Why Rajesh Khanna was Bollywood’s first superstar

Published: July 19, 2012

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’.

Read more by Zainab here or follow her on Twitter @zainabimam


Zainab Imam

A journalist, on a hiatus to pursue a Masters in Public Policy at The University of Chicago. Gender parity advocate, urban policy enthusiast. She tweets @zainabimam (twitter.com/zainabimam) and blogs at gulaabjamun.wordpress.com

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Anthony Permal

    Thank you for this blog and for quoting those lines.

    No single actor in Bollywood’s crop today can ever be said to have the charisma and character to utter these lines in a movie. Fewer still can lay claim to being able to make a lady spectator swoon without having to take off their shirt and flex muscles, but use only the power of their voice and words.

    Thank you, Rajesh Khanna.Recommend

  • Nandita.

    @Author -Thankyou thankyou thankyou thankyou so much for writing this!
    I am glad that i am not the only one who thinks that the kurta pyjama clad rajesh khanna was so much more classier than the leather pants clad,torso baring actors of today!
    Anthony permal,what a heart warming comment! :) Recommend

  • http://peddarowdy.wordpress.com/ Anoop

    He didn’t have a six pack, he didn’t have bulging muscles, he didn’t wear the latest fashion. His smile and his eyes were his weapons combined with the soft, guy-next-door voice, which he wielded breathtakingly.

    Anand is one of my fav movies. He will always be with me in some way or the other. The iconic phrase, “Ae Babu Moshai, zindagi aur maut uparwale ke haath hai jahan-panah. Usse na aap badal sakte hain na main.” is one of the most meaningful, deep phrases in Hindi cinema.Recommend

  • Muhammad Ziauddin

    “I often wish my life had a background score – and that most songs on it are in the voice of Kishore Kumar. ” One of the best quotes I have ever read. Borders on classical.Recommend

  • http://tradersutra.com hariharmani

    He was good,all aspect of life happens in a time frame,then it was simple guru kurta and pajama,now it is leather.Another thing to bear in mind our memories,of young spirit.Youth is a special moment,it is fleeting and lo it is gone.How charming,care free at the same time very venerable he appeared.Woman are guided more by emotion,and he had special appeal to them.He was a phenomenon and he defined Hindi movies of those begone days.Nothing last for ever.When you look back,any life,it is so sureal.At the end we are all shadow of our self,and he was no different. Yet,his passing makes us pause,is this all?It is hard to envision ones end,ever..Gave us thrill,for a fleeting moment.I still vividly remember the evening of “ANAND’,and named son Anand,RIP. Recommend

  • malik

    This song from ‘Aap ki kasam’ summed up his life:


    Zindagi Ke Safar Mein Guzar Jaate Hain Jo Makaam
    Vo Phir Nahin Aate, Vo Phir Nahin Aate

    Subah Aati Hai, Shaam Jaati Hai
    Subah Aati Hai, Shaam Jaati Hai Yunhi
    Vaqt Chalta Hi Rehta Hai Rukta Nahin
    Ek Pal Mein Ye Aage Nikal Jaata Hai
    Aadmi Theek Se Dekh Paata Nahin
    Aur Pardey Pe Manzar Badal Jaata Hai
    Ek Baar Chale Jaate Hain Jo Din-Raat Subah-O-Shaam
    Vo Phir Nahin Aate, Vo Phir Nahin AateRecommend

  • Bollywood aficionado

    The term ‘superstar’ does not have a universally acceptable definition neither is there a set scale to gauge someone’s superstardom. Just because one fine day a group of buffoons found a fancy term they could use to refer to a particular actor is not an adequate or logical explanation of why Rajesh Khanna was the first superstar of Hindi cinema and not Raj Kapoor for instance.Recommend

  • Jay Patel

    Good piece about the so-called “first super star”. The author has well identified the nuances of super stardom by taking up the cases of Rajesh Khanna’s predecessors Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand, all three of whom were in a different category that left a profound impact on the Indian cinema (the old guard likes to avoid the “Bollywood” tag, dear Zainab). Keep up your good work. Look forward to reading more from you from across the borders. Recommend

  • Rahat

    Well, its really easy to be a know-all and I think with the advent of social media this trend is gaining steam. As far as dialogues are concerned there are a million Dilip Kumar dialogues that are etched in a much more stronger way in the minds of the audience, similarly Raj Kapoor was the showman and Dev Anand the evergreen.
    You never really gave a plausible reason for why Khanna is considered to be the first superstar.
    One of it is he gave fifteen ‘solo’ hit films in a row from 70-72, that was and still is a record.
    None of his predecessors had managed such a feat nor has it been repeated. Similarly, like you mentioned but failed to make a strong connection, he was the first hero who had a following at such a large scale that it became a part of bolloywood folklore. The girls swooning part which everyone seems to repeat was indeed was for the first accepted and seen ‘practiced’ on such a large scale. Lastly, the number of commercial hit songs that Khanna and Kishore gave are also a record, which had not been done achieved by any actor-singer duo previously.Recommend

  • antanu g

    Usual hype we have to boost all Indians. He didnt look, didn’t have good delivery, only mannerisms. Many Bangladeshis have been better.Recommend

  • BlackJack

    Why was he Hindi cinema’s first superstar? Because media decided that he was (fairly early in his career, just after Aradhana). Because he used to get mobbed by women at his shoots, at his house/ hotel, and everywhere else, sending him roses, letters in blood etc which were quite radical for those times – he was Hindi cinema’s first true romantic hero (Dev Anand acted in many romantic movies in the 60s but he was considered an established actor by then and didn’t attracted too many youngsters. Dharmendra was considered very good looking but did not act in too many romantic movies either). Because he had an unparalleled golden jubilee run of 15 films from 1969 – 71 during his hey dey. Because the Rajesh Khanna – Kishore Kumar – RD Burman trio were an amazingly successful trio that continue to give us much joy even today – Amar Prem, Aap ki Kasam, Kati Patang, Namak Haraam for example. On a separate note, the Raj Kapoor – Dev Anand – Dilip Kumar era produced some of India’s best movies (and don’t forget Guru Dutt) but these were rarely romantic movies; given that many of the movies were in their home productions (RK/ Navketan) they often chose offbeat subjects that allowed them to showcase their talents; Dilip Kumar acted in only a quarter the number of movies as Dev Anand and was never seen as a romantic actor either – so the comparison is apples with oranges. Rajesh Khanna had unparalleled panache and movies that were built around him, and the younger generation of that time made him a superstar.Recommend

  • NO JOY

    @antanu g, going by your comments,i can only visualize your mirror smashing looks and a treasure trove of talent which you have successfully hidden from the whole world.Recommend

  • ST

    Aradhana, Anand, Kati Patang, Agar Tum Na Hotay, Amar Prem, Khamoshi, Bawarchi, Safar, Anurodh are by directors from West Bengal (Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Shati Samanta, Asit Sen, Basu Chatterjee). Khamoshi, Safar, Bawarchi, Anurodh, Amar Prem are direct remakes of Bengali films of the 60’s. In most of these, Rajesh Khanna played roles originally essayed by Calcutta’s greatest matinee idol Uttam Kumar. S. D. Burman, R. D. Burman, Salil Choudhury, Kishore Kumar, and Sharmila Tagore, all Bengalis, were instrumental to Rajesh Khanna’s success. R. D. Burman, Kishore Kumar, Rajesh Khanna combination has given superhit songs in 32 films. “Babumoshai” a term adddressed to a Hindu Bengali in Anand directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee is his most famous dialogue. Any description of Rajesh Khanna’s stardom is incomplete without a special mention of Bengal. In the seventies he brought the romantic Bengali classics of the sixties and seventies to screens all over India. Recommend

  • Nandita.


    Oh, those letters in blood stories are lengendary! My mom used to tell me stories about how women used to marry his photographs! haha. Her classmates from school in Bombay had once camped outside his house for hours together.And ofcourse their principal threw a fit.Unimaginable behaviour for young girls in those days isnt it?Apparently quite a few women even tried to kill themselves when he got married.Recommend

  • Syed

    I also read first super star and maybe the only super star. If there is 1 super star in bollywood it has to be Amitabh Bachan. He might have to die first in order to get that titleRecommend

  • mehmood

    why pakistanis are so obsessed with indian film industry and non muslim heroes ??Recommend

  • Adil


    Dude,let’s not bring political battles at such moments.I am a Pakistani too but ask a simple question: Why not you just talk about few of the Arab,Persian or Turkish actors if you have got problems with anyone discussing about a non-Muslim celebrity who just died?Recommend

  • Adil


    I heard this song just during last week and the same song is echoing at the back of my mind ever since I heard about the legend’s death.Recommend

  • Adil


    These days even romantic heroes are suppose to have six packs. I am not a big fan of romantic movies but the fame and charisma which Rajesh Khanna had during his era is something which can be called unprecedented. I feel that a number of movies in upcoming decades were somehow had their plots inspired from Khanna’s hits such as Hero No. 1 from Bawarchi and Kal Ho Na Ho from Anand. I guess Anand was the first Indian movie where a cancer patient is shown living final days of his life.Recommend

  • Rakesh


    Please talk sense. Why bring your inferiority complex into a discussion which is purely dwelling on the popularity of a star and his elevation to what the author rightly calls the “first super star”. Films coming from India have a universal appeal. Yes, they are made, primarily, for Indian audiences because of the physical process of making them in the country, but you will be surprised they are on the radar of some five billion people on the globe. If you happen to be in a New York cinema screening Hindi films, you will find sometimes many more white Caucasian faces watching an Indian movie than brown faces from India, Pakistan, etc. in the audiences. So, Sir, don’t see the devil at every corner of the street you cross. Get out of your Madrassah mind and grow up. You can thus promote goodwill and better understanding between neighbours. After all, though Beethoven was a German, his music was enjoyed by fans around the world. Likewise, some Pakistani singers can be true ambassadors of their country when they go abroad. Recommend

  • durgesh

    I guess you are a fanatic.What the hell relegion has to do with ART and CultureRecommend

  • Raj

    Why he was a first superstar?…he is from my town Amritsar. Amritsar has 16 theatres and once all the 16 theatres were playing his films. This has never happened in the history of cine world that all the theatres in a town were playing the films of just one actor. He never had use the borrowed crutches to rule Bollywood. RIP Raja Kaka.Recommend

  • Surya

    @antanu g:
    “Usual hype we have to boost all Indians. He didnt look, didn’t have good delivery, only mannerisms. Many Bangladeshis have been better”

    uh.i thought you called your self Indian living in Kolkata?? now i know..Recommend

  • Tony Singh

    I think most of Rajesh Khanna movies had strong woman characters. These women characters going through tough times in life were rescued by the handsome male character having twinkle in his eyes and a soft yet firm voice. He delivered dialogues as a man next door would.(No extravagant shake of hands or legs). Couple that with great music and song rendering by Kishore Kumar, and you will know why women fell head over heels for him. Its the characters he portrayed. I don’t think any other actor other than Dharamendra came even close to him during his tenure as leading hero.Recommend

  • http://tradersutra.com hariharmani

    @Rakesh: Mehmood is one extreme,and you the other.I have not seen whites crowding to see Indian movie,guys and gals running around trees singing meaningless songs,in USA.Bollywood movies Indians and Pakistani sees ,in Canada,in London in NJ and Flushing.Please do not exaggerate,be balanced.Mehmood was off base,so were you,it was matter of degree.Recommend

  • http://tradersutra.com hariharmani

    @Nandita.: I see,it runs in the family,fruit does not fall far from tree.Recommend

  • atiqa

    The reason why Rajesh khana was a superstar, is a fact that he played superb roles of his time which meant out to be a success and fame gaining aspect. he worked in many of the popular films such as Swarg, bawarchi and much more..recently i watched his film online http://goo.gl/zsjKB i felt that it was far better than the new films rolling out Recommend

  • http://tradersutra.com hariharmani

    @BlackJack: Good day.I said I will get back.The phenomenon of Rajesh is not unique We ,both in that part of the world,the dream of purposeful live has left us long ago,it is beyond reach.Now most % of the people see no way out.Those who are fortunate find their place in the sun abroad,any where in First World.What shall the rest do?I had gone to 5th ave,to have lunch with friends.Guess,who do I see?Robert Denero,and few more so called celebrities.No one was mobbing them,they were left to their devises.Can this happen in India/Pakistan?. No.The answer is for large part,people have found their place under the sun.They think,they are somebody,do not need others for their sustenance.Movie,movie actors,and the unrealistic,mellow drama,they churn out year and year out,now they have entered in our blood stream,and now,we no longer know what is fake what is real.That explains why sane otherwise college educated female writing love notes in blood and camping outside the house of Rajesh ,and even marring his photograph.I’m not bit surprised at that.I remember,when MGR,died,there was a spate of suicides in Tamilnadu.Go figure.There was a movie ‘Bronx Tale’ in which Denero is a city bus driver,he actually drove bus in Bronx,NYC,,his son worships Mickey Mantle,and other mafias,and thinks they are heroes,the other characters,tells,this naive son,”your father is a real hero who puts food on the table and provide roof over you,do these hero pay your bills”That in nut shell, are cinema which projects ordinary man on street,our movies are in the business of selling fancy unreal fantasy.That’s what makes us hero worshipers and in turn makes us look up to movie’ super stars’and dynastic rulers.We have no outs.Good day.Recommend

  • http://tradersutra.com hariharmani

    @BlackJack: Further to what I wrote,I trust T/E will pass,We in that part of the world some time, give way too much importance to trivial ,and ignore which are vital ,profound and ethical.I have not able to find, why , it is like this.I will tell you why movies,and now pc,internet and free discussion are important.We got to grow up and repair our broken society and civilization fast,it is I think already high noon.In ‘Bronx Tale,there is a scene,in which a young kid asked his mentor,how to tell if a girl really loves and will not brake your heart.He tells the kid, “lock your driver seat door,escort the girl to the passenger side,open the door,and gently get her in the car.Walk slowly to your side of the car door,if the girl ,slide over and open the door for you,then that girl is for you’It is a simple gesture,a mere act of caring is profound,difference between a narsesist,uncaring and selfish individual to one who is caring.We get several occasion to see the real worth of person and character,but we miss signs and are sorry for rest of our life.This is why we love wrong people and marry wrong person.They break our heart.We trust our heart and emotion more than our mind and brain.It took me long to understand now, Friendship,loyalty,honesty and gratitude guide me in all my actions or non-action.Good day.Recommend

  • http://tradersutra.com hariharmani

    They say you get,in final run,what is coming to you.You can not keep a good man(or woman),down for ever. Reverse is also true. .It is said Alexander the great kept the company of Philosophers, to be grounded.Not that he did not have ‘chamchas’.But Aristotle was his constant North Star,only time in last 3 months of his life in 323 B.C.,he indulged in drinking and wild night long party in Babylon,and he paid with his life. He was only 32. Why I’m telling this?In our part of the World,people who are ordinary,when they get fame,fortune and power,they lose their mooring.More often,they treat others callously,are suddenly arrogant,and take to abuse themselves in drinking(now drugs also),and are prone to wommanizing.What next,their wife can not live with them,they become difficult and soon they destroy themselves.How many such real story you have heard and seen?Plenty,why this happens?,some are like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet,and some like our 16th President,who inspite serious manic depression,never forgot the higher calling of his duty,Lord Horotio Nelson was another.His duty and responsibility came first.fame did not go to head,neither power or wealth.There is something seriously wrong with the way we look life,and its coplexcity.I think our concept,fame,wealth and power,you are one as entitlement not the trust which is entrusted to us for the betterment of society,people and civilization at large.Unless we change our out look,we are going to be no man’s land.Good day.Recommend

  • http://vodafonelive satish

    great articleRecommend

  • rakesh


    Yes, it is happening — whether you believe it or not. We live on the east coast and we visit cinema houses screening Indian films. There are many times more Caucasian viewers who watch Indian films. It is no exaggeration. I have no reason to try to convince you, despite your very patronizing and self-righteous tone. You are another from the other extreme tribe yourself, trying to put down everything the other person has to say, Sir. Recommend

  • sa

    He was India’s first super star because idiots like you exist in Pakistan. Recommend

  • http://aayjay.wordpress.com AJ

    We, Pakistanis, care too much about Bollywood.Recommend

  • Shenaz

    because pakistan’s lollywood is dead,flop and uselessRecommend

  • itsy bitsy spider

    @Hariharmani-Your comments were most enligtening.Do you share this vast knowledge of yours with your family often?Because there is no doubt in my mind that your speech must be music to their ears. Recommend

  • Ayesha

    He was a good actor. May his soul rest in peace Amen.Recommend

  • Ayesha

    Whether he was muslim or Hindu he was created by the same God. Please respect him. May his soul rest in peace Amen.Recommend

  • itsy bitsy spider

    Hariharmani- And i hope u are familiar with the concept of sarcasm.I was being sarcastic Recommend

  • suresh patel

    @itsy bitsy spider:

    Yes, dear Itsy Bitsy Spider, the man Hariharmani seems to have all the time in the world knitpicking almost every comment. He is probably a lonely guy who wants to vent out his feelings about everyone and everything, and keep insisting he is right. I happened to read the numerous comments he has scribbed over this page. Trash as the comments are, I guess, it makes Hariharmani happy that people are reading him. Recommend

  • SAY

    @antanu g:
    You are just JEALOUS !Recommend

  • http://www.manoharv2001.technorati.com V. Manohar

    Dear friends
    All fans of KAKA, we have a special information for you some thing to be very proud about type the name Rajesh Khanna in google and just see the number of links which appear – 5 CRORES 88 LAKHS and continously increasing , second only to Salman Khan who has 6 .5 Crores , Amitabh Bachchan has 4.50 Crores , Shaharukh 3.20 Crores , Aamir 4.50 Crores , Dev Anand – 45 lakhs , Shammi Kapoor 33 lakhs , Shashi Kapoor 33 lakhs , Dilip Kumar 46 lakhs , Raj Kapoor 55 lakhs, Dharmendra 66 lakhs , Hrithik Roshan 1.50 Crores .
    And at the pace its increasing he may overtake Salman too , in the morining when i saw it was 5.20 Crores its now close to 6.
    Now its responsibility of the fans of Rajesh Khanna and the media to highlight this …
    The Tiger roars again

  • BlackJack

    Thank you for your posts; I did not want to burden others with my response to you when this is essentially a dialogue. I found your quotes from the movies very interesting. There are, however, some areas that I differ from your point-of-view; most of the advanced western societies evolved over a period of time to reach their current state; the kind of passion that Indians have for their actors is what people in the US have for their performers and rockstars – even today, but to a very high degree in the latter half of the 20th century for sure; words like Beatlemania are coined for a reason. I will agree that Indian cinema is more escapist, but then products need to be tailored to their markets, and 90% of India is dirt-poor and sees real life every day outside the theater – they go inside to take a break from it; I cannot grudge them a 3-hr flight of fantasy before they go back to their real lives. Cinema is the easiest manifestation of Maya today – an illusion that gives the feeling of reality and thus makes us feel the way we want to feel. On a separate note, there is a continued discussion on religion on one of the other blogs which may interest you – see Ramazan and the ‘holier than thou’ syndrome. I leave for home tomorrow on my summer vacation, so may be less active for the next couple of weeks.Recommend

  • smitha

    1 point no one mentioned – one of the main reasons for rajesh khanna’s superstardom, apart from his songs, dialogues, looks – was his superb script sense.

    Most of his films right upto the end of his career had fantastic scripts.

    Also, khanna chose roles which fitted him. He never tried to ape amit by doing angry young man roles.

    He did do once such role – in dushman – but only bcos the script necessaited it.

    He also worked with directors who had a strong knowledge of the medium.Recommend

  • http://www.bharatchannels.com/maavoorivanta/gul-mohar-sweet-video_a34f8a69a.html Telugu

    Generally I don’t learn article on blogs, but I would like to say that this write-up very forced me to try and do so! Your writing style has been amazed me. Thanks, very great article.Recommend