The darker shades of superstar Rajesh Khanna’s life

By Gautam Kaul, IANS,

It is considered discourteous to write in negative tones after any person’s demise. Never speak ill of the dead, the saying goes. Journalists and writers, however, must remain faithful to their calling and document the truth about Rajesh Khanna before it is drowned in a crescendo of blandishments from publicity-hungry cronies.

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Rajesh Khanna’s worst enemies were the sycophants in his lifetime. They created the destructive genie which lurks within but is kept in leash by most of us. Not so with ‘Kaka’, as the actor was popularly known. He allowed his ego full play and, at a later date, even rued his lifestyle; but, by then, it was too late. He had alienated his well-meaning lady friends, his old schoolmates, his aides, servants and relatives.

In hindsight, the only similar example from the world of cinema I can recall was the famed Howard Hughes, inventor, industrialist, film producer, director and a psychotic. Hughes is also credited with a film which is a media favourite, a veritable study guide for young film directors. For film historians it is the greatest film ever made: Citizen Kane.

Howard Hughes introduced half a dozen girls to Hollywood, but he claimed that his best discovery was Jane Russel. After acting in a couple of films, Russell actually dumped Hughes, causing Hughes to withdraw into a private world of his own with very strict rules for all who had access to it. One former actress, Jean Peters, decided to stay with him until he died, sacrificing a promising career in Hollywood.

The only thing that separates Rajesh Khanna from Hughes is that the former contributed nothing to the industry he served while Hughes founded an entire empire of companies under the Howard Hughes Corporation which included the Trans World Airlines, Texas Equipment Co. and an armament manufacturing company. On top of everything, Hughes made stars out of ordinary men and women.

Kaka had a mean streak. He used his star power to demolish any opposition. Actress Anju Mahendroo could have much to add to my own story which I wish to share.

The time was when Rajesh Khanna was about to get married to Dimple Kapadia after a long-drawn romance with Anju Mahendroo. The latter and her mother had a royal tiff with Khanna before Mahendroo walked out of the home in which she had been a regular. The film industry was with her. What made Kaka furious was the reaction from even his well-wishers. He blamed Mahendroo and her friends for all the negative publicity.

My close friend Basu Bhattacharya had just completed his latest film “Daku” featuring Kabir Bedi and Anju Mahendroo. One working print was sent to Delhi by the producer for private screenings. The film came to me for tax exemption as I was the film expert on board the official committee of the Excise Department in the Delhi Administration.

“Daku” was based on a novelette written by the famed Punjabi writer Amrita Pritam. The writer did not charge any royalty because she had tremendous regard for Basuda as a film director. The film was issued a tax exemption for a period of one month after its first week’s commercial run in Delhi. I had found the film worthy of the exemption.

The film, however, was never released.

Rajesh Khanna’s fierce battle with Mahendroo led him to order the private confiscation of all films in the country featuring her. He even went so far as to declare that he would pay double the cost incurred to all filmmakers with rights over their films in which Anju Mahendroo had a role. He demanded that even lobby prints, posters, trailers and advertisement films et al featuring Mahendroo be handed to him or his representative. He paid for all the material seized.

The entire record of Mahendroo’s film career to date virtually disappeared. Films already released, like “Road to Sikkim”, were withdrawn. The advertisement for a well-known brand of talcum powder endorsed by Mahendroo also disappeared and, of course, there remained no trace of the film “Daku” .

Basu Bhattacharya was furious at the turn of events. “Daku” had already got full tax exemption in Punjab and more credit would be forthcoming. Kaka had other ideas. He probably had all the material destroyed. At one time Bhattacharya even contemplated re-shooting “Daku” with a new star cast, but funds were his insurmountable problem.

I think “Road To Sikkim” might still be in some private possession as a 16-mm print in eastern India. If it is still around, I would wish for it to re-surface now and its print be sent to the National Film Archives for preservation. Anju Mahendroo deserves to be resurrected.

Rajesh Khanna came to Delhi for a charity premiere I had organized for the film “Shakti” in which he played the role of a policeman. At the press meet I asked Kaka about the release of the film “Daku”. His reply was that he had not heard of any such film. I told him about the Anju Mahendroo story. Khanna simply stared at me transfixed and expressed the desire to meet me separately, but I decided not to oblige him.

From time to time I am asked: Could Rajesh Khanna have been rescued?

I do think that Kaka could have been saved from himself. In 1984, Rajesh Khanna’s last big hit film “Maqsad” became successful and he was in good spirits. At this time, one of his physician friends could have prevailed upon Kaka to move out of Bombay for an extended period of detoxification and recovery from his problems.

Khanna nearly succeeded in 1991. He was asked (by the Congress) to stand in a by-election for the Lok Sabha seat from New Delhi against (the Bharatiya Janata Party’s) L.K. Advani . He lost by a whisker. He stood again (because Advani vacated the seat, having also won from Gandhinagar in Gujarat) against Shatrughan Sinha (also of the BJP), and won. But he wasted away his gains due to his wayward behaviour.

Rajesh Khanna’s worst enemies were his arrogance and self-indulgence. He was a poor listener, always bent upon dominating the lives of his dear and loved ones. He had mood swings and could be very generous to someone at one moment and an utter miser in the next moment. The constant refrain around him touting his superstar image had turned his head and he could no longer lead a proper private life. He became consumed by an overpowering need to be surrounded by fawning flatterers at all times.

The entire machination could well have been filmdom’s clever strategy to create a counter point against the camps of Dev Anand, the aging Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor. The phantom created by vested interests for public consumption ultimately consumed him.

Kaka remained a lonely man. He had numerous affairs with women whom he could not marry. Dimple, foreseeing the ultimate fate of her husband, had left him to himself in his big house Ashirwad, refusing to grant him a divorce. The public never knew much about all this.

Rajesh Khanna’s last supposed romance was with Devyani Chaubal, a gossip columnist cast in the mould of Hollywood’s Hedda Hopper. The Khanna-Chaubal romance ended with her untimely death.

In later life Kaka also became a frequent visitor at hospitals for his many ailments caused by his erratic lifestyle. Something had to give and, in his case, it was his weak and thinning body.

Aware of Kaka’s declining health, Kapadia knew that she would inherit some of his wealth as his surviving widow and share it with her daughters. Her return to Kaka in his last days could be an indication of her foresight. Many like me must feel that she rightfully deserves to inherit Rajesh Khanna’s wealth after all the physical abuse she suffered from her superstar egoistic husband during the ten years of their married life.

Like Howard Hughes, Kaka did not want his illness to be made public. Both died of the same disease. Even on his deathbed, Kaka reigned over his body, come what may. The dark side of his life could eventually come to light, just as it did in the case of Howard Hughes.

(22-07-2012-Gautam Kaul is a film historian. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])