Rajesh Khanna: The First Superstar of Bollywood

The period was termed ‘The Golden Era’. Bollywood was beckoning its first-ever superstar. An acting talent hunt competition was organized by United Producers and Filmfare in 1965. Rajesh Khanna won that competition where the judges included the likes of B.R. Chopra, Nasser Hussain, G.P. Sippy, J. Om Prakash, Bimal Roy and Shakti Samanta and bagged his first movie Aakhri Khat which was directed by Chetan Anand and released in 1966.

But he truly arrived in 1969. Rajesh Khanna delivered 15 consecutive golden jubilee superhits starring as the solo lead hero, a record that remains unbroken to date. These 15 blockbusters included classics like Aradhna, Ittefaq, Khamoshi, Safar, Kati Patang, Sachcha Jhutha, Aan Milo Sajna, Anand and Hathi Mere Saathi. Public and critics went gaga over him. Especially female fans went berserk on seeing him. In an interview given to The Indian Express Sharmila Tagore describes, “Women came out in droves to see Kaka(Rajesh Khanna). They would stand in queues outside the studios to catch a glimpse, they would marry his photographs, they would pull at his clothes. Delhi girls were crazier for him than Mumbai girls. He needed police protection when he was in public. I have never seen anything like this before or since.”

Amar Prem, Apna Desh, Mere Jeevan Saathi and Bawarchi followed in 1972. Namak Haram, Daag and Roti were the blockbusters starring Rajesh Khanna that lighted the screens in the next couple of years. Rajesh  Khanna, R.D. Burman and Kishore Kumar formed a musical team that clicked and clicked and clicked.

But all good things come to an end. The decline of Rajesh Khanna started in the mid-70s. Amitabh Bachchan had caught the fancy of the nation as the young angry man and was delivering hit after hit. The audience’s taste had changed to action and thrill rather than romance. Rishi Kapoor in his biography explains, “He was a romantic hero in the era of action films.” The fact that Rajesh Khanna made poor film choices didn’t help either. He got work nevertheless but the movies tanked at the box office. The sun had set on his career.

The nostalgia of an era gone by remains. Kamal Hassan reminisces in an interview talking about an instance when he watched a movie with Rajesh Khanna in a theatre, “He refused to leave till the end titles. I panicked. This was Rajesh Khanna, the star of the millennium. If the audience got to know he was present there would be a stampede and blood on my hands. The inevitable happened after the show. All hell broke loose as the audience realized he was there. I became his bodyguard and security officer as I took him through the crowd. His shirt was torn but he was enjoying himself thoroughly. He giggled and chuckled like a child.”

Rajesh Khanna got the Filmfare Best Actor Award thrice. He immortalized himself as ‘The First Superstar of Bollywood’. As Shahrukh Khan gushes, “Rajesh Khanna, you can’t touch.”

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