When Aradhana came in the September of 1969, all hell broke loose! The female gender went bonkers over Rajesh Khanna, man for all seasons. We were not surprised when Sharmila Tagore in the film got pregnant and became an unwed mother. By now, we knew exactly how babies were made and how we all came into being. And getting pregnant with a Rajesh Khanna was perfectly understandable – he was the dream man of every girl.

Nonu and I fell crazily in love with him. We loved the way he tilted his head and smiled, a mannerism that would become a craze with the public. I felt no other actor could have done ‘Roop tera mastana ...’ like Rajesh Khanna. Treading a fine line between forbidden love and desire, the crackling chemistry between the actors set alight a passion that blazed across the screen.

Aradhana released at Adarsh Talkies, and we went to see the movie a second time during the same week to celebrate Didi’s birthday. But that wasn’t the end of it. Nonu and I, we saw that film thirteen times. The fact that Rajesh Khanna belonged to the interiors of the walled city of Amritsar and was born in Gully Tiwarian inside Lohgarh Gate thrilled the Ambarsaris no end.

The other Rajesh Khanna film that I adored was Safar. With it I found a deep internal connect. I also discovered that it was the tragic that drew me more. I wasn’t so kicked about the so-called fun films.

In Safar, where Rajesh Khanna played a painter and sang ‘Jeevan se bhari teri aankhein . . .’ his performance was unforgettable. The guru kurtas that he wore throughout the movie had become a rage. Nonu and I wanted similar kurtas. We bought khadi fabric from Khadi Bhandar, took Didi’s kurta, accordingly cut our own two kurtas and stitched them on Mama’s sewing machine in the veranda. We then put on our home-made creations and went off to see the movie – we were that crazy about Rajesh Khanna.

At age 13. Courtesy Deepti Naval.

The year 1969 was also the season of ‘adult’ films. It was the month of August when a much talked about English film called Blow Hot, Blow Cold released with its steamy posters all over town. It allowed entry to only those aged eighteen and above, and we were seventeen something. But with a title like that, we needed to go check out what all the hot and cold stuff was about.

So, all we girls got dressed in saris, and made bouffants with stuffing in our hair in order to look older. We did turn a few heads as we walked through the lobby. But at the entrance, one look at us, and the usher recognized us right away. We were the bunch who was forever there at the theatre for all new releases. He saw through our little act and turned us right back from the door. Feeling like a bunch of buffoons with bouffants, we came back terribly disgruntled. But one year from now things would be different.

Chetna was a serious adult film. Everyone was talking about the two college girls who become call girls out of choice. It was a scandalous subject and we couldn’t afford to discuss it at home. The poster had a girl in a miniskirt standing on a bed with her legs apart, and in between the legs was the figure of a man looking away. This time we entered the theatre, matter of fact, as if it was a routine thing for us to watch movies like this. We walked in confidently, as legitimate eighteen-year-olds, and saw our first adult film.

Courtesy Deepti Naval.

Six years after Sangam, the most awaited Raj Kapoor film, Mera Naam Joker finally arrived. It released in the December of 1970 in the same Ashoka Cinema, but this time the hall was empty. But I loved Mera Naam Joker. It was nothing like any other film I’d seen so far – or like the films of our time – hero and heroine falling in love, singing songs, having misunderstandings, and then eventually getting married, and living happily ever after.

Mera Naam Joker was about a clown who uses his own pain as a means to make his audience laugh. In different phases of his life, he falls in love with different women, but always ends up losing his love. The three women that he loved all come back to see his final performance at the end; a visual representation of the acceptance of that loss. I was very moved by the sequence where Raj Kapoor camouflaged his pain, holding a joker puppet in his hand, his own tears hidden behind dark glasses, sings, ‘Jeena yahaan marna yahaan . . .’ and recalls all the people in his life he’d loved and lost.

In all honesty, I feel it was a landmark film of my youth, a film ahead of its time. The song, ‘Jaane kahan gaye vo din . . .’ was a song for all times, never to be forgotten. It was a four-hour-long film and just before the interval Joker implored his audience: ‘Joker ka tamaasha khatam nahin hua, jaiyega nahin . . . jaiyega nahin . . .’

A most insightful film it was, and I wondered why the seats around me were so vacant. This film had so much to say about life. When I found myself crying in the theatre, I remember telling myself, ‘Why am I crying? I know how shootings are done’. But this film was beyond all that. ‘The show must go on’, was the message I came back with. Mera Naam Joker conveyed a philosophical message and was a lesson in living.

The year 1971 brought with it more films. Kati Patang was based on the famous Gulshan Nanda novel of the same title. At this time, we had just a few months to leave for the US and there was lots to do. But with Rajesh Khanna singing a song like ‘Jis gali mein tera ghar na ho baalma . . .’ how could we miss out on the movie? On 30 January, first day, first show, we somehow managed to get to the theatre despite the jostling crowds. When Bindu came on the screen trying to intimidate Asha Parekh, gyrating to the song, ‘Tumhara naam kya haaaaiiiii? . . . Neena, Meena, Anju, Manju,’ the whole house went trilling: YAAAA . . . . MADHUUUU!

Anand released in March that year, when the date of our departure had been fixed and there was hardly any time left. There were lots of things to look into – the whole winding up process was in full swing.

Nevertheless, I went one last time to a movie hall in Amritsar to see a Rajesh Khanna film. It was a poignant film and had some beautiful songs: ‘Kahin Door Jab Din Dhal Jaye’ and ‘Zindagi Kaisi Hai Paheli’. Rajesh Khanna was completely endearing in the film. Along with him was a new actor, a very tall, lanky young man whom Rajesh Khanna addressed as Babu Moshai. At once candid and intense, he was an extremely compelling performer. ‘Who is this actor?’ I asked Santosh sitting next to me. ‘His name is Amitabh Bachchan,’ she said.

Many things would change for me shortly after moving to America. I would not be able to look at cinema in the same way ever again. All the popular Hindi films of the 60s would be clouded over and replaced by the Taxi Drivers, Serpicos, and Deer Hunters of the 70s that I would be seeing in the theatres of Manhattan, and watching actors like Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Meryl Streep. But Mera Naam Joker would remain embedded in my heart as the one film I would never forget as it had come at a turning point in my life.

Excerpted with permission from A Country Called Childhood – A Memoir, Deepti Naval, Aleph Book Company.