Rajesh Khanna, Bollywood's first superstar, no more

Mumbai, July 18 (IANS) Rajesh Khanna, who epitomised superstardom in Hindi cinema in the 1970s with such immortals as "Anand", "Kati Patang" and "Aradhana", left for a "nice and heavenly place" Wednesday morning, his son-in-law and actor Akshay Kumar announced. He was 69.

Rajesh, Bollywood's first superstar and perhaps the only one to have reached those dazzling heights of fame, died at his home Ashirwad after a long battle with suspected liver problems.

His demise brought back memories of the charmer, lover and hero that he was to his family, fans and well-wishers. For them, his magic will remain forever.

"He has gone to a nice and heavenly place, we are happy about that," Rajesh's son-in-law Akshay Kumar, married to his elder daughter Twinkle, said after his death around 10 a.m.

When news of his critical health first came out on June 20, legion of his fans expressed concern. A day later, he stepped out in the company of Akshay Kumar and estranged wife Dimple Kapadia to tell his fans that all is well.

But clearly it wasn't.

He was a shadow of himself, gaunt and ravaged by illness, with glares covering the famous face that would once reduce women to a swoon.

On June 23, Kaka - as he was popularly known in the film world - was in the hospital, and the stay stretched for 15 days. Just a week after he was discharged, he was back to the hospital bed due to "weakness", but was allowed to go home soon after.

Though family members maintained he was "fine", Rajesh was said to be critical Wednesday morning and breathed his last at his Bandra home.

His family - estranged wife Dimple Kapadia and daughters Twinkle and Rinke - were by his side during his last moments, those close to the family said.

Film celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Abhishek Bachchan, Shabana Azmi, Sajid Khan, Farah Khan and Prem Chopra came to his residence to pay their respects after news of his demise spread.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni were amongst the political leaders who condoled the death of the star.

Thousands of his fans and industry members are expected to turn up for the funeral, scheduled at 11.30 a.m. Thursday.

Rajesh's death has brought the curtains down on an era in Hindi cinema - an era he defined with his prowess in romantic and emotional roles, an art that has inspired and continues to inspire several young actors and his legion of fans.

Summarising the phenomenon that Rajesh Khanna was, Anupam Kher said that "he gave us a crash course in romance. He introduced us to a special twinkle in the eyes that made us feel good about ourselves. Rajesh Khanna taught us how to smile. He added dignity to our concept of romance."

In his career spanning almost five decades, the actor featured in about 160 films, starting with "Aakhri Khat" in 1966.

Between "Aradhana" in 1969 and "Prem Kahani" in 1975, he enjoyed god-like status. Women would line the road for a glimpse, chant his name, cover his car with lipstick marks and even write him letters in blood.

It was nothing short of a mania. Then, the films faded away and so did the star. The years in between did see some films, some hits like "Avtaar" and some B-grade like the forgettable "Wafa", but the man had disappeared into the shadows.

His last few public appearances came as a shock to his fans. His last screen appearance was an ad for Havells fans, an eerie intimation of what was to come with Kaka reminiscing in an empty auditorium and music from his films echoing in the background.

"Babumoshai," he intoned deeply - the affectionate Bengali address he made all his own after "Anand".

That voice has been silenced.

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