Though Raj Khosla attained great success as a filmmaker and made quite a name for himself as a ‘women’s director’, much like George Cukor in Hollwood, his work never really got the critical acclaim it deserved. Khosla is that rare filmmaker in Hindi cinema, who saddled different genres of films with equal ease, while adding his own individual stamp to each of his films. He, along with Guru Dutt and Vijay Anand, were among the directors, who were also responsible for song picturizations being taken to a new high in the Hindi cinema of the 1950s and 60s.
Born on May 31, 1925, Khosla initially entered the film industry with hopes of making it as a playback singer. Struggling to make it as a singer, he joined Guru Dutt instead as an assistant director with Baazi (1951) thanks to the film’s producer-actor, Dev Anand. He then continued working under Dutt for a while and for Dutt’s next film, Jaal (1952), he was even tried by composer SD Burman for the film’s key song, Yeh Raat Yeh Chandni Phir Kahan but failed the test. Burman got the song, a smash hit, sung by Hemanta Mukherjee instead. After assisting Dutt in Baaz, it was during the making of Aar Paar (1954) that the producer of Jaal, TR Fatehchand, offered Khosla his first film as a director, Milap (1955).
Milap, starring Dev Anand and Geeta Bali, also Jaal‘s lead pair, was a reasonably decent enough directorial debut. The film, heavily inspired from Frank Capra’s Mr Deeds Goes To Town (1936), failed to create too many waves in spite of good performances from Dev Anand, Geeta Bali and KN Singh and some extremely melodious music by N Dutta making his debut, especially the two Geeta Dutt solos – Humse Bhi Karlo Kabhi Kabhi Toh Meethi Meethi Do Baaten and Jaate Ho Toh Jao.
Fortunately for Khosla (and the Hindi film industry), ex-boss Guru Dutt invited him to make a film for his banner. CID (1956), a stylish noirish, crime thriller starring Dev Anand, Shakila and Waheeda Rehman, making her debut in Hindi films as a vamp, was both a critical and commercial success and propelled Khosla into the big league of Hindi film directors. The film is among the best crafted urban crime thrillers that were such a raging trend in Hindi cinema of the the 1950s with some absolutely brilliant music by OP Nayyar including the iconic Bombay song, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil Meena Yahan. The film also set the basis for a glorious career in Hindi cinema for Waheeda Rehman. Her dancing in the song Kahin Pe Nigahen Kahin Pe Nishana to warn the hero of the danger he is in being one of the highlights of the film.
Never wanting to play safe Khosla made some films, which were startlingly different in those times and across genres. Solva Saal (1958), inspired loosely from the Audrey Hepburn-Gregory Peck starrer Roman Holiday (1953), was a story set in a single night wherein a girl (Waheeda Rehman) elopes with her lover (Jagdev) who then dupes her leaving her all alone and desolate. She is helped to reach back home before daybreak by a journalist (Dev Anand) before her father wakes up and realizes what the girl has done in the night. The film’s leitmotif song, especially its happy version, Hai Apna Dil To Awara, rendered by Hemanta Mukherjee, is one of the most popular songst filmed on Dev Anand. Other popular songs include the Mohammed Rafi solo Yahi Toh Hai Woh and Dekhoji Mera Haal sung by Mohammed Rafi, Asha Bhosle and Sudha Malhotra.
By now Khosla, who also directed the immensely successful thriller-drama, Kala Pani (1958), based on AJ Cronin’s novel Beyond This Place and which had already been adapted as an Bengali film starring Uttam Kumar, Sabar Uparey (1955), was developing his cinematic style with a particularly strong inherent talent for fluid tracking shots, filming songs in a most innovative manner and knowing when to judiciously utilise tight close-ups of his actors in the key dramatic moments of his films. Like mentor Guru Dutt, Khosla too believed in the power of the eyes to bring out his actors’ inner thoughts and emotions.
Bombai Ka Babu (1960), another unusual film, shocked audiences as it had shades of incest with the hero, a killer (Dev Anand), entering the family of the man he has killed as their long lost son and falling in love with his ‘sister’, Suchitra Sen. In fact, Khosla explored a variety of styles be it crime thrillers (CID, Kala Pani), musicals (Ek Musafir Ek Hasina (1962) – whose starting point was said to be not a story or a script but seven songs composed by OPNayyar), edge of the seat suspense thrillers (Woh Kaun Thi? (1964), Mera Saaya (1966) and Anita (1967) – his wonderful mystery trilogy with actress Sadhana), highly emotional social melodramas (Do Badan (1966), Do Raaste (1969) and Chirag (1969)) and action-oriented dacoit dramas (Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971) – a riveting film, which heavily inspired Sholay (1975) and, to me, is the better film, and Kuchhe Dhaage (1973)). Of these, while all are films of considerable merit, special mention must still be made of Woh Kaun Thi?
Woh Kaun Thi? is loosely adapted from Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, which even mentor Guru Dutt had tried to film earlier but, ultimately dissatisfied with the production, he had abandoned it. The ill-fated project, titled Raaz, starred Guru Dutt himself with Waheeda Rehman and Kum Kum and was to be music director RD Burman’s debut making film. Once Raaz was shelved, Khosla took the script from Dutt and tweaked it expertly as Woh Kaun Thi?. The film sees Khosla expertly create a mysteriously adequate ominous ambience from fog-filled nights to creaky doors to abandoned old houses right from its opening on a dark stormy night. He handles the suspense elements well to keep the film and its plot moving along at an engrossing enough level with enough red herrings thrown in to keep the viewer hooked on to the events unfolding on screen. The icings on the cake are Sadhana’s remarkable performances as twin sisters – one good and one bad – and Madan Mohan’s remarkable musical score, one of his all time best. The Madan Mohan-Raj Khosla-Sadhana combo would score heavily once again in the second of the mystery thrillers as well, Mera Saaya (1966), where Sadhana once again played twin sisters. Khosla helmed the project beautifully and Madan Mohan came up with year another great musical album, each song a gem. The third film of the trilogy, Anita, was, however, a relative disappointment.
In the 1970s, though along with Mera Gaon Mera Desh, Khosla had some hits like Kuchhe Dhaage and Nehle Pe Dehla (1976), but barring the two dacoit dramas, they are nowhere near his best films of the 1950s and ’60s and the period up to the late ’70s was not a particularly good one, creatively, for Khosla. It also didn’t help that Prem Kahani (1975) starring the then hottest pair of the day, Rajesh Khanna and Mumtaz, ended up as one as a rather disappointing film, unlike the earlier collaboration, Do Raaste, and it was only with the social drama, Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki (1978), that Khosla was right back on track living up to his reputation as women’s director. In Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki, Khosla showed his mastery over the narrative flow even as he evoked sympathy for the mistress (Asha Parekh) while telling the story from the wife (Nutan)’s point of view. Nutan, of course, holds the film beautifully together with a characteristically strong performance and would go on to win the Filmfare Award for Best Actress for the film, her fifth.
However Khosla again ran into rough weather as all of his films after Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki barring Dostana (198o) with Amitabh Bachchan, Zeenat Aman and Shatrughan Sinha were commercial failures. Films like Daasi (1981), Teri Maang Siraton Se Bhar Doon (1982), Sunny (1984) and Maati Maangey Khoon (1984) were below par by Khosla’s high standards to say the least. His last film was a tepid re-working of Woh Kaun Thi?, Naqab (1989) starring Rishi Kapoor and Farha. Oddly though, this was more faithful to the Collins novel but a rather weak film overall and it proved to be a sad end to Khosla’s film career.
An anguished Khosla took refuge in alcohol and passed away on June 9th in 1991, totally disillusioned with the Film industry. Quoting him, “It’s a losing game. There are no winners here.” Khosla finally got some recognition belatedly when he was one of the film personalities featured on a series of postage stamps the Indian Postal Department came out with in 2013, celebrating 100 years of Indian cinema.