Film

Bollywood legend Rajesh Khanna dies

Shail Kumar Singh

Rajesh Khanna, often referred to as the first superstar of Bollywood, has died after months of illness at the age of 69.

Bollywood's first superstar Rajesh Khanna has died. (AFP)

Khanna, who had been sick since April with an undisclosed illness rumoured to be cancer, passed away at his family home in Mumbai after being discharged from hospital on Tuesday.

"My father-in-law is no more. He has left for a heavenly place. We all pray for his soul," Khanna's son-in-law and film actor Akshay Kumar told a rowdy crowd of reporters outside Khanna's residence.

India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh led an outpouring of grief on Twitter, where fans reminisced over Khanna's greatest movies and wished his wife and two daughters well.

"I convey my heartfelt condolences to the members of the bereaved family and countless fans and admirers of Shri Rajesh Khanna," said Singh's official Twitter feed.

Known as Kaka (uncle) to his fans, Khanna was not from an acting dynasty like many big Bollywood names. He progressed from acting at school and then had a breakthrough by winning a national talent competition.

His film debut came in Aakhri Khat (The Last Letter) in 1966 but his star rose with with runaway hit Aaradhna (Worship) three years later, followed by a string of successes, with Khanna typically as the romantic lead.

His prominent hits of the 1970s included Kati Patang (Broken Kite), Amar Prem (Everlasting Love) and Anand (Happiness), in which he played a man who eventually loses his battle with cancer.

Bloody fans
In total, Khanna sang, danced and acted in more than 150 films, with his smile, twinkling eyes and soft, romantic demeanour charming his legions of besotted female fans.

Soon after his debut, he was getting letters written in blood by admirers and his car was said to be stained with lipstick wherever he went. There were even reports of some followers marrying his photographs.

The arrival of Khanna, who was born in the north-west city of Amritsar and was raised by foster parents, came at a time when fans were looking beyond fading stars of Bollywood legends such as Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand.

British broadcaster Jack Pizzey, in the 1973 BBC documentary Bombay Superstar, described him as having the charisma of Italian actor Rudolph Valentino and the arrogance of Napoleon.

Many Indian hearts were broken when he married young actress Dimple Kapadia in 1973. They had two daughters and later separated, but she returned to look after him during his final days of illness.

"Rajesh Khanna gave us a crash course in romance. He introduced us to a special twinkle in the eye that made us feel good about ourselves," wrote senior Bollywood star Anupam Kher on Twitter.

Despite his huge success Khanna's star was later eclipsed by that of actor Amitabh Bachchan, who emerged in the early 1970s as an anti-establishment hero in roles as an angry young man.

End of a superstar
Indian audiences began to lose their taste for Khanna-style romances and family dramas, while Bachchan's roles identified with the frustration of the country's youth, struggling with a lack of opportunities in a closed economy.

Khanna never regained his superstar status, although he did make a comeback in 1983 with two hits, including Avtaar, a story of a father abandoned by his children. He released another 11 films the following year.

Later in the decade he moved into politics, contesting elections on a Congress Party ticket and becoming a member of Parliament for New Delhi in the 1990s.

His later film roles were largely insignificant, although he shocked fans in 2008 when he did an intimate scene with then-unknown starlet Laila Khan in the film Wafaa: A Deadly Love Story.

Laila, suspected to have had links with banned terror groups, was killed along with her family members last year.

Criticised as too bold for Indian screens, Khanna nevertheless said he was proud of the role.

His last, frail onscreen appearance was in his first TV commercial – for electric appliance company Havells. – AFP

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