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by Monojit Lahiri July 10 2024, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 4 mins, 21 secs

Discover the journey of Rajesh Khanna, the trailblazing superstar who broke all norms to become the unparalleled heartthrob of Indian cinema, creating a legacy that transcends time. Monojit Lahiri writes…

The great Marlon Brando defined stardom as something that runs counter to great acting. “They demand different and contradictory attributes. An actor’s most priceless gift is range. A star’s, an identifiable niche in the public mind; an image, persona to which the audience can forever relate. Thus, an actor-star is a constant conflict, a two-front war. As the actor stretches, the star retracts.”

Rajesh Khanna had no problem with this definition because he defied and rose above everything in the book. At a time when charisma and established reputation (Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor) ruled and the hero was mostly North-Indian, fair, tall, handsome, and well-built (Shammi Kapoor, Rajendra Kumar, Dharmendra, Manoj Kumar, Feroz Khan), this nothing-from-nowhere, unsung and unheralded, short, pimply-faced non-entity whose only modest claim to fame was being a winner of United Producers Talent Hunt contest, did nothing to catch fire. Sure, critics, the discerning ones, noted a certain brooding quality as early as ‘Aakhri Khat’ (1966), but neither that non-starter, nor the subsequent ‘Raaz’ (1967) and ‘Baharon Ke Sapne’ (1967) gave anyone any indication of what was to come.

As everyone and his cock-eyed aunt must know, it was the sleeper hit, Shakti Samanta’s ‘Aradhana’ (1969) that struck in tsunami fashion, rocketing him to a different stratosphere. Suddenly, almost overnight, every other hero, save Garam Dharam, went flying out of the window, with every major leading man role from every leading banner first offered to him, before going to someone else. As Mahesh Bhatt had rightly stated once, “For those few years, he was god and his fans and producers, his devotees.”

Rajesh Khanna, known as the "Pasha of Passion," "Raja of Romance," and "Emperor of Emotions," was a phenomenon in Indian cinema during the early 1970s. His popularity rivalled that of iconic rock stars like Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Michael Jackson. His cars were often covered in lipstick imprints, and his photographs were treasured by countless infatuated female fans. Fan mail included letters written in blood, and fans would crowd outside studios hoping to catch a glimpse of their beloved "Kaka." The frenzy surrounding him was unparalleled, far exceeding the adulation later seen for stars like Shah Rukh Khan or Salman Khan.

The secret behind Rajesh Khanna's unparalleled stardom, marked by a record-breaking 15 consecutive hits, lay in his unique blend of superstar charisma and grounded warmth, especially towards his fans. Actress Shabana Azmi noted his enigmatic persona, describing him as a charming and cooperative co-star who created an aura of mystery that captivated audiences. She witnessed the mass hysteria firsthand, confirming the extraordinary impact he had on his fans.

Shobha De, media commentator and founding editor of Stardust, believed Rajesh Khanna's rise to stardom was perfectly timed. As older stars faded and others failed to impress, Khanna's innocent charm, non-threatening demeanour, and romantic appeal made him a standout. He was the ideal son, brother, lover, and husband—a new type of hero who epitomized unadulterated romance.

Many believe Rajesh Khanna was a game-changer who played out the middle-class dream of love, loyalty, and family values in an era of innocence. He represented the last dazzling light before Amitabh Bachchan's 1973 film "Zanjeer" marked the beginning of a new era of action-oriented cinema. As the audience's tastes changed, Khanna struggled to adapt, though he found moderate success in later films and character roles like in "Avtaar" (1983).

In a world where action and comedy dominated, there was little space for Khanna's brand of soft, gentle, and sensitive romance. Amitabh Bachchan often recalled how his celebrity status truly began when he signed "Anand" (1971) alongside Khanna, as people constantly asked about the superstar. To generations from the ‘60s to the ‘80s, Rajesh Khanna was the epitome of romance, making the notion of love more real and emotionally joyous.

Rajesh Khanna's influence extended beyond his romantic roles. He was also brilliant in dramatic and emotional films like "Ittefaq" (1969), "Safar" (1970), "Anand" (1971), "Khamoshi" (1970), "Aavishkar" (1974), "Aap Ki Kasam" (1974), "Daag" (1973), and "Amar Prem" (1972). Despite his powerful performances, his overwhelming stardom often overshadowed his acting prowess.

Khanna's fashion choices, like the Guru shirt and the belt over the kurta, turned ordinary items into iconic trends. He could serenade a girl with a herd of elephants in "Haathi Mere Saathi" (1971) and turn it into a super hit. His death at 69 marked the end of an era for all who witnessed his magic. Mahesh Bhatt aptly summarized Khanna's life, saying, "Great people die twice. Once when their greatness dies and aura disappears. The second when they physically go. For icons, the time in between is of unimaginable anguish."

Rajesh Khanna's death brought him back into the spotlight he once ruled so effortlessly. His impact was like a meteor—short-lived but everlasting. His legacy remains etched in the hearts of millions who were captivated by his flamboyant charm and unforgettable performances. He acted in 163 films and won three Filmfare awards, leaving an indelible mark on Indian cinema.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.