Why Rajesh Khanna was Bollywood’s first superstar

On Wednesday, Bollywood’s original superstar Rajesh Khanna died at the age of 69 in his Mumbai residence after prolonged illness. DESIGN: SIDRAH MOIZ KHAN

Superstars have a persona so larger than life that we seem to forget that they are but mortals and they too will depart from the world like every other human being.

It is the end of an era.

On Wednesday, Bollywood’s original superstar Rajesh Khanna died at the age of 69 in his Mumbai residence after prolonged illness.

As the world grieved his loss, the phrase “Bollywood’s first superstar” became the buzzword for all the obituaries in local, Indian and foreign media.

“I understand that he was a big, big star but how is he the first superstar?” asked a Bollywood aficionado friend of mine.

“What about Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand? Weren’t they superstars? And their time was before Rajesh Khanna’s! Just because the term became popular during his [Khanna] time doesn’t mean we should discredit his predecessors.”

His argument holds merit, I thought. Kapoor, in fact, has left an entire family of stars – his son Rishi Kapoor, his grandson Ranbir Kapoor and granddaughters Kareena and Karisma Kapoor. Raj Kapoor’s contribution to Hindi cinema is probably greater than that of most of his contemporaries.

And then it hit me.

Surely the big three – Kapoor, Kumar and Anand – saw glory that was unparalleled for their times, but why wasn’t the term “superstar” coined during their time? Something must have happened during Rajesh Khanna’s time compelling film analysts, writers and enthusiasts to hunt for another term to describe it. As they heard countless stories of women who would go weak in the knees when they saw him on screen, and in the head when they saw him (or his belongings, such as his car) up front, they came up with a word that would capture the intensity of that craze: superstar.

But that, although a feat in itself, is not the only reason he was the first superstar to have been born out of Bollywood.

“Ae Babu Moshai, zindagi aur maut uparwale ke haath hai jahan-panah. Usse na aap badal sakte hain na main.”

“Pushpa, I hate tears.”

“Kisi badi khushi ke intezaar mein hum yeh chote chote khushiyoon ke mauqay kho dete hain.”

These three dialogues, from the films Anand (1971), Amar Prem (1972) and Bawarchi (1972) respectively, are evergreen and if you are a fan of classic Bollywood, then it is highly improbable that you do not recognise these lines immediately.

Before Rajesh Khanna, the concept of a leading character’s dialogues becoming conversational phrases was rare and with him, it became usual. To me, this is the greatest evidence of his superstardom; dialogues that he delivered remain etched in the memories of not just his fans but all his viewers.

I often wish my life had a background score – and that most songs on it are in the voice of Kishore Kumar. I never thought much about who those songs had been picturised on, but now that I think of it, a vast majority of them are ones that Khanna has immortalised: from classic romantics like ‘O Mere Dil Ke Chain’ and ‘Yeh Jo Muhabbat Hai’ to dholki favourites ‘Jai Jai Shiv Shankar’ and ‘Meray Sapnon Ki Raani’ and the timeless and tragic ‘Chingari Koi Bhadke’ and ‘Yeh Kya Hua’.

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