Rajesh Khanna: Bollywood's first superstar

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Media captionRajesh Khanna made his name in a string of hit films during the 60s and 70s

Rajesh Khanna, who has died aged 69, was considered to be the first superstar of Hindi cinema. Author Sidharth Bhatia recounts the magical years when the Bollywood actor was a national heartthrob.

Never before and almost never afterwards has any Hindi actor been so idolised as Rajesh Khanna during his peak years.

But by 1986 his star had faded. His star qualities, however, had not.

At that time the entire Bollywood film industry in the state of Maharashtra went on strike. The dispute was over a tax-related decision by the state government. All shooting came to a halt.

Each and every star came out on the streets of Bombay - now known as Mumbai - to participate in a protest march and make fiery speeches.

Various stars were appointed to handle different aspects of the agitation - Rajesh Khanna (or Kaka, as he was called) was made the spokesperson.

On the face of it, this was a strange decision. The star, though in decline, was known for his somewhat erratic ways. He was moody, temperamental and unreliable. At the very least there were fears he would not be accessible to the press - there was no live television in those days.

Yet, he rose to the occasion. He briefed the press regularly and met anyone who wanted to see him, cogently explaining the industry's point of view. On this issue, he was less a star and more a professional.

I met him during those days and got to know him well. After I wrote somewhere praising his skills as a spokesman, he called me over to express his thanks. "Do you really think I was good?" he asked, almost not believing what had been said about him.

'Starry airs'

It turned out that we had a very good common friend. I began dropping by Khanna's office with this friend and the three of us used to sit and have a cup of tea and samosas, talking about the world.

Image caption The actor was renowned for his inimitable style

For me these were wonderful moments - sitting with the biggest star this country had ever seen who, even in 1986, retained an aura.

For him, I suppose, it was a chance to be just another normal human being. The starry airs were always present (he used to surface only at noon), but he was charming and relaxed.

By 1986, the heyday of Rajesh Khanna was over. He had burst upon the scene in 1969, a fresh, chocolate faced hero in the '60s style, romancing his heroines with a smile and a twinkle.

Shammi Kapoor and Dev Anand were aging, while Amitabh Bachchan - who today is arguably Bollywood's biggest star - was a small time actor.

Rajesh Khanna smoothly moved into the breach with Aaradhana, singing Mere Sapnon ke Rani (Oh, beloved of my dreams!). Millions of young girls imagined he was singing to them.

Film upon film followed, each one a hit. Those were the years in which an actor had five or six films on hand at any given time - taxis, Raj Kapoor called them - but for most stars, not all of them succeeded at the box office.

Rajesh Khanna was the exception. He just could not deliver a flop. People sang with him, romanced with him and cried with him; he knew how to squeeze those tear ducts; he must have died on screen in more films than anyone else.

In Anand, there was not a dry eye in the cinema when his voice came from the tape recorder, saying "Babumoshai" to his friend Dr Bhasker.

In the first half of the 1970s Bollywood belonged to him and no one else until Amitabh Bachchan came and destroyed everything before him.

Lovable and charismatic

Rajesh Khanna was every mother's son, every sister's brother and every girl's handsome boyfriend. He may have been cliched in his romantic roles, but he lit up the screen. "Pushpa, I hate tears," he said in Amar Prem and the audience swooned.

Image caption Rajesh Khanna made many super hit films during the peak of his career

The gossip writers analysed his every move and wrote about his heroines, but he was not someone you could taint or criticise - he was so lovable.

The biggest criticism about him during his superstardom was about his "chamchas" (hangers-on). All stars have yes men, but Kaka was in a different league. His hangers-on were omnipresent, practically living with him 24/7. Even his young wife Dimple complained about his companions.

Years later, in the late 1980s, over a drink or three with him late into the night, he suddenly said: "My chamchas destroyed me."

He spoke about his own youthful immaturity, how he could not cope with his fame and how his fair-weather friends led him astray. It was less a bitter cry, more a rumination about how things had turned out.

He brought with him a whiff of fresh air to Bollywood, a new romantic style of acting which floored millions of cinema lovers in India. But in his later years, sick and infirm, the actor was a pale shadow of his former self.

Rajesh Khanna's decline happened slowly. A combination of changing audience tastes, poor film selection and the emergence of newer stars put paid to his career; it did not help that he did not evolve as an actor and change with the times.

Dev Anand managed to remain a hero for three decades and more, but he was an exception; at some stage an actor has to realise his time is up and choose character roles.

But despite Rajesh Khanna's unquestionable talent, he sometimes made poor choices. Shifting into politics was his way of getting out, but he was not cut out for the hurly-burly of political life.

He almost defeated LK Advani of the BJP party in elections and subsequently became an MP, but in his political career he remained on the sidelines.

Towards the end of his life Rajesh Khanna appeared in a somewhat low-brow advert that played upon his superstar days. It drew more criticism than praise.

It was at the same time apparent that he was not in the best of health, with his sunken cheeks and thin body.

But when he said "Babumoshai", it all came emotionally back for an entire generation of film fans.

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