Vinod Khanna

A hero in many roles

Print edition : May 26, 2017

Vinod Khanna. Photo: PTI

With Shabana Azmi, Neetu Singh and Amitabh Bachchan in the movie “Parvarish”. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Vinod Khanna in Raj Khosla’s “Kuchhe Dhaage”. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Vinod Khanna at an election campaign rally on the outskirts of Gurdaspur on April 24, 2009. Photo: NARINDER NANU/AFP

Vinod Khanna (1946-2017) was seldom the first choice of producers and directors in his career, but he refused to fall by the wayside. A constant search for meaning marked his life.

IT is said that when Amitabh Bachchan was at the height of his career, even his shadow failed to keep abreast of him. His contemporaries and co-stars Dharmendra, Sanjeev Kumar, Shashi Kapoor and Rishi Kapoor tried to catch up with him, but they retreated in haste. One man though—later two, when Shatrughan Sinha rose briefly as a challenger—could hold his own; a man who refused to flinch or equivocate. In film after film, Bachchan would have the author-backed role. In film after film, this co-star would refuse to merge with the shadows, waiting eagerly for his moment under the sun. That was Vinod Khanna.

Never the greatest of actors or even blessed with the Bachchan baritone, Vinod Khanna had that indefinable extra that made men and women queue up at the box office. He could be macho without being abrasive; he could be romantic without being silly. In short, he was the stuff producers dreamt of.

First off the block was film-maker Raj Khosla’s Mera Gaon Mera Desh in which Dharmendra, very much a star then, was the hero. And Vinod Khanna, as Jabbar Singh, played the villain. The film got a thunderous response. For years after its release in 1971, it continued to be screened as a “morning show”. While Dharmendra got accolades for his role as the good-looking good guy, it was the good-looking bad guy (Vinod Khanna) who created waves. He made the role of the dacoit in the movie credible.

A couple of years after Mera Gaon Mera Desh came Kuchhe Dhaage, directed again by Khosla. Another dacoit tale, set in the ravines of the Chambal, the film reinforced Vinod Khanna’s ability to pack a punch as the man wielding arms. Quietly, he had established himself as the tough hero, an action man. This was particularly laudable when one realises that Vinodh Khanna’s entry almost coincided with the zenith of Rajesh Khanna, when girls were writing letters in blood to him and when producers were ready to sit at his feet to sign him up. But Vinod Khanna went on to carve out a niche for himself. With films like Mere Apne and Achanak in his resume, nobody could scoff at him.

His place though was far from secure. Soon the Bachchan phenomenon overtook the industry. Zanjeer, Deewar, Sholay and the like rewrote all rules. Even Rajesh Khanna’s star dimmed, having gleamed all too briefly as the brightest of them all.

Supporting actor

Vinod Khanna refused to fall by the wayside. Confident of his ability, he signed Hera Pheri with Bachchan. Then came Khoon Pasina. Suddenly, there were whispers in the Hindi film industry that any director who needed two heroes in a film could sign Vinod Khanna and Bachchan. He was a hero, not a sidekick. Both movies were box-office hits and helped Vinod Khanna prove that he was not a one-trick pony. He got a Filmfare nomination for the best supporting actor; incidentally, it was the only nomination for Hera Pheri.

His ability to be a part of the team also earned him praise. While lesser heroes craved for greater recognition, Vinod Khanna was happy to play the good guy, knowing that he would get a chance to steal a scene or two from under the hero’s nose! And that he did with aplomb. In Prakash Mehra’s Muqaddar ka Sikandar, the top grosser of 1978, the focus was on Bachchan, yet Vinod Khanna got the audience’s sympathy. Many went to see the film for Bachchan. Most of them came for a repeat viewing for Vinod Khanna. He got another Filmfare nomination for his performance in the movie.

Around this time, Vinod Khanna got the best compliment of his life. For all his angry young man image, Bachchan had not handled a full-fledged dacoit role. In came Sultan Ahmed’s Ganga ki Saugandh, and Bachchan walked down Vinod Khanna’s lane as a dacoit. Many had tried to walk in Bachchan’s footsteps; not once had he tried to walk down some one else’s zone. So powerful was Vinod Khanna’s image that around two decades after he first played a dacoit in Mera Gaon Mera Desh, when a chain of cinemas across north India and Karnataka decided to host a festival of dacoit films, all his films were there. As were those of Sunil Dutt ( Mother India, Pran Jaaye Par Vachan Na Jaye and Mujhe Jeene Do) and Dilip Kumar ( Gunga-Jumna). But there was none of Bachchan. Finally, someone had eclipsed the superstar!

That, however, was one of the few moments to remember for Vinod Khanna. He was seldom the first choice of producers and directors in the first innings of his career, which ended with his joining Osho Rajneesh. He was happy to play second fiddle to Bachchan in Amar Akbar Anthony, to Dharmendra in The Burning Train, to Feroz Khan in Qurbani, and to Rajesh Khanna in Kudrat. Even directors such as Gulzar and Aruna Raje, who went beyond run-of-the-mill films, did not give him the most powerful of roles. For instance, Gulzar’s Meera was more about Hema Malini than Vinod Khanna. Not that he did not know it at the time of signing. It was Meera’s story and Vinod Khanna was happy to just work with Gulzar. As was the case earlier in Parichay.

However, it was Gulzar’s Mere Apne, his directorial debut, that will be remembered for more than just Meena Kumari’s performance. The film had both Vinod Khanna and Shatrughan Sinha in pivotal roles. They were the only ones to challenge Bachchan for supremacy in Hindi cinema.

Things got a shade better in his second innings when Vinod Khanna returned from the United States after spending five years in Rajneeshpuram in Oregon. Although the action hero image refused to leave him—he did films such as Surya, Ustaad, Mahadev—directors such as Gulzar and Aruna Raje elicited memorable performances from him in Lekin and Rihaee. Feroz Khan gave him Dayawan after the success of Qurbani earlier. And Yash Chopra found him apt to act opposite Sridevi in Chandni.

With directors such as Anil Sharma, K.C. Bokadia and others casting him, Vinod Khanna was never short of film offers. Where he made a mistake was in the choice of films. For instance, he was seen in mediocre films such as Muqaddar ka Badshah, Farishtay, Jana m Kundali and Insaniyat ke Devta. Yet it was not always his fault. He did sign Muzaffar Ali’s ambitious Zooni , butthe film got shelved. He did director Chander Barot’s Boss too. Barot was the man who had made Don with Bachchan as the hero in the late 1970s. In the late 1980s, Barot chose him in and as Boss. But the film never got released. That sums up Vinod Khanna’s story in cinema.

While he had the screen presence and charisma to take on anybody, he was seldom offered solo hero films at the peak of his career. He did action like nobody else. Yet, it meant that his sensitive performances in films such as Shaque, Imtihaan and Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki were more appreciated in nostalgia columns than in trade circles.

Spirituality and politics

Yet it would be improper to confine him to cinema. For all the glitz and glamour of cinema, he was never completely at ease with the film world. A constant search for meaning marked his life. On occasions, it manifested itself as a streak of generosity on his part when he helped struggling producers. On others, it sent him to the doorstep of spiritual gurus. It took him away from cinema for five years as he sought solace in the ideals of Osho. When he came back, he decided to work for the larger social good beyond cinema. This took him to politics.

He fought the elections on the Bharatiya Janata Party ticket and won from Gurdaspur, Punjab, and made his presence felt in the constituency. His political affiliation did not endear him to his friends in the industry. Yet he was able to draw a line between the personal and the political. It meant that when he did make one last attempt at playing the hero, he was not short of producers and directors ready to back him.

He took a chance with Risk, and realised the futility of it all. Vinod Khanna settled down to play senior guy roles in films such as Dabanng, Wanted and Dilwale. Yes, he was always a brave heart, always wanted and always very much driven by the heart.

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