NEW DELHI – Rajesh Khanna, whose success as a romantic lead in scores of Indian movies made him Bollywood’s first superstar, died Wednesday after a brief illness. He was 69.
His wife, actress Dimple Kapadia, and two daughters were at his bedside when he died at his home in Mumbai, said his son-in-law, actor Akshay Kumar.
Khanna began his career in the mid-1960s in romantic films that were hugely popular. He played the lead role in some 120 of the 170 movies in which he appeared and won scores of awards.
His enormous success was a new phenomenon in India. Screaming fans surrounded him whenever he appeared in public. Women married his photograph and wrote him letters in their blood proposing marriage.
He was born Jatin Khanna on Dec. 29, 1942, in the northern Indian town of Amritsar. He took to acting while in school and adopted the name Rajesh Khanna when he began his career in films.
After his early success he became a favourite with film directors wanting a sure box-office winner. During the 1970s, he had 15 consecutive movies that set new sales records. He was feted as the king of romance and mobbed by hysterical fans, who kissed his car when they couldn’t get near him.
“Khanna witnessed unbelievable popularity, such that no one had ever seen or imagined. In fact from 1969 to 1973, it was a one-horse race,” said Javed Akhtar, a screenwriter and poet.
Khanna debuted in 1965 with “Akhri Khath,” or “The Last Letter.” A few films followed where the young handsome actor was noticed and gained fame. Then in 1969, came the romantic drama “Aradhana,” or “Worship.” The film was a runaway success and Khanna’s career saw a meteoric rise.
In 1973, Khanna surprised his millions of fans by marrying Kapadia, a young and upcoming actress. The couple had two daughters, but they soon separated. Kapadia complained of his mood swings and bad temper when she moved out with her daughters. However, she returned to take care of Khanna after he fell sick two months ago.
After a nearly three-decade reign in Bollywood, Khanna saw his popularity dim when action films became the rage and younger stars rose to the top. His fall was swift as Khanna turned to alcohol and for the last few years of his life, he became almost a recluse.
As his film career faded, he shifted to politics and was elected to Parliament in 1992 and served there until 1996.
In Mumbai, large crowds of people gathered outside his house to mourn. As news of his passing became known, the crowds swelled and police had to push back the throng. Film stars and directors visited his home to offer condolences. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also conveyed his wishes to Khanna’s family and fans in a Twitter message.
Khanna’s funeral will take place in Mumbai on Thursday, family sources told Press Trust of India.
“It’s a terrible day for all of us in the industry,” said Saira Banu, who acted in nearly a dozen films with Khanna. “He was a very humble person despite his superstar status.”