RIP: India’s first superstar

INDIAN CINEMA has had its fair share of stars who captured the imagination of a generation, influenced minds and shaped popular culture. But it was only in the 1960s, when the industry had matured considerably, that a modern-day superstar rose on the firmament, influencing generations of movie-goers, actors and critics.

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Published: Thu 19 Jul 2012, 9:14 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 12:46 AM

Rajesh Khanna, the romantic hero of the 1960s and 1970s, who passed away in Mumbai on Wednesday at age 69, after battling an illness, was Bollywood’s first superstar, an actor who mesmerised a generation by his unique mannerisms, his versatility and his stylish performances. His film career began in the mid-1960s, a time when Bollywood had reached the pinnacle of its romantic era, when directors had tried every trick in the trade — sending heroes chasing their leading ladies behind trees or in salubrious locales, belting out catchy songs that caught the public imagination and producing schmaltzy films with themes that brought out copious tears among the audience in cinema halls. In short, it appeared that Bollywood was done with romance and there appeared to be no more room for creativity in this genre of movies.

But then something dramatic happened in Bombay’s filmdom; a handsome and earnest actor appeared on the scene, quite different from the ageing heroes of the time, a man who stole the hearts of millions of film-goers, especially women and young girls, in an India that was in transition, rapidly moving out of its post-independence innocence and eagerly embracing Western values.

While he romanced the leading ladies of the time — Asha Parekh, Sharmila Tagore, Hema Malini, Mumtaz and Zeenat Aman — in a series of hugely popular films that became hits overnight, the superstar also performed in off-beat films including Anand, Bawarchi and Khamoshi. The peak of his career — between the late 1960s and early 1970s — saw him deliver a string of super-hits that shattered box-office records and established his hold over Bollywood.

Like many superstars, Rajesh Khanna also had stormy off-screen relationships with some of his leading ladies. He married Dimple Kapadia, who was 15 years younger to him, had two daughters, and then separated. Fortunately, the two reconciled later in life and Dimple was with him, especially towards the rather painful closing chapter of his life.

The actor also tried his hand, rather unsuccessfully, with politics, joining the Congress and serving as an MP for a few years. Unlike many other top Indian actors, including Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna’s acting career came to an abrupt end in the 1980s. But for millions of his fans in the subcontinent and elsewhere in the world, memories of ‘kaka’ — as he was fondly known — will remain etched forever in their minds. He will be remembered as a versatile and lovable actor, who could make you laugh, cry, dance and sing along with him, as he traipsed through several roles.

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