Mitra Lal Brahmin, the man who steered the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Engine-782 in Aradhana had been told strictly “not to look back” by director Shakti Samanta.
Little did Mitra Lal know that after the release of the film in 1969, there would be no looking back for Rajesh Khanna.
Mitra Lal, however, did not heed Samanta’s directive. “My father used to tell us that he had been strictly asked by the director not to look back when driving the toy train. One evening, on returning home after a daylong shoot, he did tell us that he could not resist the temptation to look back,” Rudra Brahmin, the son of the engine driver, recalled today.
The stretch in Tindharia where the famous song of Aradhana was shot in the sixties. Taken in 2008, this photograph shows the same NH55, known as Hill Cart Road in sixties. The only difference in the landscape is the tiny hutments that have come up in the later years. Picture by Kundan Yolmo
“My father, however, could not see much except for the fuming director,” Rudra added.
There was much excitement in the Brahmin family of Tindharia, about 60km from Darjeeling, when Mitra Lal was selected for the scene in which Rajesh Khanna sings about the queen of his dreams driving alongside the toy train.
“My father used to go for work at 6am and return late in the evenings. We would be eagerly waiting to hear about the shooting but he was a man of few words,” said Rudra. Mitra Lal retired in 1974, five years after the release of the film, and passed away on September 10, 1996.
Rudra, who is now a senior technician at the Tindharia workshop of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR), was one of the few who could get up close with the crew. “I had just finished my school finals and it was my duty to carry lunch to my father. I was allowed to be on the sets and was a privileged teenager in my locality.”
The shooting for the song, Mere sapnon ki rani, started from 17 Mile near Tindharia and carried on right till Paglajhora over a 15-km stretch. “However, in the film, the song ends at Gayabari and the shots of Paglajhora area are somewhere in between,” said Rudra.
A 2011 photograph shows a stretch of the road, just below Tindharia, that was swept away in a landslide.
Picture by Kundan Yolmo
After the shoot, Mitra Lal was given Rs 50, a considerable amount in those days. “My father told us that evening that he had only brought home Rs 20 and had spend the rest of the money on his friends at the railways.”
Darjeeling-bound tourists cannot drive past the Mere sapnon ki rani stretch now because that part of the Hill Cart Road is closed since 2010 because of a landslide.
Darjeeling had hosted a number of stars before and after Aradhana but few have outgunned the impact of Mere sapnon ki rani.
Even Rajesh and Simple Kapadia (Dimple Kapadia’s sister) were in Darjeeling to shoot for the film Anurodh. “However, it was Aradhana which made Darjeeling famous and also made Rajesh Khanna a superstar,” said Nayan Prakash Subba, a historian in Darjeeling.
On January 18, Rajesh Rajak, a Darjeeling businessman, had escorted Rajesh Khanna during his stay in Calcutta. “During the entire 40-minute drive, he spoke only of Darjeeling, Hotel Mount Everest (where Khanna stayed and which is closed now), Batasia Loop (where the toy train taken a turn) and the tea gardens. He had fond memories of the place and we were planning to invite him to Darjeeling later this year,” said Rajak.
Mere sapnon ki rani kind of became the anthem for romance and for the youth in the age of The Beatles and Woodstock.
Here was an unknown actor, riding an open jeep, who gets the girl — that too an established star like Sharmila Tagore — without serenading her or begging her to fall in love.
He just sings Mere sapnon ki rani, kab aayegi tu, while the girl, travelling in the famed Darjeeling toy train, tries to read an Alistair MacLean (When Eight Bells Toll) and steals occasional glances through the window to catch the exuberance of youth. The song came to symbolise the breaking out of the youth — it was romance of a different kind, not the sugary stuff Hindi cinema had been dishing out.
The song also meant Kishore had pipped Mohammed Rafi in the race. Kishore’s voice exuded confidence — as one film commentator said, Rafi symbolised the bullock-cart age; with Mere sapnon ki rani, India had entered, if not the Jet age, at least the era of speed.
Aradhana, a small-budget film that got made because producer-director Shakti Samanta had time to spare before embarking on his next big-buck project with Shammi Kapoor (following the success of An Evening in Paris), was a monster hit. It was possibly the first pan-Indian golden jubilee hit without an established hero.
The Rajesh Khanna phenomenon can be described as a nor’wester that swept away everything in its wake. Existing stars like Rajendra Kumar, Shammi Kapoor and Dev Anand fell by the wayside as Kaka launched his box-office rampage. And like a nor’wester, the Rajesh Khanna phenomenon was short-lived. But while it lasted, it was just that — a phenomenon few stars have been able to match.