The connection between ‘Haathi Mere Saathi’ and a house for superstar Rajesh Khanna

A real estate deal had a great deal to do with the biggest hit in the 1970s actor’s career.

With each film of his becoming a bigger hit than the one preceding it, [Rajesh] Khanna started believing that he was a king of sorts. But, deep within, he seemed to know that factors unseen and unknown played a great role in how things had shaped up. It was perhaps this feeling that prompted him to make a beeline to buy Rajendra Kumar’s bungalow, ‘Dimple’, when the jubilee star put it up for sale.

Kumar had come to Bombay following Partition and it was his dream to purchase a house in the city that had given him recognition. He had initially refused B.R. Chopra’s songless experiment Kanoon (1960), but when he got to know about the availability of the bungalow, he readily agreed to do not just Kanoon but also two more to pay for the house. When Kumar bought the house, it was said to be haunted, even referred to as ‘bhoot bangla’, but upon Manoj Kumar’s advice, Rajendra Kumar performed a series of pujas before shifting in. He named the house ‘Dimple’ after his daughter and went on to become the ‘jubilee’ star after he moved in. In the late 1960s, Kumar built another house and put Dimple on the market.

Like Kumar, Khanna agreed to do a film for a south Indian producer that featured him and an elephant, only to get the money to buy the house. Khanna wanted to retain the name ‘Dimple’ in the hope that the house and Rajendra Kumar’s luck would rub off on him, but Kumar had already named his new house ‘Dimple’ and refused to allow Khanna to retain the name. Khanna christened the house ‘Aashirwad’ and, to be on the safer side, performed a havan to ward off any leftover negative energy before moving in.

Once Khanna moved into Aashirwad, the façade of being a king was complete, with the garage of the house turned into a huge bar where Khanna held court. Khanna made tens of producers wait endlessly outside the fabled durbar, granting audience only once they had done time. He would emerge in his famous silk lungi–kurta and take his position at a chair that was conspicuously placed a little higher than the others to differentiate between the king and his subjects. Only a select few had access to the inner sanctum and many a times, those waiting outside would tell the ones who passed by to put in a good word.

An elephant-sized hit

One of the films he had signed specifically for the money to buy the bungalow was Chinnappa Devar’s Haathi Mere Saathi (1971); but even after some rewrites, the script, involving elephants, didn’t offer anything meaningful to the star. In a bid to get something substantial, Khanna asked Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar to take a shot at Haathi Mere Saathi. The duo was looking for independent credit, which was the least of the reigning superstar’s worries. He assured Akhtar that if the two came up with something decent, he would not only get them a solo screen credit but also give them more money than they had been making at Sippy Films. All Khanna wanted was a halfway decent script that wouldn’t embarrass him on screen, which he was to share with a parade of elephants.

Originally called Pyaar Ki Duniya, Haathi Mere Saathi is the story of Raju (Khanna), an orphan who grows up with a bunch of elephants who had saved his life. Raju starts performing with the elephants and with the passage of time, becomes rich enough to open a zoo called Pyaar Ki Duniya where he lives happily with his animal friends. Raju is closest to one of the elephants called Ramu, who is also instrumental in making Raju and Tanu (Tanuja) fall in love. The two marry, but Tanu feels neglected

and becomes jealous of the elephants, especially Ramu, and, following the birth of their child, fears that someday the animals might injure the infant. Tanu walks out on Raju when he chooses

his elephants over her and his child, but Ramu makes the ultimate sacrifice to bring the couple together.

The first officially credited work of Salim–Javed, Haathi Mere Saathi became not only the biggest hit of the year but also of Khanna’s career. Although the film was based on a story written by Chinnappa Devar himself, it was the screenplay that got Khanna excited about the project. Salim–Javed’s treatment of the subject and the screenplay helped the film cut across to children, a demographic which was often neglected but drove parents repeatedly to the theatres. Tanuja recalls how her young daughters – then a six-year-old Kajol and three-year-old Tanisha – didn’t speak to her for weeks, holding her responsible for Ramu the elephant’s death.

In typical Rajesh Khanna fashion, the film’s songs – composed by Laxmikant–Pyarelal and written by Anand Bakshi – went on to become the rage. Even though the album had two soulful Lata–Kishore duets, ‘Dilbar jani chali hawa mastani’ and ‘Sunja aa thandi hawa’, it was the gleeful title track ‘Chal chal chal mere haathi’ (Kishore Kumar) and the heart-rending ‘Nafrat ki duniya ko chhod ke’ (Rafi) that stood out.

There were many firsts attached to Haathi Mere Saathi, but the one Khanna never forgot was how he ensured that he was on time for most of the making of the film. The star recounted how he saw the producer, Chinnappa Devar, cane a young boy as soon as he arrived on the sets. When this continued for a few days, Khanna enquired about the matter. Devar told him that since Khanna was a big star who chose to come whenever he fancied, he felt helpless as the producer, and so took his anger out on the boy who, much like producers of films featuring stars, had no choice but to endure. The incident shook Khanna up and he never arrived late on the sets of Haathi Mere Saathi ever again.

Excerpted with permission from Dark Star The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna, Gautam Chintamani, HarperCollins India.

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