In an unexpectedly deep and thoughtful comment, Jatin Khanna once described himself as the "custodian" of his own movie screen avatar Rajesh Khanna.
"I am Jatin (his real name). I am the sole custodian of Rajesh Khanna. He works for me," he told me in 1990 sitting in his permanent suite at the Ashok Hotel in New Delhi.
For someone who had been past his prime by then for a while, Khanna still retained a lot of his raging charisma as he prepared for a new role, that of a politician. That year former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was the president of the Congress Party, was looking for some unusual non-political names to join his party to create a buzz. Khanna's name was on top of that list.
Although he said he had always been a Congress supporter, Khanna had to think hard before formally joining active politics. "My advantage is that I have earned enough name and fame. Now if I can do my little bit for the country, it would be an honour," he said.
Khanna first contested against Bharatiya Janata Party stalwart Lal Krishna Advani in 1991 parliamentary elections from the New Delhi constituency, but lost narrowly to him. However, since Advani had also contested simultaneously from the Gandhinagar constituency in Gujarat and won there as well, he vacated the New Delhi seat. The resultant byelection in 1992 saw Khanna pitted against fellow movie star Shatrughan Sinha, whom he defeated by a little over 25,000 votes. He contested again in 1996, this time from the Gandhinagar constituency in Gujarat against Advani but lost.
While his career as a politician remained sketchy after some early success, he privately nursed a grievance that the Congress party used him for the limited purposes of electoral campaigning. He thought he had it in him to contest more elections and sharpen his skills as a full-time politician. "I have no vested interests in terms of making a name or making money for myself unlike some other politicians. I think I can be in public service for the long haul," Khanna said.
During extended conversations with this journalist before he finally decided to formally enter politics, one recurring theme in his observations was about whether his stardom would help or hinder his new career. "Being recognized is a clear advantage for me but that is just the first step. I doubt if the people of India would be taken in only my being Rajesh Khanna. To quote a line from my own film, 'Yeh public hai. Yeh sab janti hai'."
More than anything else what Khanna seemed to be grappling with most that one afternoon in 1990 was the real prospect of losing his standing as a superstar in case he failed as a politician. "I know these are two very different fields. Unlike the movie world, the problems I would be expected to deal with here are real. I cannot have the luxury of multiple takes in politics. It demands a great deal of diligence," he said.
Also, the fact that he was handpicked by Rajiv Gandhi seemed to put a lot of pressure on him. "He is my leader and I do not want to let him down," he kept saying. However, once he took the plunge in electoral politics, campaigning for him turned out to be remarkably natural. "One cannot deny that it is after all a performance. Addressing rallies and meeting people all require a certain amount of histrionics which I possess," he said.
Khanna's public rallies were a lesson in showmanship to those journalists watching from the sidelines. He knew exactly the kind of body language to use, where to take the pause before delivering a punch line and flash a meaningful smile. Once in a while he would pander to the popular demand of saying a line or two from his most famous movies.
At a particular rally in South Delhi, the crowd asked him to recite his popular line, "Pushpa, I hate tears" from the 1972 hit 'Amar Prem'. He did but quickly improvised saying in an undisguised melodramatic fashion, "Is audience mein jitni Pushpa hein aur jitni bhi mahilayen hein, unke aansu paunchhunga mein," (I would like to wipe the tears of all the Pushpas and other women in this audience). The audience was rapturous.
Notwithstanding his obvious appeal, Khanna's career as a Member of Parliament (MP) fell way short of its early promise and he was very conscious about that. "Winning an election is one thing and then using that platform to get the actual work for ordinary people runs into a whole new set of challenges," he said.
Despite his lacklustre performance as a MP, Khanna remained a steadfast campaigner for the Congress party in several parliamentary and state elections. Himanshu Vyas, a Congress party spokesman in Gujarat who managed his campaign during the 1996 Gandhinagar election, said, "Kakaji (as he was known) swung many elections single-handedly. I can testify to it having accompanied him. He had perfected his routine and the audiences loved him. He had developed political savvy to the surprise of many."
During this correspondent's last meeting with him about two years ago, Khanna reminisced about his earlier brainstorming at the Ashok Hotel and said, "I did become a professional politician but could not become a political superstar. Kismet kahin to kum karegi (Kismet has to hold something back)."
(Mayank Chhaya is a Chicago-based journalist who knew Rajesh Khanna for over 25 years. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)