The Making Of A Superstar:
On Rajesh Khanna’s birth anniversary, a flashback to one of his first films.
Jatin Khanna, an ordinary young man from Mumbai, made it to the finals of the All India Talent Contest organised by United Producers, a group of twelve producers, headed by G.P. Sippy. According to the contract, the winner had to be cast in films made by those twelve producers. Khanna won the contest beating ten thousand aspirants, and was cast in Chetan Anand’s Aakhri Khat, Ravindra Dave’s Raaz (1967) and Nasir Hussain’s Baharon Ke Sapne (1967). It wasn’t until Shakti Samanta’s Aradhana (1969) that he became such a rage across the nation that the word Superstar was coined for him by the media.
Of Rajesh Khanna’s three early films, Baharon Ke Sapne is the most memorable; it was not typical Nasir Hussain film, but one he made, perhaps to prove that he was capable of more than romantic fluff. It was a serious, almost grim, film about the wretched lives of mill workers in a fictional township near Mumbai. He knew he was way out of his comfort zone with this film. Yet with the help of writer Rajinder Singh Bedi, he managed a plot that had a social conscience despite including mainstream elements like a love story and exuberant song and dance sequences, including the haunting Kya janoon sajan punctuating the black and white film (Jal Mistry at his best) with psychedelic colour.
There is a sudden crisis in the family of mill worker Bholanath’s (Nana Palsikar), ironically due to the education of his son Ram (Rajesh Khanna) His BA degree puffs his father’s chest with pride, but can’t ensure him a job. The people of the basti mock Bholanath’s optimism and Ram’s increasing despondency. Ram’s only sympathisers are his mother (Sulochana Latkar) and his childhood sweetheart Geeta (Asha Parekh). She has enough problems of her own, what with a shrewish aunt (Manorama) cursing her all the time and trying to make a match for her with the vile Ranjeet (Madan Puri). Her quietly sympathetic uncle (Shivraj) is supportive of her and Ram.
Hussain’s bleak township is populated by some good people, like the drunk cycle repair man Lachchu (Anwar Hussain), his sidekick Pandu (Rajendranath), the pretty fruit-seller (Padma Khanna), and the sad prostitute (Jayshree Gadkar), who looks after her crippled husband.
Like so many Bollywood filmmakers inspired by socialistic ideals, Hussain also portrayed the working class struggling against exploitation by capitalists who run the factories that employ them. The smoke, pollution and hard work leave the workers deprived , ill and despondent but their rich employers care only about their profit.
Bholanath proudly takes Ram to meet the manager of the mill where he works, but Kapoor (Premnath) is cruelly dismissive of the man who slaved in his mill for 30 years; the best he can offer Ram is a menial job in the factory. Ram overhears the insulting words uttered by Kapoor and feels even more helpless. A malicious Kapoor sacks Bholanath too, just when he is preparing for his daughter’s wedding. Unable to tell his family that he has lost his job, he leaves home with his tiffin everyday and spends the day with a blind mendicant.
Bhola urges Ram to attend the engagement of his classmate, the mill owner’s son, so that can pitch for a job. At the party where he lands up uninvited with a modest gift (a small Taj Mahal), he is insulted by the rich guests. He returns seething with humiliation and gets his first taste of booze at the local bar with Lachchu. Then he goes home and lashes out at his father and his false hopes. His furious mother, who has accidentally found out about Bhola’s jobless state, talks to Ram about his father’s struggles and sacrifices, pulling her son up for his selfishness.
Ram goes to the city to look for a job, and is unsuccessful there too. He comes back to his town, takes up the factory job. He does not tell his family that he is back and drowns his despair in alcohol. Bhola is so sure that Ram will get work and send money, that he borrows a large sum from the moneylender for his daughter’s wedding.
Geeta’s uncle finally gives Ram a sense of purpose, by telling him that he must do something for the workers, who slog all their lives without adequate compensation and no security. The union leader is under the management’s thumb, but the workers have pinned their hopes on a labour leader (P. Jairaj), who has come to help them in their fight against the management.
Ram is drawn into a conflict between two sides, each with their own selfish agenda and no real concern for the workers. The film goes off the rails here with its excessive melodrama and political cluelessness; the climax is absurd, but can be excused keeping in mind the earnestness of the storytelling.
Rajesh Khanna had not yet been spoilt or stunted by stardom, so he looked the part and lived it. Asha Parekh, even in simple costumes, looked lovely—the two went on to do other successful films together like Kati Patang and Aan Milo Sajna (both in 1970).
Sadly, the film bombed and Nasir Hussain went back to his failsafe formula of romantic entertainers.
(This is a sightly modified version of a chapter in my book Take 2: Fifty Films That Deserve a New Audience, published by Hay House)