Rajesh Khanna, the first actor to gain superstar status in Indian movies during a near three-decade reign at the top of the Bollywood film industry, died aged 69 today after a brief illness.
His wife, actress Dimple Kapadia, and two daughters were at his bedside when he died at his home in Mumbai, said his son-in-law, Akshay Kumar, also an actor.
Khanna began his career in the mid-1960s in romantic films that were hugely popular. He played the lead in 120 of the 170 movies he appeared in and won scores of awards.
His enormous success was a new phenomenon in India. Screaming fans surrounded him whenever he appeared in public. Women married his photograph and wrote him letters in their blood.
He was born Jatin Khanna on December 29, 1942, in the northern town of Amritsar. He took to acting while in school and adopted the name Rajesh Khanna when he began his career in films.
After his early success he became a favourite with film directors wanting a sure box office winner. During the 1970s he had 15 consecutive movies that broke box office records. He was feted as the king of romance and mobbed by hysterical fans, who kissed his car when they could not get near him.
Javed Akhtar, a screenwriter and poet, said: “Khanna witnessed unbelievable popularity, such that no one had ever seen or imagined. In fact from 1969 to 1973, it was a one-horse race.”
Khanna’s popularity dimmed when action films became the rage and younger stars rose to the top.
As his career in films faded, Khanna shifted to politics and was elected to parliament in 1992 and served until 1996.
In Mumbai, large crowds of people gathered outside his house today as word spread that his condition was worsening.
As news of his death became known, the crowds swelled and police had to push back the throng. Film stars and directors who worked with him visited his home to offer condolences. Prime minister Manmohan Singh also conveyed his wishes to Khanna’s family and fans in a Twitter message.
Banu, a Bollywood actress who acted in nearly a dozen films with Khanna, said: “It’s a terrible day for all of us in the industry. He was a very humble person despite his superstar status in the industry.”