In an age where Bollywood seems unable to rid itself of the curse of ‘nepotism’, actor Rajesh Khanna remains an inspiring name.
The story of a young man with unconventional looks winning a national talent hunt and making his way to the industry sounds like a fantasy today. But Khanna lived that dream and went on to become Bollywood’s “first superstar”.
Born on 29 December 1942 in Amritsar, Khanna’s four-decade long career saw many ups and downs as he struggled to stay relevant after a smashing first few years.
On his birth anniversary, ThePrint takes a look at the career of the actor who introduced an entire generation to the idea of stardom.
Becoming India’s first superstar
Khanna made his debut with Aakhri Khat (1966), which saw a poor show at the box office but went on to become a contender for India’s official entry to the Oscar’s Best Foreign Language Film category. This was followed by Raaz (1967), Baharon Ke Sapne (1967) and Aurat (1967) till he hit jackpot with Aradhana (1969) — his performance as Flight Lt Arun Verma proved to be a milestone in his career.
Through the course of his career, he appeared in over 160 films.
Of his most iconic roles, the most popular was in Anand (1971) — alongside a newbie Amitabh Bachchan. Khanna played the character of a terminally ill but cheerful man. His dialogue “Zindagi badi honi chahiye, lambi nahin” became the guiding philosophy for many.
He went on to promptly tell us “I hate tears!” in Amar Prem (1972).
Kati Patang (1970), Safar (1970), Daag (1973) and Aap Ki Kasam (1974) were some of the several incredulous works of Khanna at the time.
Khanna’s meteoric rise to fame was not fanned by just talent or looks. Cinegoers simply adored his squinted eyes and charming smile, earning him the name of ‘Kaka’.
Between 1969 and 1971, the ‘superstar’ delivered 15 solo hits in a row, a record that is yet to be broken.
Out of the blue, however, he faced the vagaries of stardom within years of making a splash. He amassed several flops over the next decade like Khoon Aur Paani (1981), Oonche Log (1985), Mohabbat Ki Kasam (1986), among others.
During an interview, he admitted that he couldn’t handle the failure, “It was because success hit me so much that I couldn’t take the failure.”
Towards the end of his career, the actor is said to have became notorious for trashing contemporaries, which eventually led to his isolation from the industry and a habit with alcohol.
The long shadow of Amitabh Bachchan
During his prime, Khanna was an unchallenged monarch with a box office record that is awed more than envied. However, his short monarchy was ended by Amitabh Bachchan.
Together, the duo worked in two superhits, Anand and Namak Haram (1973). But Bachchan broke the aura of the tale of the boy next door in Bollywood with Zanjeer (1973). And as the ‘angry young man’, he spelt doom for Khanna’s boyish charm.
In 2012, following the actor’s death, Bachchan revealed in his blog how he feared Khanna’s likability in his early years.
“One look at Rajesh Khanna made me realize that with people like him around, there would be little chance or opportunity for me, in this new profession!” he wrote.
Tryst with Kishore Kumar
One career association that proved to be extremely fruitful for Khanna was that with singer Kishore Kumar.
Khanna’s movies were marked by immortal Kumar songs like ‘Ye Jo Mohabat Hai’, ‘Ye Shaam Mastani’, ‘Humein Tumse Pyar Kitna’, among others.
Khanna even struck up a friendship with Kumar as the duo created some evergreen songs.
Marriage to Dimple Kapadia
At the height of his stardom in 1973, Khanna decided to tie the knot with actor Dimple Kapadia, dubbed a “rebound” after his rumoured affair with actor and fashion designer Anju Mahendru.
The couple married right before Kapadia’s debut Bobby which went on to become a massive success. But Khanna insisted that Kapadia bid goodbye to her career post marriage. She obliged.
Later, Kapadia’s insistence to return to her career led to a separation between the two.
The politician who contested against Advani
After his career hit a speed bump in ’80s, Khanna turned towards politics.
Khanna contested against Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) L.K. Advani from New Delhi Lok Sabha constituency in 1991, but lost. After Advani, who had also won the Gandhinagar seat, vacated the New Delhi seat, Khanna contested the by-election against actor Shatrughan Sinha and won.
Khanna made a couple of attempts to return to the silver screen but none of them paid off.
On 18 July 2012, the actor succumbed to cancer, in a seeming resemblance with the characters he played on screen.
This report has been updated to delete a repetition.