Bollywood’s first superstar, Rajesh Khanna – ‘Kaka’ (uncle) to a nation of adoring fans - passed away with his family by his side on Wednesday, July 18. The 69 year-old entertainer, whose health had been deteriorating in past months, had returned home after a short stay in a Mumbai’s Lilavati Hospital when he became gravely ill. No official statements have been made by his estate or the hospital, but it is understood he had become frail due to an ongoing kidney ailment.
When news of the seriousness of the iconic actor’s condition filtered to fans, police were called to oversee the crowds gathering outside his residence. At the height of his popularity, Khanna revealed that rabid female fans would send him letters written in their own blood, paint his car red with their lipstick and hold full wedding ceremonies to marry his photograph. His prolific film output fuelled the hysteria; he still holds the record for the most number of releases in a two year period – 15 features, between 1969 and 1971.
Industry colleagues who had prospered in the booming period when Khanna was India’s favourite matinee idol called on his home in his final hours, to pay their respects. Upon hearing of his death, actress Shabana Azmi, a contemporary of Khanna’s, recalled, “I have seen old women embrace him with tears in their eyes and young girls actually swoon in his presence, hysterical and manic.” Speaking on behalf of the current generation of the India’s film and music stars, actor Ali Zafar said, “Rajesh Khanna defined an entire era. An era that was distinguished through his style and charisma; the characters that he rendered immortal, and the songs he turned timeless.”
Khanna’s reign as the country’s number 1 box office draw came on the back of a spate of enormously popular comedies that cast him as the archetypal romantic leading man. His most famous characterisations were as the never-say-die suitor of his leading lady, and it was his ebullient spirit that endeared him to all sectors of the population. Since his debut in Aakhri Khat in 1966, he amassed close to 170 Hindi film credits, among them such critical and commercial milestones as Ittefaq (1969), Aradhana (1969), Sachaa Jhutha (1970), Haathi Mere Saathi (1971), Anand (1971), Bawarchi (1972), Dushman (1972), Prem Kahani (1975), Avtaar (1983) and Souten (1983).
Also expressing their sadness and fondness for Khanna were luminaries from the worlds of business and politics who had dealt with Khanna when he was a sitting Member of Parliament for the Indian National Congress between 1992 and 1996. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh issued a statement expressing his sadness and offering condolences to the actor’s family; Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar said, "His death has caused irreparable loss to Hindi cinema."
He is survived by his wife, actress Dimple Kapadia, from whom he had separated several years ago though never formally divorced, and two daughters, Rinkie Khanna and Twinkle Khanna, who is married to Bollywood leading man, Akshay Kumar.