Out for a stroll on the grounds of Dimple, his tall shadow sauntering alongside, Rajendra Kumar paused in mid stride, cupping his hand around the flame of his silver lighter. Inhaling the nicotine from his cigarette and enjoying the warm, comforting feeling it gave him, he resumed walking. Moths fluttered around the garden lamps and nocturnal insects chirped happily. An owl called in the distance. The actor, however, was absorbed in his own thoughts. No films in hand, he pondered, his handsome face flushed with the winter chill. The year has ended. It’s unbelievable. And yet, I am the jubilee star. He drew deeply on the 555, expelling rings of smoke. There is so much enthusiasm, so much passion within me, and there are so many stories! First thing tomorrow, I will call up all my industry friends. My dear film industry will respond. They will not turn me down.
But for all his efforts and enthusiasm, what eventually landed in his kitty was a handful of special appearances in Punjabi films like Dukh Bhanjan Tera Naam and Do Sher, both with Dharmendra as his co-star, although in the second film, where the younger actor appeared in a song sequence and one scene, Rajendra Kumar played a central role as a dacoit. The films released in 1974. Thereafter, sleepwalking into 1975, Rajendra appeared in Teri Meri Ik Jindri, a Punjabi film made to launch Dharmendra’s cousin Veerendra. What did perk up the jubilee star a bit, though, was the release of two of his Hindi films.
The first was the remake of a Telegu film, Sunehra Sansar, directed by Adurthi Subba Rao and helmed by women actors, with Mala Sinha playing Rajendra Kumar’s wife and Hema Malini his former flame. In the publicity posters of Sunehra Sansar, superstar Hema Malini featured quite prominently. Though the film was not a commercial success, she was much appreciated in a rare negative role. This was followed by Rani aur Lalpari, a children’s musical with a melee of stars, such as Rajendra Kumar, Asha Parekh, Jeetendra, Feroz Khan, Reena Roy, Neetu Singh and others.
The year ended with Do Jasoos, a film that chalked up average profits. Produced and directed by Naresh Kumar, the film starred Raj Kapoor and Rajendra Kumar. Playing bumbling detectives, they were mere caricatures of their former celebrated selves. The adulation they had once enjoyed, the fame and stardom that had been at their fingertips had all but faded away. Of the two stars who were used to fans screaming, ‘Raj! Rajendra! We love you!’, Rajendra Kumar was still taken aback when he overheard somebody remark, ‘I saw that actor and he looks old.’
I’ve seen it happening to others over and over again, and yet… Rajendra brooded one night, allowing his despondent mood to get the better of him.
‘Biwi,’ he said, turning to his wife, ‘I’m not worried about growing old. But there is so much more that I want to achieve. I also have to keep the money coming in. All my money is invested, but to maintain this lifestyle, we will need more.’
‘Hmm…’ Shukla murmured, her eyes moving around their spacious home as she listened to her husband voicing his ambitions and fears.
‘Tonight, I need a few pegs of good Scotch,’ Rajendra was saying, ‘but I am worried about using up our Black Label stock.’
Shukla shook her head in exasperation. Actors, she thought to herself. Always so dramatic! But all she said was, ‘Miyan, go ahead and drink to your satisfaction and leave the money management to me. We have enough.’
In the days that followed, a lethargic calm descended over Rajendra Kumar’s life. But the underlying tension of having no work remained, surfacing ever so often. At times like these, he would feel helpless, broken. Lying in bed one night, Rajendra reflected that in the current scenario the world was backing away from him, disinclined to professionally engage with a star who, they all felt, was past his prime. He sighed, turning on his side. Like his fellow actors, he too had struggled constantly to ensure that he wouldn’t lose track of his real identity – the human being that lay at the heart of his star persona. Now he was caught in a dilemma: what was real – the elevated status he had enjoyed earlier, the glorification he had revelled in, his decreasing relevance in the world of films, the growing obscurity he now faced? With a multitude of defeatist thoughts vying for space in his mind, the former star shut his eyes and fell into a troubled sleep.
The next day was a Saturday. Rajendra awoke, feeling surprisingly refreshed and charged. As part of his routine, he dressed in shorts and a striped T-shirt, ready to sweat it out on the courts with a game of tennis. Bounding down the staircase of his magnificent bungalow, he called out to Kaajal, his younger daughter, who always accompanied him to the club.
‘I’m going for a run. Let me know when you are ready,’ he told her, before jogging down the narrow paths that cut across the grounds of his house. A cow mooed, bringing a smile to his lips. Imagine, he reminded himself, in Bombay city, in Pali Hill, on the grounds of my luxurious bungalow, I have a cow, six dogs, a monkey and deer! Rajendra smiled to himself, waving back at his neighbour who stood at the back gate.
‘How’s the cow doing?’ Mr Choraria asked.
‘Choraria Saab! What a gift you send over every morning!’ the actor responded. ‘A cow of our own to milk!’
‘Of course! Growing kids need fresh milk, don’t they?’ Choraria remarked with a smile.
By this time, Kaajal, a sports lover like her father, had come running down the stairs. Father and daughter left for the club. Rajendra Kumar truly enjoyed playing tennis, because it offered him a reprieve from the depressing thoughts that seemed to preoccupy him much of the time. But once back home, even as he sat down to a hearty breakfast, his vacillating mind went into overdrive again. Perhaps I should call it a day. I am at peace, he reasoned. But then, the workaholic in him raised its head. No, I can’t just sit at home all day doing nothing, he told himself. I have invested years in films and I am sure they will keep coming my way. Maybe not the choicest ones, but… Stubbing out his third cigarette, he lit up afresh as the houseboy brought out a tray of fruits. What an industry, the actor reminisced, biting into a crisp apple. It gave me so much and I too gave back wholeheartedly. I never played politics. On the contrary, I helped and advised many newcomers. Ramesh Behl lived with my family from the age of fourteen. It was for him that we started Rose Movies. And we signed Kaka [Rajesh Khanna] even before Aradhana [released and the actor’s fame and popularity peaked]. Rose Movies also gave Daboo [Randhir Kapoor] a new lease of life with Jawani Diwani, which became such a huge success. And Manoj [Kumar]… He is as dear to me as my younger brother. He also lived with us, until he made it. I helped him too…
‘Chai.’ Bahadur interrupted the flow of memories with a cup of tea and Rajendra Kumar accepted it absent-mindedly, still deep in introspection.
He recalled how it was through him that actor Manoj Kumar had finally got his break as a hero in H.S. Rawail’s Kanch ki Gudiya opposite Sayeeda Khan. Rajendra had even recommended Rakesh Roshan for his debut role in Ghar Ghar ki Kahani. Then there were the filmmakers J. Om Prakash and Mohan Kumar. They had remained his dear friends.
The star sighed, still lost in the past, attempting to convince himself that his film-industry friendships had endured, despite the downward curve of his career graph. But a deep frown continued to furrow his brow.
Time ticked on. The trees in the garden cast long morning shadows over the solitary star as he sat in contemplative silence.
I helped all those I could, he pondered. Where are they today? Not that he had done it all to get something in return. God bless them! His relationships with them had been genuine, untainted by the expectation of gain – at least, on his part. Yet, the indifference with which a few in the film industry were now treating him was a fact of life; he would come to terms with it and sail through.
And so he did as, swept along by the tide of multi-starrers that came his way, he began accepting some of the character roles on offer. It was also in 1975 that Rajendra Kumar built Dimple Theatre, a very successful venture as the future proved, on the premises of his residential property.
This excerpt from Jubilee Kumar: The Life and Times of a Superstar by Seema Sonik Alimchand has been published with permission from Hachette India.