Aakhri Khat would have been as intriguing today as it was 50 years ago. Although this was Chetan Anand’s immediate release after Haqeeqat (1964), there weren’t any great expectations from the film since it was the polar opposite of the star-studded war opus in terms of scope and execution. What truly got people interested was the presence of a certain Rajesh Khanna, the winner of the Filmfare-United Producers’ Combine talent contest. Considered the biggest discovery in popular Hindi cinema at the time, Khanna was to have been launched by heavyweights such as GP Sippy, Nasir Husain and Shakti Samanta, but his first release turned out to be a black-and-white experimental film in which he shared the screen with an unlikely co-star.
Made by a filmmaker who was an anomaly in the Hindi film industry, the movie featured a hero who played second fiddle to a toddler and contained a climax that was virtually silent for over 600 feet of film. The story is about Govind (Rajesh Khanna), a young sculptor from Mumbai who falls for village woman Lajjo (Indrani Mukherjee) during a vacation. He leaves her and returns to the city, and when she shows up at his house with a child in tow, he doubts her intentions. The plot was unexceptional for Hindi films of that period. But Anand’s screenplay and the narrative structure infused something extra into Aakhri Khat. Unable to take Govind’s rejection, Lajjo leaves behind a final letter, or “aakhri khat,” and walks away with her son. She ends up dying a few moments later, leaving behind the infant (Master Bunty) all alone in the big bad world.
A significant portion of the film is intercut between the guilt-ridden Govind frantically searching the city for his son and the toddler ambling along the bustling streets of Mumbai. Anand’s cinematic experiments includes numerous sequences of Govind reacting to Lajjo reading out her letters as well as lengthy non-choreographed shots in which the camera follows the child’s natural actions. Shot by Jal Mistry on actual locations, including overhead bridges and traffic intersections, across mid-1960s Mumbai, the experimental streak overpowers the narrative to such an extent that the proceedings seem boring after a point.
One of the doyens of the Indian People’s Theatre Association, Anand found it liberating to work outside the star system. He inspired Mistry’s camera as an active participant in the proceedings as well as pushed his lead actor. Anand got a complete greenhorn such as Khanna to delve into his own stage background by giving him scenes in which the debutant could express a range of emotions in a single take. Among the standout sequences is the one in which the “aakhri khat” is read out, leaving Khanna alone on the screen for over two minutes to relive the entire relationship. The other is the climax in which Govind hasn’t slept for three days and is almost about to give up when his fifteen-month son miraculously saunters into his studio. For the climax, Anand kept Khanna awake for three days, calling him in the middle of the night to break his sleep and even getting his assistants to keep the actor up.
The director’s son, Ketan, was in college when his father was shooting Aakhri Khat. In an interview to the writer for his book on Rajesh Khanna, titled Dark Star, Ketan Anand recalled how the crew was instructed to debar Khanna from eating or meeting anyone. When Khanna arrived on the sets three days later, his nerves were shot through. During the nearly five-minute long climax in which the infant totters into Govind’s studio and stands before a statue that looks like his mother, Anand was constantly instructing Khanna. The actor does waver every now and then and give hints of the king of melodrama that he would later become, but he still delivers a restrained performance.
The film barely made a mark commercially and critically, but apart from Khanna and Mistry’s cinematography, Aakhri Khat has another silver lining in the form of a lilting Khayyam tune, “Aur Kuchh Der Thahar.” Written by Kaifi Azmi and sung by Mohammed Rafi, the song is one of the few instances in Hindi cinema in which the hero displays as much sensuality as the heroine. Looking back, it’s hardly surprising that Khanna went on to wreck havoc among female fans.
Gautam Chintamani is the author of Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna.