboo to kill the hero. Curiously too, he has to die of cancer. He died of cancer in Safar and again in Anand. In Safar he is the leukemic lover of a would-be doctor. In Anand, he is a cancer patient who spends his limited spell of life to make people around him happy. In Andaz he dies in a motor-bike accident for a change. Is it, one wonders, the expression of a mass death-wish? Some fifteen years ago, Dilip Kumar, the matinee idol then, specialized in dying as a hero. However, Dilip Kumar’s screen deaths brought no shock to the audience since he moved and spoke, from the start, as if he were his own pall-bearer. Rajesh’s screen deaths have some novelty: he is a warm, ebullient, vivacious, blithe young man. Even if he is destined to die, it seems unfair and too early. One has seen teenage girls sob witnessing him die. Or heaving unmistakably erotic sighs when he sings a love song (with the inimitable Kishore Kumar play-back singing for him). For the first time in the history of commercial Hindi cinema a single person has acquired such a following.

What has Rajesh Khanna got that others haven’t? He does have acting talent. But there are others who are much better. He is good-looking. But that is neither here nor there. He is certainly not very handsome. What is it then?”

One hypothesis about his charisma is that Rajesh Khanna has all the quintessential characteristics of the sort of romantic hero contemporary Indian masses would like to dote on. Here, even within the hackneyed formulae of the commercial Hindi cinema, the new generation audiences had been looking for some positive new content. In the fifties, the triumvirate of Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand dominated the scene. The first was a tragic hero who was the product of middle-class pessimism and sentimentality. The second was a comic actor appealing to the masses through his mask of a little fellow. The third one was a slick, urban westernized Indian. All three box-office draws. The sixties saw the emergence of Guru Dutt who added new values to the Saigal-Dilip Kumar image of a tragic hero by investing greater sensitivity into his existing joint-stock image. The handsome buffoon image which Dev Anand was a pioneer was extended in the form of Shammi Kapoor, Joy Mukerji and a number of others who danced and leaped energetically singing duets with their assorted heroines. Then came Dharmendra, who looks like a capable middle-aged elder son and also Shashi Kapoor, the shy boy-lover of aggressively inclined heroines. In the meantime, despite his blank face, Rajendra Kumar emerged as a substitute Dilip Kumar being to the elder hero what saccharine is to sugar. Sunil Dutt tried to introduce a little different hero-concept, but had only limited success. Trials continued. Errors went on being committed. And then came Rajesh Khanna like a deluge.

Rajesh is close to the teenager because he shares some of their norms of group behavior and mannerisms. His actions have a suggestion of a devil-may-care anarchistic element. However, as in Do Raaste, he can even play successfully the younger brother in a Hindu joint family rising to rescue it at a time of crisis. He also has a very infectious warmth and a very charming smile. What is interesting about Rajesh is that unlike other leading male actors he seldom shows off his histrionic talent by exaggeration. His acting is always an understatement of emotion. This is something he shares with the younger mass audience in India. They don’t dig melodramatic acting any more (which is the reason why Sharmila Tagore and Tanuja, for instance, are liked by them according to a recent survey: and of course, Waheda Rehman whom the late Guru Dutt introduced).

Next time you see Rajesh Khanna on the screen, therefore, please note that his behavior on celluloid is going to lay down a norm for most of the male teenagers around you and a number of people even up to their middle thirties. He is the sort of boy with whom four out of five urban female college students would be thrilled to elope. In short, he is one of the top-selling consumer products in India today. And the packaging, here too, is the product.