Death of an Indian film superstar

Many critics believe Rajesh Khanna, who died Wednesday, was the first Bollywood superstar and national heartthrob.

Rajesh Khanna acted in over 160 films, playing the leading man in 128 of them [AFP]
Rajesh Khanna acted in over 160 films, playing the leading man in 128 of them [AFP]

Actor Rajesh Khanna, 69, the man many in India consider Bollywood’s first mega-star, died in Mumbai in his home on the posh Carter Road on Wednesday. 

Khanna’s death has brought an overwhelming outpouring of emotion from Mumbai’s tinsel town denizens, including film critic and commentator Anil Grover, who called him the “original superstar in the age where mystery and magic added aura to a movie star and television had not familiarised the stars to the drawing-room audience”. 

Shah Rukh Khan, a reigning Bollywood hero, tweeted: “To live with intention and walk on the edge. Play with abandon, choose with no regret. Smile and made us do the same. Sir, you defined our era.”

Khanna is hailed as Bollywood’s original superstar, and not without reason.

Few in India can rival his career statistics and he is considered the first actor who became a true star.

Contrary to the profile of the Swinging Sixties popular heroes who were good looking and high on histrionics, Khanna preferred to keep it real; he was believable and natural on screen, and hence irresistible.

Subhash Ghai, a top Hindi filmmaker, called Khanna “a powerhouse of the Hindi film industry who exuded energy, charging and animating those around him”.

From a spooky character in Raaz that brought him fame in 1967, to a braveheart battling cancer in Anand, a murder suspect in the whodunit Ittefaq, a dashing soldier in Aradhana, a gentleman in Kati Patang and a cook in Bawarchi, a maudlin rich man in Amar Prem to an entrepreneur who battled aging issues in Avatar, Khanna had delivered many hits in the 1960s through to the 1980s. He still has an unbeaten track record of delivering 15 consecutive box-office hits in India cinema.

His performance abilities have become the stuff of critical studies. In the 1970s, the Bombay University even introduced The Charisma of Rajesh Khanna as part of its cultural studies programme.

Road to fame

Born in the north Indian city of Amritsar in Punjab as Jatin Khanna, he was just another young and good looking lad who had flair for drama and acted in college. Having developed a real love for acting, he packed his bags to the City of Dreams, Mumbai, to try his luck in films.

Nothing suceeds like success

– Rajesh Khanna, movie star 

Khanna was spotted in a Filmfare magazine talent contest from over hundreds of hopefuls. An uncle gave him his on-screen name of Rajesh Khanna, and he was nicknamed Kaka by colleagues, friends and fans. His voice, style and famous drawl were his trademark mannerisms.

Despite initial rejection, a slew of hits secured him the top slot in Hindi films. “Nothing succeeds like success,” Khanna once said of his soaring career.

In all, Khanna acted in over 160 films, playing the leading man in 128 of them. Awards and encomiums for his acting poured in as late as 2005 when he was awarded Filmfare’s Lifetime Achievement Award, India’s premier film award.

The first heartthrob

For the first time the conservative Indian woman who enjoyed movies went mad after Rajesh Khanna became star.

“Culturally, Indian women had not expressed a mania and affection for a man publicly until Rajesh Khanna arrived on screen. Rajesh Khanna evoked a vocal and physical expression of female desire, unknown in India then. He roused a one-man Beatlemania kind of craze among his female fans,” says social commentator Janaki Venkataraman.  

In an interview, Khanna’s leading lady, actress Sharmila Tagore, recalled, “Women came out in droves to see Kaka [Khanna]”. College girls, young and old, and married women would queue outside the studios to catch a glimpse of him.

Many would gather outside his home in the mornings for his “darshan”, a Papal kind of balcony sighting. Female hysteria for a male star had never been noted before in India.

Rajesh Khanna’s female fans would go to crazy lengths to express their love for him. Many would cut their fingers and smear the blood on their foreheads as a Hindu symbol of a married woman holding his photo before their eyes. Female fans would write love letters to him using their blood as ink.

For the first time an Indian star needed police protection in the 1960s and 1970s when he appeared in public.

The southern actress Vyjayanthimala Bali found that Khanna’s had evoked such female adulation even in the southern state, Tamil Nadu and especially in its capital Madras, where “college girls clamoured for him when he arrived to act in a movie”.  

“I have never seen anything like this before and since,” said Tagore.

Off screen dalliances

Rajesh Khanna’s life as an actor has other firsts as well. Unlike other Indian actors who kept their off-screen romances under wraps, Rajesh Khanna’s real-life romances offered fodder for the tabloids of the time.

At the peak of his career he romanced a 16-year-old actress, the winsome Dimple Kapadia. Even before her first film had hit the screens in 1973, she married Rajesh Khanna, older by more than 12 years, who swept her off her feet.

However, their marital bliss was short-lived. At the peak of his career, Khanna was surrounded by fawning sycophants who were rumoured to have contributed to his personal and professional slide in the mid-1980s.

Khanna had two daughters soon after he wed. Yet the marriage fell apart and the couple separated, but never divorced.
He then had a series of romances with actresses and society dames that were never secret from public eye.

“Culturally, Indian women had not expressed a mania and affection for a man publicly until Rajesh Khanna arrived on screen.

–  Janaki Venkataraman, social commentator 

Recurring illnesses and loneliness had been his companions in recent years say friends.  

However, in his final hours, Dimple Kapadia and her daughters were by Khanna’s bedside to his last.

A different avatar

Like many Indian stars Rajesh Khanna too nursed using his popularity as a film star to enter politics.

After his on-screen career stalled with the arrival of new heroes on screen like Amitabh Bachchan, Khanna was said to have fallen prey to bad career choices, mood swings and eccentricities that marked his professional end.

In the early 1990s, he campaigned for India’s leading political party, the Congress. He won the Lok Sabha to the House of Parliament in 1991 from New Delhi.   

After his term, he continued to be involved with the party. Early this year, he was busy campaigning for the party in the forthcoming Punjab local elections.

His death has had heads of states of both India and neighbouring Pakistan expressing their condolences.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh offered his condolences as did Pakistan Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf mourned the loss of a “great actor whose contribution to the field of films and arts would be long remembered”.

For his fans and a movie-crazy nation, Rajesh Khanna’s death is akin to the passing of a romance that felt real.

Source: Al Jazeera

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