The film that made his name was Shakti Samanta’s weepie Aradhana (1969), in which he played Arun, a singing Air Force officer who falls in love with the daughter of a doctor (Sharmila Tagore). When she becomes pregnant, the pair marry in secret; and when Arun is subsequently killed in action she is left with some explaining to do.
Khanna’s dark, soulful, somewhat fleshy good looks established him as India’s leading romantic hero, and the film marked the beginning of a phenomenon, familiar enough in Europe and America but never seen before in Hindi cinema — the frenzied mass hysteria of fans. When Khanna as Arun (in reality the singer Kishore Kumar) sang Mere Sapnon ke Rani (“Oh, beloved of my dreams!”) from the top of an open Jeep as Tagore travels uphill on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, millions of young girls imagined he was singing to them.
Wherever he went he was mobbed by crowds of women who chanted his name, plucked at his clothes or covered his car in lipstick kisses. Girls “married” themselves to his photograph and even wrote him letters in blood. He needed police protection whenever he went out in public.
From then until the mid-1970s “Kaka”, as he was popularly known, enjoyed almost godlike status, and no matter how absurd the plot lines of the films in which he appeared, it seemed he could never deliver a flop. The Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan recalled that the reason he had become famous was that he was lucky enough to work with Khanna in Anand (1971), in which Khanna played a man dying of cancer.
The actress Mumtaz, with whom Khanna appeared in several films in the 1970s, recalled that whenever Khanna entered a hotel “there was a queue of 600 girls waiting to see him at midnight. As a result, even I would get some importance, as people would ask for my autograph as well.”
During the filming of Amar Prem (1972, with Khanna as an unhappily married businessman looking for love), the authorities in Calcutta intervened to veto a scene in which a boat carrying Khanna and his love interest (Sharmila Tagore) would be filmed passing under Howrah Bridge, fearing that the crowds Khanna would inevitably attract might force the bridge to collapse.
Khanna was one of the highest paid actors of his time and appeared in some 160 films, mostly as the romantic lead (he was said to have died on screen more times than any other actor). Nominated 14 times for the Bollywood Filmfare award for best actor, he won the award three times. His record of consecutive films considered hits remains unbeaten.
Jatin Arora Khanna was born in Amritsar on December 29 1942 but was adopted and raised by foster parents. He attended St Sebastian’s Goan High School in Girgaum then Kishinchand Chellaram College in Mumbai, where he won prizes in drama competitions. In 1965 he won an All India Talent Contest organised by United Producers and Filmfare and changed his first name to Rajesh.
He made his screen debut with the 1966 film Aakhri Khat and appeared in Aurat (1967) before landing his starring role in Aradhana. Other early successes include Safar (1970); Kati Patang (1970); Haathi Mere Saathi (1971); Mere Jeewan Saathi (1972); Bawarchi (1972); Aap Ki Kasam (1974); Roti (1974); and Andaz (1971). In 1974 he was the subject of a BBC profile, Bombay Superstar.
In 1973 his marriage to the 16-year-old actress Dimple Kapadia kept the tabloids busy for weeks. They had two daughters called Twinkle and Rinke, but the marriage lasted only 11 years.
By the time it broke down, Khanna’s star had faded. There were complaints that he had failed to respond to changing audience tastes, and within the industry there were mutterings about the behaviour of the “chamchas” (hangers-on) with whom the actor surrounded himself .
Like many Indian film stars, Khanna turned to politics, serving as Congress MP for New Delhi from 1991 to 1996. After 1992 he appeared mainly in B-movies and television serials.
Rajesh Khanna is survived by his estranged wife and their two daughters.
He was 69.