The year was 1969. The nation sat up and watched as a young, irresistibly attractive Amritsar-born actor smiled, sang and romanced on the big screen. He had debuted in the role of a sculptor in Chetan Anand’s small-budget intense drama Aakhri Khat three years earlier, but it was only in 1969 that he first proved he was the perfect superstar material. Starting this year, he would eclipse his seniors in the industry and deliver 17 consecutive hits at the box-office between 1969 and 1971. History remembers this phase as pure magic.
That man was Rajesh Khanna, Bollywood’s first superstar. During his days at the peak, the handsome owner of nationally famous dimples and a mischievous smile did not know the meaning of the word ‘competition.’ Men worshipped him. Women loved him. Tailor-made for lip-synching to great songs and wooing his leading ladies on the big screen, he was that quintessential Prince Charming Bollywood had been eagerly waiting for. Fifty years have gone by.
Fifty long years. In 1969, Khanna had featured in Aradhana, Ittefaq, Doli, Bandhan and Do Raaste. Helmed by the accomplished Shakti Samanta, Aradhana, his biggest hit of the year, was a romantic drama in which he played the double role of the father and son. The son is born to a mother (Sharmila Tagore), who had wed his father in secret. After several twists and turns, the mother and son predictably unite in the end, the father having died in a plane crash in the initial part of the film.
Both Khanna and Tagore were impressive in their respective roles. And, who can forget the song Mere Sapnon Ki Rani, which Khanna’s character of Arun, the father, sings while sitting in an open jeep being driven alongside a toy train? Tagore’s character is sitting inside the train, trying to read When Eight Bells Toll by Alistair MacLean. The film’s music was a huge success, and so was the film that was also lauded by the critics. Aradhana, in short, showed why Rajesh Khanna was a force of nature who would be unstoppable at the box-office for a few years.
1969 also saw the release of Ittefaq, a low-budget song-less thriller directed by Yash Chopra starring Khanna alongside Nanda, Bindu and Iftekhar. A remake of the Hollywood film Signpost to Murder, a Joanne Woodward-Stuart Whitman starrer, Khanna played a convict on the run in the well-directed, gripping murder mystery set during the course of a stormy night. Khanna played his part to perfection, which was noticed and lauded by everybody who watched the film.
Raj Khosla’s family drama Do Raaste, also released that year, was another of the early blockbusters in Khanna’s career. The story of a lower middle-class joint family in which circumstances force the family to walk down two different ‘raaste’ (roads) in life, the film had widely popular songs like Chup Gaye Saare Nazare and Bindiya Chamkegi composed by Laxmikant-Pyarelal. Khanna as the dutiful son stood out in Do Raaste, which found viewers across the country because of its plot that touched the heart of the average film-goer of the period. Adurthi Subba Rao’s Doli doesn’t feature in the list of Khanna’s better films today.
Narendra Bedi’s Bandhan, a family drama in which the righteous son is accused of killing his morally corrupt father, was another of his hits that year. The film, Bedi’s directorial debut, had nothing much to write home about. Still, it is among one of the 17 consecutive hits that Khanna delivered at a time when he could do no wrong. 1969 began the Rajesh Khanna wave. Bollywood had seen many major male stars earlier – including names like Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand – but Khanna was Khanna’s decline coincided with Bachchan’s rise to the top someone truly special. At his best as a romantic hero, he was not the best actor the industry had produced. But his popularity exceeded everyone else’s in the history of Hindi cinema by a long distance. Khanna’s decline coincided with Amitabh Bachchan’s rise to the top. Until that happened, however, he was the monarch of all he surveyed.