29th December 1942: Rajesh Khanna, Bollywood’s first superstar, was born

Hindi cinema’s first genuine superstar who appeared in 15 consecutive hit films in the course of three years, Rajesh Khanna was born on December 29, 1942, in Amritsar, Punjab, as Jatin Khanna, and grew up with his foster parents Chunni Lal and Leela Wati.

During school and college he took to theatre and acted in several plays. After seeing his performance in a play the chief guest suggested that he should try his luck in films — a piece of advice he took seriously.

After completing his Bachelor’s in Arts from Pune when he made up his mind to become a film actor, he agreed to change his first name to Rajesh following his uncle’s suggestion. He went on to win a contest organised by United Producers and Filmfare magazine in 1965. As part of the prize he got to star in ‘Aakhri Khat’ (directed by Chetan Anand) and the Ravindra Dave-directed ‘Raaz’. In ‘Aakhri Khat’ he played the role of a young sculptor who falls in love with Lajjo (Indrani Mukherjee) while holidaying in Kullu, marries her but they end up losing track of each other.

In an interview to The Hindu in May 2011, Khanna recalled that his “most challenging” scene in ‘Aakhri Khat’, his debut film, was the last one where he is in a pensive mood in silence till he recognises his son. Chetan Anand would wake him up “with late night phone calls” to get the right look for the scene. It was, however, in ‘Raaz’ that he overcame his shyness of the camera and got his body language right, he later claimed.

His contract with United Producers got him other films such as ‘Aurat’ and ‘Doli’.

But Rajesh Khanna, the superstar, was perhaps born after the release of the 1969 film ‘Aradhana’, directed by Shakti Samanta and also starring Sharmila Tagore. In ‘Aradhana’ Khanna is a dashing air force officer in a double role as both father and son. The film also saw the spectacularly successful pairing of legendary playback singer Kishore Kumar with Khanna. In fact, the early 1970s was also the era of Kishore Kumar’s songs, with even the great Mohammad Rafi going through a lean phase thanks to songs like the super-hit “Mere Sapno Ki Rani” in which Kishore Kumar’s voice captured the unique youthful mannerisms and style of Khanna.

Other hits followed — ‘Bandhan’, ‘Do Raaste’, ‘Safar’, ‘Kati Patang’, ‘Anand’, ‘Haathi Mere Saathi’. While there had been male stars in Bombay, and arguably better actors, in the times before Khanna’s  — most notably the great trio of Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar — the hysteria that accompanied Khanna’s female fan following during his most successful years was something new. Indeed, if the history of screaming female fans inIndiais ever written, the first chapter would have to be on the Rajesh Khanna phenomenon.

Recollecting those days in rediff.com after Khanna’s death on July 18, 2012, Sheela Bhatt wrote: “To enter the theatre to watch a Rajesh Khanna film was to enter an incredibly romantic world. As we sat in the dark and saw him tell Sharmila in ‘Amar Prem’, ‘Pushpa, mujhse yeh aansu nahin dekhe jate hai. I hate tears,’ our eyes would moisten, and our heartbeats would quicken. So many of us wanted to marry him. There were frequent reports in the newspapers of teenagers writing letters to Rajesh Khanna with their blood and not knowing how to send it across…Millions of lovelorn hearts shattered acrossIndiawhen the superstar married Dimple Kapadia…” 

However, Khanna did not stay at the peak of popularity for long. Though some of his films continued to do well, the success rate was down in the latter half of the ‘70s. This was partly because a new phenomenon had taken theBombayfilm industry by storm —  the Angry Young Man, represented by Amitabh Bachchan, captured the anti-establishment mood of the post-Emergency era.

As Rakesh Rao wrote in The Hindu after Khanna’s death: “In 1974, ‘Aap Ki Kasam’, ‘Prem Nagar’, ‘Ajnabi’ and ‘Roti’ hinted at a decline in his career graph. This was also the phase when Rajesh Khanna faced the first major threat to his popularity and stardom. Amitabh Bachchan, the notable supporting actor in ‘Anand’ and ‘Namak Haraam’, had truly arrived following the success of the 1973-release, ‘Zanjeer’…The changing genre of films was hard to miss. Romance and Rajesh made way for action and Amitabh. Action was not Rajesh Khanna’s forte. His attempts at action with films such as ‘Chalta Purzaa’ and ‘Maha Chor’ bombed at the box office. Success began eluding him faster than anyone would have thought.”

Yet, Khanna continued to star in hits and critically-acclaimed films, diversifying the nature of his roles to include more socially-strong portrayals. This was the phase when he did films like ‘Mehbooba’, ‘Bundal Baaz’, ‘Naukri’, ‘Chakravyuha’, ‘Chhailla Babu’, and ‘Karm’. Though he acted in some commercially successful films in the 1980s, his career graph had sharply fallen by then.

Dabbling in politics he became the Congress MP from theNew Delhiconstituency in 1991. His association with politics continued though there were large periods when he was out of the public eye. While campaigning for the Congress in 2012Punjabassembly elections, he appeared quite frail. According to some reports he was suffering from cancer. He died on July 18, 2012.

Drawing a contrast between the half-a-decade in the 1970s when Rajesh Khanna was the country’s biggest heartthrob and the current PR-driven celebrity industry, the writer and columnist Shobhaa De wrote in Mumbai Mirror: “The fans who stood outside Aashirwad [Khanna’s house] for hours on end just to catch a glimpse of their film God, were not hired by canny publicists. The women who slashed their wrists each time he was linked to a co-star ( Mumtaz, Sharmila Tagore) or wrote him letters in their own blood when his film was a hit, were not staging stunts for Breaking News. Perhaps, Rajesh Khanna himself could not comprehend the extent of his power over the lives of people who worshipped him.” 

Senior journalist Vir Sanghvi wrote in the Outlook magazine: [A]s the outpouring of grief and emotion over the last few days [after Khanna’s death] demonstrates, many of us still long for the romance that Rajesh Khanna symbolised. We grieve for the loss of our innocence and we look back fondly to that gentle era when lovers serenaded pretty girls in trains and when drunks always sang in tune.”

Also on this day:

1844 — W.C. Bonnerjee, first president of Indian National Congress, was born

1917 — Ramanand Sagar, Indian film and television director, was born

1949 — Syed Kirmani, Indian cricketer, was born

1974 — Twinkle Khanna, Indian film actress, was born  

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