To me, the films made during the decline and fall of Rajesh Khanna, India’s first movie hero to cause mass hysteria on an Elvis level, are far more interesting to watch than those from his reign as the throb of hearts and other parts. His peak straddles Hindi cinema’s transition from the preppy, candy-colored romances of the 1960s to the wild and wonderful everything-goes genre-benders of the mid-1970s and beyond. Khanna starred in an impressive number of hit films from 1969 to 1973, even by Bollywood’s high standards for prolificacy, and, at least to hear people tell it now, basically everyone who saw his movies loved him. The BBC even made a documentary about him, Bombay Superstar, right before he began to fade. “He has the charisma of Rudolph Valentino [and] the arrogance of Napoleon…. He has found more ways of implying love than the Kama Sutra has of making it,” says the narrator.
“These well-rehearsed gestures seemed private rather than part of the public, nice boy persona, and seemed to speak directly and intimately to his fans,” writes film scholar Rachel Dywer. “The combination of ordinariness and innocence with this knowing charm was absolutely lethal…. In many of his greatest roles, Rajesh Khanna is more than a romantic hero, as the films often focus on love in the context of wider family relationships while raising [social] issues.”
Khanna’s popularity was torpedoed by the rise of the more biting and action-oriented Amitabh Bachchan, who voiced the “angry young man” of a nation that was about to turn 30 and was experiencing widespread political, economic, and social frustration. (That said, he still has a rabid fan army, members of which may well find this essay and start leaving angry comments.) His fade out lasted longer than his time at the top, and maybe fewer eyeballs meant it was easier to take risks, free of the prescribed set of traits and characters once demanded.
Maha Chor (The Master Thief), released in 1976, plonks Khanna smack dab into an example of the Indian cinema I love most: the masala (spice mixture) of the 1970s that combines drama, action, comedy, and romance with some kind of social or moral message like family love, honesty, or patriotism, all accomplished with a grand sense of fun. However, it seems the film was poorly received both by critics and ticket-buyers, and it entered Khanna’s ever-growing list of flops.
Khanna plays Raju Khan—Hindu first name, Muslim last name, in case you didn’t already understand that communal harmony was important—is a Robin Hoodesque orphan who preaches to his neighbors about everybody needing to get along and praises Mrs. Gandhi’s ruling Congress Party government. There’s a splash of It Happened One Night as Raju finds himself on the road with a runaway princess (Neetu Singh, one of my alltime favorite Indian actors), and obviously they fall in love. Without warning, the film turns into a sort of Prisoner of Zenda involving shady land developers (led by staple villain Prem Chopra) descended from royalty.
Khanna gets a small second role as the hidden-away heir, who has been locked in a basement and made to live as a man-child, playing with toy trains and sucking his thumb—maybe the truest sign of how far the superstar had sunk by the time this film was made. The film showcases Khanna in the ways Dwyer points out: Raju is sought romantically by two women, he’s adored and respected by all segment of his local community, and he is even integral to the villains’ plans, even though of course he ultimately defeats them.
All of these basic plot elements are familiar within the general landscape of popular Indian cinema (and It Happened One Night is, as far as I can tell, the American film most remade in India—there are at least six versions). But I never expected to see them combined in this way, although now that I have, I wonder why I hadn’t before, so good is the recipe. Masala films are like card games: you have the same 52 pieces, but you can select, shuffle, and play them in a boggling variety of ways. Maha Chor changes a few of these up unexpectedly. The princess gets a scene of debating with herself in voiceover whether the nonchalant wise ass is worth loving. A character forgets that in Bollywood you are never suspicious of the sudden appearance of a lookalike. Raju’s illegal activities are accepted essentially without comment as he goes to prison cheerfully and is welcomed back into the neighborhood as an arbiter and truthgiver. Instead of instantly collapsing at the feet of a widow who assumes she’s his long-lost mother, Raju uncomfortably surrenders to her embrace and protests, “Maybe you’re mistaken?” I have never, ever heard an Indian film hero deny an older woman the status of mother.
In Maha Chor, Khanna’s smarminess and mannerisms, which I usually find off-putting, work well: as a thief in disguise, stylized behavior just comes off as part of the ruse, and the charm offensive helps sell the con and support the idea that Raju has the social capital to rebuild alliances. The writers clearly know what they’re doing, led by veteran K.K. Shukla, who is responsible for several masala masterpieces (including a wonderful adaptation of Some Like It Hot): villains cackle, the princess pouts, the moll is very clear about her desires, a briefcase full of cash explodes on its recipient (a trick made famous in Bollywood a few years later in the hit film Don), and a huge rambling fight at the climax brings all hands on deck to drive jeeps up staircases, lunge away from a leopard, and get hit in the head by an overstuffed target dummy inexplicably dressed like a centurion.
For some fans of 1970s Hindi films, movies like this were an unwelcome sign of the death of a superstar. But for me, Maha Chor is the stuff of delighted dreams. It’s probably true that most of Bombay’s heroes at the time could have done this film just as well, but it is to Khanna’s credit that he looked to be having a lot of fun on some of the stops on his way down and out.
Beth Watkins leads a secret double life as a master thief and her reign as throb of hearts will never end.