Rajesh Khanna, the first superstar of the Indian film industry whose romantic turns in Bollywood movies during the late 1960s and early 1970s drew love letters written in blood from swooning fans, has died. He was 69.
The actor, who looked frail and gaunt in recent TV and public appearances, died at his home in a Mumbai suburb today, the Press Trust of India reported, citing family members it didn’t identify. The NDTV 24x7 channel said the actor was suffering from cancer.
“Rajesh Khanna was a celebrated artiste who entertained millions of Indians with his performance in a variety of films,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in a condolence message. “He was called the first superstar of Indian cinema and his popularity as a romantic hero in the 1960s and 1970s is a part of our film folklore.”
Khanna started his career, spanning about four decades and 150 films, with “Aakhri Khat,” or “Last Letter,” in 1966 after winning a nationwide talent contest the previous year. In 1969, “Aradhana,” or “Worship,” in which he played an air force pilot, made him the heartthrob of millions of female fans, some of whom were known to leave the imprint of their lipstick on his car to make up for being unable to get close to their idol.
Dimple Kapadia, a fan mesmerized by Khanna’s on-screen persona, married him in 1973, the year she began her Bollywood acting career. The couple had two children, Twinkle and Rinkie, before separating in 1984.
While Khanna’s acting skills conveyed a vulnerability and sentimentality that burnished his urbane good looks, he owed at least some of his success to music composed by R.D. Burman and songs sung by Kishore Kumar. Indian films feature songs in the story, which often gain greater popularity and longevity than the original movie.
The tune “Roop Tera Mastana,” or “Intoxicating Beauty,” from “Aradhana” passed into Indian popular culture as Kumar provided the lilt and Khanna lent his charisma to its erotically charged lyrics.
Khanna’s most-famous role was in 1971’s “Anand,” where he played a terminally ill man who strives to bring joy to those around him. Anand was the name of the character.
“Anand” was significant for another actor’s career. Amitabh Bachchan, who played Khanna’s doctor in the movie, went on to succeed the latter and become Bollywood’s biggest star. Khanna entered politics after his career waned and was elected as a member of parliament for the Congress party from New Delhi in 1992.
The actor was born on Dec. 29, 1942, as Jatin Khanna, and was raised by foster parents, according to the Press Trust of India. His uncle changed Khanna’s name to Rajesh when he decided to try his luck in Bollywood, according to the news agency.