Before Amitabh Bachchan became the face of Bollywood, it was Rajesh Khanna, fondly known as ‘Kakaji’ among his fans, who dominated the hearts and minds of fans from across the gender divide.
Cinema is one of the key lenses through which we frame not just our aspirations in life, but also how we present ourselves to the world. We don’t merely pay attention to the performances of actors on screen, but also their mannerisms and clothes and how these facets bring their characters to life.
His iconic nod, slow-motion squinting of the eyelids and that heart melting smile did not just send women into ecstasy but also left many male copycats along the way. However, more than anything else, he made the common man’s outfit, the Guru kurta, fashionable once again.
His fans wore clothes inspired by his sartorial sense, and let’s not even get into that iconic hairstyle.
“Rajesh Khanna’s jackets and suits of different types in Prem Nagar, Hum Dono, Red Rose, and Dhanwan were style statements in the ’70s and ’80s. The Guru kurta, which was once worn by poor farmers and humble politicians, came into fashion when Rajesh Khanna started wearing it. The kurta continues to be in vogue both among young men and women from 1966 to date. The trend of wearing sunglasses became fashionable from 1971 in India due to the way the superstar wore them in Andaz.
Similarly, the Dhaka topi (among other hats) were made popular by the charming Rajesh Khanna,” writes noted fashion designer Wendell Rodricks, in a column for Cine Blitz.
There is no question that fashion and celebrityhood are inextricably linked. Sift through any fashion advertisement, and you’ll inadvertently a celebrity endorsing it. Long before Fabindia came into the picture, it was the iconic Bollywood superstar of yesteryear Rajesh Khanna, who popularised the kurta, particularly the Guru kurta, for an entire generation of fans in the 1960s and 70s.
So, what is the Guru Kurta?
“What appears is that the round necked, collared, A-line kurtas India’s first superstar wore so passionately and so stylishly were called ‘guru’ because, well, in those days only those with a spiritual bent (gurus really) wore those kinds with round necks,” writes Shefali Vasudev for The Indian Express.
Since the actor had women swooning all over him despite his common man attire, men would refer to him as Guru, the master.
The reason why the actor of yesteryear is so associated with the kurta is the way he left his imprint by donning it the way he did.
“It’s the most iconic piece of men’s ethnic wear, and also exceedingly versatile when it comes to styling as well. It is also one of the key styles that Fabindia employs, particularly the collarless kurtas or the Mandarin collar kurtas,” says one fashion industry insider, speaking to The Better India.
In a blog post that he wrote after Rajesh Khanna’s passing on July 18 2012, film director Madhur Bhandarkar wrote about how his obsession with the Guru kurta was inspired by the actor.
“As a child, I was obsessed with the Guru kurta and in fact once when the dhobi (washerman) lost one of my Guru kurtas. I was very livid. In fact, my obsession didn’t end there. There was hardly any shirt or kurta I used to wear without wearing a belt on top of that,” he wrote.
Fashion today, especially among the aspirational class, continue to draw inspiration from the spark Rajesh Khanna lit in the 1960s and 70s.
Just take the example of the kurta-trouser combination, a fashion innovation that people continue to adopt today without even knowing it. The combination became a major hit after he wore it during one of his most famous songs, “Jis Gali Mein Tera Ghar Na Ho Balma,” in Kati Patang.
Speaking to the Times of India in 2012, Kanhaiya Rohira of Stylo, the tailor behind the kurta designs that Kaka donned in his heyday, said, “People used to come with photographs from his films wanting the same kurta or shirt. Some insisted on the same material or wanted it to look identical to what Khanna wore in his films.”
There was also the iconic safari suit (a lightweight suit consisting of a safari jacket with matching trousers—a staple of government officials) with a belt around his waist, which Rajesh Khanna popularised during his heyday. Madhur Bhandarkar referred to this earlier in his blog as well.
Fashion designers even today, especially in the ethnic wear segment, continue to work with the Guru kurta. “I still use his Guru kurta collar shirts in my designs,” says prominent designer Manish Malhotra, speaking to the Times of India.
And, of course, there is the famous neck scarf he wore in films like Andaz and Sachcha Jhoota or the simple kurta pyjama or kurta-dhoti which he pulled off with visceral degrees of sensitivity in both Anand and Safar—both iconic films. In fact, speaking to the same publication, Hema Malini spoke of how the pair of shades he wore in Andaz became an irresistible rage among young men.
His sartorial choices were more or less a reflection of the characters he played—something fans from the aspirational segments of the Indian populace could embrace wholeheartedly. The Guru kurta he popularised is something many Indians from different walks of life including politicians, actors, sports stars, journalists, students and even normal working joes, don across different occasions.
Kaka’s fashion statements continue to live on today, even if we don’t know it.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)