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Can you name Rajesh Khanna's first film?

Looking back at Khanna and Indrani Mukherjee in Chetan Anand's Aakhri Khat

Sonal Pandya

After emerging the winner in the Filmfare-United Producers Combine Talent Contest, Rajesh Khanna had no less than 12 film offers in hand. However, his first film role was unexpected for a newcomer starting out in the Hindi film industry. In contrast to his debut outing, Rajesh Khanna rose to superstardom with his breakthrough performances in Aradhana (1969) and Ittefaq (1969).

Through his friend Dharamvir Varma who worked with filmmaker Chetan Anand, Rajesh Khanna managed to get a meeting with him. Chetan Anand's next after the landmark war film Haqeeqat (1964) was an unconventional low budget film with a child protagonist in the lead. Anand chose Khanna for Aakhri Khat (1966) noting his previous theatre background. Khanna's first ever co-stars were Indrani Mukherjee, Nana Palsikar and a toddler named Bunty.

In the film, the future phenomenon took a backseat to a fifteen-month-old on whom the story was actually focused. In the 1960s and 1970s, Rajesh Khanna teamed with actors Sharmila Tagore, Rakhee and Mumtaz. But for his debut, he was paired with Indrani Mukherjee in a sensitive unraveling of a young family. In Aakhri Khat, Khanna played Govind, a promising sculptor who heads to the mountains for a holiday. While there, he falls for the local village belle, Lajjo played by Mukherjee. Govind returns back to his city life and months later, he finds letters left behind by Lajjo about her condition and his toddler son, Buntu. The rest of the film forms Govind's quest to search for his young boy.

Indrani Mukherjee as Lajjo goes through much turmoil course of Aakhri Khat. She is separated by her husband and unable to care for her infant son, loses him in the big, bad city. Mukherjee made her debut in Bimal Roy's Usne Kaha Tha (1960). Like Rajesh Khanna, she made her entry into films via a contest. She won a beauty contest judged by Nutan and her mother Shobhana Samarth. Early on, she managed to bag some big projects like Yash Chopra's Dharamputra (1961) and Haqeeqat (1964). Through the 1970s and 1980s, she steadily worked in projects like Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971), Mr. Natwarlal (1979), and The Burning Train (1980). She retired from films after that; her last film was Meraa Dost Meraa Dushman (1984).

In an interview, Indrani Mukherjee recalled the fond memories she had of acting opposite Rajesh Khanna, "I still remember Rajesh as a shy boy. I was senior to him and he was always respectful whenever we spoke." Meanwhile, Khanna's first acting experience was quite harrowing for the first time actor. Chetan Anand kept him up for nearly three days, either talking to him or getting someone from the crew to call him up. The crew was instructed not to feed or engage with him before the shot. Anand felt all of this was necessary to portray the anguished father's search and growing feelings of guilt.

Aakhri Khat was submitted as India's entry to the Oscars in 1967. Chetan Anand's Haqeeqat (1964) never made it as India's entry. That year, no submission was made. Chetan Anand and Indrani Mukherjee worked again in Heer Ranjha (1970), while Khanna and Anand reunited in Kudrat (1981), along with cinematographer Jal Mistry whose handheld camerawork on Aakhri Khat was a standout.