Rajesh Khanna epitomised a range of emotions on the big screen—from melancholy to romance—with a rich bouquet of lilting songs like Zindagi ek safar hai suhana and Mere sapno ki raani, making his movies and characters immortal.
Bollywood’s first superstar, the 69-year-old actor’s mannerism, his unique style of dancing, dialogue delivery, disarming smile and the signature nod of his head added to his onscreen persona that made many a young woman’s heart skip a beat.
Despite his status as a romantic hero, Khanna essayed a variety of roles—the terminally ill Anand in the Hrishikesh Mukherjee film, a romantic AirForce officer in Aradhana, a chef in Bawarchi, a lonely husband in Amar Prem and a poor medical student in Safar. Khanna, popularly called Kaka, generated hysteria among fans like never before. At the peak of his career, he would be mobbed during public appearances as fans kissed his car, which would get covered with lipstick marks. They lined the road, cheering and chanting his name. Female fans sent him letters written in blood.
His predecessors, Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar, broke hearts in their time, no doubt, but the hysteria connected with Khanna was unprecedented. Khanna also had a brush with politics after he stopped acting, from the early 1990s. He won the Lok Sabha seat from New Delhi constituency in the 1991 elections.
A series of emotional tragedies in which he acted— Anand, Safar and even Aradhana, though the tragic protagonist of that film was Sharmila Tagore rather than Khanna— gave his career a certain weight. Many of those who remember Khanna and his films actually remember the songs in those films, with some of these remaining evergreen four decades after they kept the audience hooked to them.
Born as Jatin Khanna on December 29, 1942, he was adopted and raised by foster parents. He began taking interest in acting, while in school and performed in a number of plays. It was his uncle who changed Khanna’s first name to Rajesh when he decided to join films.
In 1965, he won an all-India talent contest organised by United Producers and Filmfare and as a result made his debut the next year in Aakhri Khat. He found success with films like Baharon Ke Sapne, Aurat, Doli and Ittefaq, but the 1969 film Aradhana, opposite Sharmila Tagore, catapulted Khanna to superstardom.
The film also saw the resurgence of Kishore Kumar, who eventually became the official playback voice of Khanna and the actor-singer duo delivered a number of hit songs, memorable among them being Roop tera Mastana, Kuch to Log Kahenge and Jai Jai Shiv Shankar.
After Aradhana, Haathi Mere Saathi (1971) became the biggest hit and also the biggest grosser ever till then. Khanna appeared in 163 feature films, of which 106 had him as the solo lead hero and 22 were two-hero projects. He had 15 consecutive solo superhits between 1969 and 1972, still record in Indian film history.
He won three Filmfare Best Actor Awards and was nominated for the same 14 times. He was awarded the Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005.
The commercial success of his films declined during 1976–78. After 1978, Khanna starred in critically acclaimed films such as Amado, Phir Wohi Raat, Dard, Dhanwan, Avtaar and Agar Tum Na Hote.
Khanna was in a long-term relationship with Anju Mahendru in the early ‘70s, and went on to marry Dimple Kapadia in 1973.
Dimple split from the actor in 1984. Though they lived separately, the couple never completed divorce formalities.