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, was also responsible for song picturizations being taken to a new high in the Hindi cinema of the 1950s and 6os.
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). He continued working under Dutt in Jaal (1952) (he tested for the song Yeh Raat Yeh Chandni Phir Kahan for the film but failed) and Baaz (1953). 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, was a reasonably decent enough directorial debut. The film, inspired from Frank Capra’s Mr Deeds Goes To Town (1936), failed to create waves in spite of good performances from Dev Anand, Geeta Bali and KN Singh and some melodious music by N Dutta 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 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 urban crime thrillers that were a trend in the 1950s with some absolutely brilliant music by OP Nayyar. The film also set the base 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 being one of the highlights of the film.
Never wanting to play safe Khosla made some films, which were startlingly different in those times. Solva Saal (1958) was a story of a single night wherein a girl (Waheeda Rehman) elopes with her lover (Jagdev) who dupes her and is helped back home by a journalist (Dev Anand) before her father wakes up and realizes what the girl has done. Bombai Ka Babu (1960) 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. Both films were well-made and further helped Khosla’s reputation as one of the better and most versatile filmmakers in the Hindi film industry. In fact, Khosla explored a variety of styles be it crime thrillers (CID, Kala Pani (1958)), musicals (Ek Musafir Ek Hasina (1962) – whose starting point was not a story or a script but seven songs composed by OPNayyar!), suspense thrillers (Woh Kaun Thi? (1964), Mera Saaya (1966), Anita (1967) – his wonderful mystery trilogy with actress Sadhana), highly emotional social melodramas (Do Badan (1966), Do Raaste (1969)) and action-oriented dacoit dramas (Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971) – a riveting film, which heavily inspired Sholay (1975)). Of these, special mention must 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. The film sees Khosla expertly create a mysteriously adequate 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 icing on the cake is Madan Mohan’s remarkable musical score, one of his all time best.
In the 1970s, though along with Mera Gaon Mera Desh, Khosla had some hits like Kuchhe Dhaage (1973), Shareef Badmash (1973) and Nehle Pe Dehla (1976), they are nowhere near his best films and the period was not a particularly good one creatively for Khosla. It didn’t help that Prem Kahani (1975) starring the then hottest pair of the day, Rajesh Khanna and Mumtaz, ended up as one of their weakest films together and it was only with the social 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 going on to win the Filmfare Award for Best Actress for the film.
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. His last film was a weak re-working of Woh Kaun Thi?, Naqab (1989).
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.”