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Bollywood's First Superstar Rajesh Khanna Dies, Aged 69

Rajesh Khanna

What Beatlemania was to the west, “Rajeshmania” was to India thanks to a record string of consecutive hits by the iconic actor at his peak in the seventies.

MUMBAI – The world's biggest film industry lost its first superstar, Rajesh Khanna, 69, who died at his Mumbai home Wednesday after battling health issues in recent months. What Beatlemania was to the west, “Rajeshmania” was to India when Khanna ruled the box office at his peak in the seventies with a career spanning more than 160 films over 25 years.

Born in the North Indian city of Amritsar as Jatin Khanna, he was adopted and raised by foster parents. Passionate about acting from his school days, he went against his family wishes to pursue his dreams and entered a national talent contest organized by leading magazine Filmfare which picked him the winner out of ten thousand aspirants. Changing his name to Rajesh, he made his screen debut with 1966's Aakhri Khat (The Last Letter)  which was India's official entry at the 1967 Academy Awards.

But it was 1969's breakthrough hit Aradhana – a remake of the 1946 Hollywood film To Each His Own – that made Khanna an overnight superstar thanks to his romantic turn in a double role as a dashing Air Force officer coupled with the film's iconic songs which cemented legendary playback singer Kishore Kumar as the singing voice for the actor. His meteoric rise as the king of romance saw “Kaka” - as he was also popularly known - deliver 15 consecutive hits between 1969 and 1972 as a lead actor, which is still an unbroken record in Indian film history.

Some of his major hits included Do Raaste, Safar and most notably Anand, in which he portrayed one of his most critically acclaimed roles as a dying cancer patient. The recipient of numerous awards, the actor won the prestigious Filmfare best actor award thrice in addition to receiving a lifetime achievement award in 2005.

While Hindi cinema had its fair share of massive stars such as Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar, stories of Khanna's frenzied fan following are legend in Indian cinema with hordes of girls sending him love letters written in blood and covering his car with lipstick marks, not mentioning the crowds of fans – and a long line of producers waiting to sign him for their projects - outside his Mumbai mansion. Mobbed wherever he went, the ruckus would sometimes lead to temporary shooting halts on location due to security concerns. The frenzy even led the BBC to make a special documentary on him titled Bombay Superstar just when he got married in 1973 to rising starlet Dimple Kapadia who was 15 years younger than him. The couple had two daughters, Rinke and Twinkle (a former actress who is married to one of Bollywood's reigning stars Akshay Kumar).

While still active in films well into the Eighties, Khanna entered politics and became a member of India's lower house of parliament from 1992-1996.

But in recent years, Khanna was battling with health issues and was under medical supervision. He had just been discharged from a Mumbai hospital. As news broke of his death and crowds assembled outside his home in Mumbai's Bandra suburb, news channels went into overdrive with their coverage.

India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh paid tribute to the legendary actor in a message stating, “I convey my heartfelt condolences to the members of the bereaved family and countless fans and admirers of Rajesh Khanna.”

Social media sites also saw a torrent of messages from fans and celebrities. “If you weren't there,  and you did not see it,  you will never again experience an event that hit the nation like a hurricane as Rajesh Khanna did ,” said a Twitter post by director Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth).

“Rajesh Khanna was LARGER than life. He was a King who gave Indian cinema glamor, style, and substance,” said a tweet by veteran actor Anupam Kher who will be seen in the upcoming Hollywood film The Silver Linings Playbook directed by David O'Russell.

Khanna will be cremated Thursday in Mumbai.