Bollywood leading man Rajesh Khanna, who wowed Indian auds with 15 consecutive Hindi film hits during the 1970s, died July 18 in Mumbai. He was 69 and had been suffering from a liver infection since April.
In the weeks before his death, huge crowds gathered outside his Mumbai home and his hospital as fans heard of his illness.
During the 1970s an entire generation of Indians, male and female, swooned for him. Men copied his hairstyle and dress and the head bob that always accompanied his songs, while women wrote him letters in red (allegedly using their own blood).
Khanna rose to prominence with dual blockbusters “Aradhana” and “Do raaste” in 1969. The films, in which he co-starred with Sharmila Tagore and Mumtaz, respectively, ruled the box office for weeks. For the next seven years he toplined light-hearted formulaic films including “Safar,” “Kati patang,” “Sachha jhutha” and “Haathi mere saathi.”
Born Jatin Khanna in Amritsar, Punjab, moved to Girgaum, a Mumbai suburb, with his adoptive parents. He spent several years in theater before winning the All India United Producers Talent Contest in 1965, the year he made his debut in “Aakhri khat,” India’s entry for the foreign-lingo Oscar race.
For the next few years he had uncredited roles in various Hindi films until the twin hits of “Aradhana,” in which he essayed the double role of father and son, and “Do raaste” elevated him to superstar status.
In 1971, he teamed with helmer Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Amitabh Bachchan, then just starting his career, for “Anand.” The sleeper hit drew repeat biz as it played for weeks, and his performance as the titular character, a dying cancer patient, proved he was no lightweight.
The duo teamed for other hits such as 1971’s “Bawarchi” and 1973’s “Namak haram,” an adaptation of “Beckett” in which he was paired again with Bachchan.
Khanna changed gears again for 1972’s “Amar prem,” co-starring with Tagore as a lonely husband.
Working with Bombay’s talent at the time, which included Bachchan’s wife, Jaya Bhaduri, as a frequent co-star, scribe Gulzar, singer Kishore Kumar (who voiced his songs) and composer R.D. Burman besides helmers such as Mukherjee and Shakti Samanta, Khanna was at the top of his career.
In song-driven Bollywood, such hit tunes as “Roop tere mastana” and “Mere sapnon ki rani” in “Aradhana” and “Yeh kya hua” in “Amar prem” spurred the sale of thousands of soundtrack records and fueled his films’ box office.
But the rise of Bachchan as well as newer actors such as Rishi Kapoor displaced him. His marriage to Dimple Kapadia, the teen star of “Bobby” and 16 years his junior, dampened the enthusiasm of femme fans. During the ’80s he acted in a string of B-grade movies. In later years he had roles in TV series and films, but unlike Bachchan who continued to be a box office pull, Khanna’s star had set.
He moved into politics, serving as a member of the lower house or Parliament from 1991-96.
Survivors include his wife, Dimple, and two daughters, one of whom is married to actor Akshay Kumar.