Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Of red roses and hanky pankies: the strange case of Rajesh Khanna, ladykiller

There are some films so bad that they are just plain bad, and there are some films so bad they are hair-raisingly awesome. Somewhere in the large wasteland between these two extremes (but no one knows exactly where) falls the 1980 Rajesh Khanna-starrer Red Rose, about a psychotic killer who hates women because of the things some of them did to him when he was a boy (or more specifically, when he was the ever-suffering Master Mayur).

What makes Red Rose terrible and sort-of-excellent at the same time is the way it combines disparate elements: on one hand, it’s a cheap rip-off of psychological-horror classics like Peeping Tom and Psycho, presented in the B-movie style of the Ramsay Brothers; on the other hand, you can't fully appreciate this movie without reference to the long-defunct superstar persona of Rajesh Khanna.

Khanna plays a wealthy man introduced to us as “Mister Anand” (not to be confused with Simple and Inspirational Anand), who lives alone in a mansion full of bright red sofas. He has a plush office too; we never learn exactly what his business is, though the words “import-export” are muttered, and at one point someone remarks that “the consignment of 2,000 buckets hasn’t reached Dubai yet”. This invokes immense pity for all those poor labourers toiling to turn a desert settlement into a showy metropolis; how will these sweaty men have their baths now?

However, Mr Anand has other things on his mind. This being an idyllic era in Hindi cinema where everyone worked from 9.30 to 5 and not a second longer, he has plenty of time for a homicidal night-life, and Khanna conveys the tortured mental state of his character by adjusting his glasses every few seconds and looking distracted, as if he has misplaced an important pencil. Our first hint of the general spookiness of things (well, apart from the background score, the grubby gardener played by Om Shivpuri, and the dead rat in the opening scene) comes when one of Anand’s employees tells him that the women who have applied for the post of secretary are in the waiting room. “I’ll interview half of them, you interview the other half,” says Anand.

But there are five girls! This isn’t an even number, and so, for the first time, we begin to worry for the safety of the women in this film.

Snow White and Rose Red
Red Rose is a remake of the Tamil film Sigappu Rojakkal, starring Kamal Hassan and Sridevi. Knowledgeable friends tell me the original is better, and I can imagine Hassan giving a more convincing performance in the lead, but who cares: the use of Rajesh Khanna in this remake is so much more intriguing. For an inexplicable period between 1969 and 1972, Khanna had the loins of every Indian woman (and most Indian men) all a-flutter. Now, a decade later, when his market value had plummeted, this film casts him as a Lothario who slays women immediately after seducing them. It’s the sort of thing that howls out for subtextual analysis.

The main plot of Red Rose begins with Anand meeting the woman who might yet redeem him. (Think Norman Bates and Marion Crane. Or Mark and Helena in Peeping Tom.) This is a garment-shop salesgirl named Sharda and played by Poonam Dhillon (who looks fearful and uneasy, and is possibly wishing she had stuck to maturer assignments like “Gapuchi Gapuchi Gam Gam”). He engages her in double entendre.

“Kya chaahiye aapko?” she asks sweetly.

“Aap...” he says, and after a significant pause that gives her time to gasp, “...ke paas koi roomal hai?”

This scene is creepy because we already know there’s something very wrong with Mr Anand. But note that if exactly the same scene had occurred in a straightforward romantic Hindi movie where the (roguish but basically goodhearted) hero was teasing the heroine, it would have been seen as acceptable, even cute. Heck, if Khanna himself had played it 10 years earlier, everyone in the hall, including the projectionist, would have swooned.

Anyway, Anand asks Sharda for a handkerchief with a rose on it, which she is strategically wearing around her waist. That particular design isn’t available, she says, but it will come soon. “Aap mujhe jaldi de denge na?” he asks pointedly, and she blushes and requests him to wait just a while longer. Perhaps they are still talking about roses on hankies, or perhaps not; the screenplay at this point is what a highbrow critic might call ambiguous and multi-layered. (One is tempted to make a vulgar pun involving the words “rose”, "meri" and “le lo”, though being a genteel culture blogger one shall naturally do nothing of the sort.)

Soon love blossoms in Sharda’s heart. Again, this is very hard to believe within the world of the movie itself (Anand is an oddball to put it kindly), but it makes sense in the old subtextual way: in real life, Poonam Dhillon was on the cusp of adolescence when Rajesh Khanna first appeared, gently bobbing his head, on the personal horizon of the Hindi movie-watching schoolgirl. Now he comes to her shop, engages in innuendo-filled chatter and even hurls a handkerchief at her face. Wouldn’t you fall head over heels?

The romance persists to the point where they get quickly and improbably married, but he turns out to be a (gasp!) atheist who scoffs at the little Durga Ma toys, sorry, idols, that she collects and puts in her playroom. He goes to the temple to make her happy, but only so she will reciprocate by coming to his “temple”, the bedroom. (He also has a library with books titled “Sex Energy” and such, and a games room where he plays table tennis with himself by knocking a ball against the mirror, thus giving a whole new meaning to Mukul Kesavan’s observation about “Rajesh Khanna’s awesome capacity for self-love”.)

There are many other things going on in this film. These include Satyen Kappu as a cuckold, a nasty black cat (though the house has a “Beware of Dog” sign on the gate), a nosy waiter who gets his just desserts in the men's toilet, strange insert shots that suggest Anand’s tormented childhood memories, much misogyny, lots of bad acting, and perplexing dialogue (“Main sab kuch bedroom mein hi karta hoon: I am a very lonely man, you see”). For once, even Master Mayur looks embarrassed.

There is also the theme of a prim young rose holding the monster at bay by refusing to go to bed with him before marriage (the way all those other "forward" women do before her) - it might be said that Sharda's chasteness and piety are the garlic to Anand's vampire. (Picture Bela Lugosi having to take off his shoes before entering his victim's prayer room, and you'll know what I mean.) But to my mind Red Rose is most interesting as a commentary on its star’s fading career. By the time the film reveals itself to be a cry of outrage against depraved women who lust for young boys, you have to wonder if the reference is to all those aunties who turned the baby-faced Rajesh Khanna into a sex symbol in the late 60s, thus inviting damnation on the rest of their kind.

[Did a version of this for my Business Standard film column]


  1. A post that made me laugh! Took me back to my adolescent days when Red Rose was running in the our neighbouring Talkies which made my mother complain about its "vahiyaat" posters. Liked the pun on self: genteel culture blogger, yeah!

  2. Surely, you mean Rajesh Khanna's awesome capacity for self-play?

  3. Amitava: just quoting Mukul, very innocently. Surely you don't think I would ever say something mean or sardonic about Kakaji!

    Manreet: must have been some experience watching this film on the big screen with a hyper-excited audience of RK-lovers - envy you deeply.

  4. Superb! I simply loved your review. I have seen the Tamil version many many years ago. I think it had Sridevi in the lead.

    While reading the hanky shopping banter bit, I was reminded of a Friends episode where Monica talks about giving her 'flower' to someone. :)))

  5. Deepa: yes, I remember that Friends episode with Fat Monica trying to come on to Wannabe Cool Chandler. I think "deflower-ment" was definitely on the minds of the Red Rose screenwriters.

  6. Nice post Jabberwock - really took me back to the film!

  7. This is one of your funniest posts in a while. I saw Sigappu Roajakkal, though I don't remember much of it anymore.

  8. Really funny! I have seen the original in Tamil- much better. But you cannot expect anything better from Rajesh Khanna can you? Even those so called Hit films of his in the 60s and 70s were thanks to SD Burman and RD ..

  9. The title of the movie is enough to lure an audience... who names a Hindi movie Red Rose! Lol!

  10. Nice post Jai , Rajesh Khanna was indeed an Odd choice for this kind of a role. I have some friends who somehow like this movie and i sometimes wonder whether all is right with this world.

    Again I could never fathom Khanna's popularity in the 60's and 70's . Probably one can understand a Vinod Khanna having girls swooning but Rajesh the 'Aradhana' Khanna's popularity is a wonderful case study on Indian females.

  11. Nice post, Jai. Haven't seen the film though. The description makes me wonder if the film was as bad as RGV ki Aag. Maybe you could write about Plan 9 from Outer Space, which is officially considered to be the worst film ever!

  12. Hmm. The review aside - I incline to Ravi Balakrishnan’s take on it - (http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/Business_of_Bollywood/A_rose_by_any_name/articleshow/2547342.cms) have never quite fathomed Kesavan’s pronouncement on RK and its subsequent dissemination through the interwebs. Aren’t all actors, given the very nature of their being, narcissistic? Not being particularly privy to what the film rags of the day had to say about RK, though they obviously said plenty, I’d imagine he was no more and no less than his contemporaries in this respect.

    After all this is the same Khanna who in “Yeh jo public hai yeh sab janti ha” from ‘Roti’(1974) in perhaps one of the most self-aware bits in Hindi cinema, (min 2:55) goes: “Kya neta kya abhineta, deh janta ko jo dhoka, pal mein shauhorat udd jaye, jo ek pawan ka jhoka”. Interestingly, despite the sequence and context in the film, this song seems to be on the illusory nature of fame, popularity of the actor, and a capricious public. In the segment when Jeetendra, as the star, comes in (min 1:40 or thereabouts), RK sings very tellingly, “Yeh chahe toh sar peh bithaale, chahe phenk de neeche, pehle yeh peeche bhage, phir bhago iske pheeche. Arre dil toote toh, arre yeh roothe toh, tauba kahan phir manti hai”.

    @ some of the commenters: On the issue of his popularity being due to just the songs in his films, it begs the question why didn’t Randhir Kapoor for instance, who had some of RD’s best, ever make it? In any event, there’s still legions of his fans (I am one of course :-)) that swear by him and no, not just because of ‘Aradhana’ :-).

  13. @Suhan, its about his reel life persona than the real life one. He sucked the life out of the narcissistic self obsessed archetype which was probably first templated by Dileep Kumar in Hindi Cinema and of which Devdas is a classic example of.
    Have to agree,he is not alone-many others come to mind like Manoj Kumar, Rajendra Kumar etc.
    On another note, is it just a coincidence that all performances of the actors of this school were relatively restrained in their B/W movies? Rajesh came across as a normal guy in Baharaon ke Sapne, so did Manoj in his early movies and so on and so forth.But Rajesh Khanna did achieve most of his success in his self obsessed era.

  14. Suhan: thanks for the long and thoughtful comments on this and the Satyakam post. Lots to address here, but to clarify first: though I'm very far from being a Rajesh Khanna fan, I don't agree with everything Kesavan writes in that piece - for instance, when he says Khanna's performance in Anand is hard to watch today without cringing or giggling.

    I think RK's star-performance in Anand is good on the whole, given what the script and set-up require of him - my problem is with the manipulative way in which the film uses his persona. (I mentioned that swell of star-heralding music that plays when he first bursts in through the door. That moment was particularly jarring for me because it comes right in the midst of an intense and grounded conversation between the idealistic Dr Bhaskar and the more pragmatic Dr Kulkarni, and RK's entry turns Anand into a very different film altogether. Again, that doesn't make it a bad film by any means, but the comparison here is with Satyakam, which I thought was more internally consistent and generally superior in other ways.)

    About Balakrishnan's piece - in my view, Red Rose is a "slick urban thriller" only in concept; there's very little that's slick or sophisticated about the actual execution (apart from a few nicely shot night-scenes as Anand travels about in his car). I'm a big fan of the broad psycho-killer genre myself - including its gratuitous, over-the-top entries like the Dario Argento movies - but I honestly didn't think Red Rose was a well-written, well-played or smoothly constructed film.

    I agree - again, in principle - with Balakrishnan's point that taking on this part was a very brave thing for RK to do. Full credit to him for that. But I don't agree that it's a stellar performance.

    Once again, thanks for the comments - it's very instructive and satisfying to have this sort of discussion with someone who feels differently about a subject. So unlike the typical online argument!

  15. Some nice comments on my Facebook link about this post - am putting a couple of them up here...

  16. In a piece full of brilliant observations, and - err, pun entirely unintended - deadly analyses, this one knocks the rest clean out of the ballpark: "“the consignment of 2,000 buckets hasn’t reached Dubai yet”. This invokes immense pity for all those poor labourers toiling to turn a desert settlement into a showy metropolis; how will these sweaty men have their baths now?"

  17. Seeking Rumi: you'll be both moved and inspired to learn that I had to rewind and rewatch that scene THRICE, because I couldn't believe I'd really heard that line about do hazaar baltis heading Dubaiwards. I then tried analysing this dialogue subtextually but failed; it's my Waterloo.

  18. Jai Arjun Singh: I am - both gobsmacked and moved! THREE times. All that in the line of duty? Wow. About the subtext though: it is rather of a riddle, unless, it was a sign of impending doom? You know? Buckets - water to clean the self - ...purification/redemption? I find the desert/buckets/water bit intriguing. Could Poonam Dhillon be like a bucket of water in the desert? The only way to salvation? Your guess is as good as mine.

    By the way, having missed the age when Rajesh Khanna sent ripples up and down loins, and other parts of the anatomy, I did find him quite smarmy as a child (and was worried by the devotion of most of the female members of my extended family to his cranial dysfunctions). This film (only bits of which stuck in memory - largely consisting of his spaceship sized sunglasses, and soporific voice, not to mention blobs of red that appeared on screen? It's all a blur) seemed like vindication of my secret suspicions about his sinister designs on all of womankind.

  19. "...his sinister designs on all of womankind"

    Seeking Rumi: for shame! by now it should be clear that it were the women who had sinister designs on poor unblemished RK. How they fetishized him! How they got what they deserved!

  20. Jai: Oh, if women fetishized him, I am SURE they got what they deserved - it must have been punishment in itself! How indescribably annoying he was, with that tilt of the head (like a thoughtful Irish settler) and that voice - every time... he spoke, it was in cadence. I have to admit I couldn't wait for him to die in Anand (had felt so sorry for the Bachchan character who got saddled with him willy-nilly!), that forced bonhomie really got on my nerves. Red Rose was the only one where my infant self was convinced he'd unveiled his Mr. Hyde self.

    There, my secret is out. I am sure I'll now be dismembered by some geriatric RK fan!

  21. I have watched both and loved Kamal's original. Bharathiraja directed both the versions.

    You might like to watch a few mins of the original here.

  22. ye bhi dekhiye http://chavannichap.blogspot.com/2011/04/blog-post_3040.html

  23. and rajesh khanna's pristine white suits! his twitching nose and wiggly eyebrows! and all those facial contortions that still pass for his acting!

  24. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BjTBs37ak58

  25. thirty min of kaka rajesh khanna actually shooting a film- awesome

  26. Oh come on, you haters. RK was a pretty good actor in his day, and a very good looking chap to book, at least till the mid 70s or so. Also remember that at a time when most actors tended to get subsumed in their images, he actually did quite a few different "unheroic" roles, like in Itefaq, Baharon Ke Sapne, Raaz, Daag, and Avishkaar. But people seem stuck on his "romantic" image - primarily due to Aradhana, Kati Patang and a few other films. Even Anand did not have a romantic track - only a romanticized one. Red Rose was a bad film, agreed, but which other "hero" of that day and age would agree to play a serial killer? RK did.

    I am also pretty confident that most of the people who knock his looks are men who seem to think that the only 'male' look worth raving about is the rugger Vinod Khanna type. I know that my mother and aunts still sigh wistfully when they speak of RK in Aradhana, as do many many other women of that era. Maybe they all had bad taste?

    If you have to knock actors for being unworthy of adulation - I can think of many (hell, most of them - Rajendra Kumar, Raj Kumar, Manoj Kumar, Ashok Kumar et al) who'd fall in that category! But they all had followings, and were immensely popular in their own times. Of course it is fashionable for us to look back and laugh at what the "older generation" likes, and we are oh-so-better than them. It probably takes more effort, and openness, to appreciate them for what they had/did.

    Few of us here would seem to take that effort.

  27. Red Rose is one of the classic movie of Super Star Rajesh Khanna in 1980

  28. I remember Red Rose was released in my 14th year of existence. I desperately wanted to watch it, but the gate keeper didn't let me in (it was 'A' grade movie). As it was an adult movie it never came home on VHS. And by the time I went to the uni the movie was long gone.

    I used to write fan mail (can't believe I did) once in a while. I received a letter back from Rajesh Khanna (ofc his PR machinery) with a photo from Red Rose. I think I do have it kept safe back home.

    I didn't see anyone writing about music of this movie. I love 'kiski sadayein'. A typical RD composition that sounds so fresh even to this day.