Vinod Khanna dies aged 70: He was the original debonair leading actor, with classic good looks
With Vinod Khanna’s demise, a great part of film memory and even childhood for many of us comes to an end. For someone who initially gained popularity as a leading villain, Vinod Khanna would be forever remembered as one of the most popular leading men ever in Hindi cinema. He was as versatile as Hindi cinema demanded and played the villain in Aan Milo Sajna (1970), a competent second lead in Sachaa Jhutha (1970) and a sidekick in Purab Aur Pachhim (1970) with equal élan. The star that went from being a top-notch villain such as Jabbar Singh in Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971), a character often seen as a precursor to Sholay’s (1975) Gabbar Singh to the one destined to halt the Amitabh Bachchan juggernaut in the late 1970s, Khanna, in many ways, remains peerless. Yet in a career spanning across five and a half decades from Man Ka Meet (1969) to Dilwale (2015), Khanna remained the greatest second-best.
Having made his debut in Man Ka Meet, a film that Sunil Dutt made to launch his younger brother, Som, to keep a promise made to their mother, Khanna was the best thing to come out of the forgettable film. Watching Khanna in both Aan Milo Sajna and Sachaa Jhutha where he played a cop on a mission to nab a master crook (Rajesh Khanna) there is little doubt that he was cut from the same fabric as any of the leading men he shared the screen with. Film audiences love the underdog and Khanna in an oblique fashion represented that model but at the same time winked at them to suggest that he could easily thwart the ‘hero’ if he so wished. Perhaps this was a big factor in his growing popularity where his characters especially inAan Milo Sajna and Reshma Aur Shera (1971), a film where he and future constant co-star Bachchan shared the screen for the first time, appeared to do what they really wanted (read be anti-hero or villain) as opposed to the goody two shoes hero. The fact that his so-called first film as the leading man, Hum Tum Aur Woh (1971) released in the same year as two of his most enduring screen outings – Mere Apne (1971) and Mera Gaon Mera Desh – and we hardly remember the one where he was the standard lead says it all.
Despite showing the best range amongst the then newer leading men such as Amitabh Bachchan and Rishi Kapoor, Khanna was never considered to be the superstar. He could go from a student political drama like Gulzar’s Mere Apne to a daku action flick like Raj Khosla’s Mera Gaon Mera Desh to a super cop in Dhamkee (1973) to an undercover cop who infiltrates a gang in the caper Gaddaar (1973) to the intense human drama Achanak (1973), which was inspired by the famous K.M. Nanavati trial. Perhaps the spotlight was too focused on Bachchan being pitted against the ‘other’ Khanna, Rajesh — a superstar who was losing his touch — for Vinod Khanna to be noticed as the contender.
In the early 1980s, Khanna quit films to join spiritual guru Osho’s commune. At this point, Bachchan, too, decided to concentrate on solo projects and stop being a part of an ensemble such as Amar, Akbar, Anthony (1977), Trishul (1978) or Kala Patthar (1979). There is a popular perception where fans, commentators and observers of Hindi cinema believe that Khanna was in fact, better than Bachchan and in many ways was the only one who could have usurped him had destiny not played up.
There is no doubt that Khanna had all the ingredients of being a top box office draw, and was the second or the third biggest star between the mid and late 1970s after Bachchan, Rishi Kapoor and Dharmendra. But to say that he did not live up to the potential due to a bad hand dealt by fate would be slightly wrong. The one parameter by which actors are classified as ‘stars’ and ‘others’ is the influence they wield when it comes to casting – Gulzar would not have made Meera (1979) had Hema Malini refused the film, Laxmikant-Pyarelal refused Gulzar’s Meera because Lata Mangeshkar didn’t want to sing the songs, Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar were adamant that if Bachchan wouldn’t play the lead in Deewar (1975) they would not part with the script, etc. Even at the height of his popularity Khanna never ‘spooked’ Bachchan as much as a Shatrughan Sinha.
Legend has it that Feroz Khan had originally wanted Bachchan to feature in Qurbani (1980), the film that is now synonymous with Khanna and Vijay Anand, too, had chased Bachchan for Rajput (1982) where once again Khanna had replaced him. Compare that with Shatrughan Sinha; Bachchan made a beeline to attend G.P. Sippy’s party even with a high fever when he learnt that the distributors were pitching for Sinha to play Jai in Sholay and later post-Kala Patthar and Dostana (1980) it is said that Bachchan refused to do two-hero projects with Sinha.
Ironically Khanna’s second innings when he returned to films with Insaaf (1987) was better than the one Bachchan had after his stint in politics. It is here that one gets a glimpse of how Khanna would have ‘aged’ better as a leading man than even Bachchan (before this famous third innings with Mohabbatein ) for the simple reason that while Bachchan found it difficult to hit the same notes as the ‘Angry Young Man’, Khanna simply excelled at portraying a leading man in his mid-40s with films like Insaaf, Satyamev Jayate (1987), Chandni(1989), Batwara (1989) and Jurm (1990). His characters were closer to real life, at least within the realm of popular Hindi cinema than any of his contemporaries right from Bachchan, Dharmendra, and Shatrughan Sinha. In fact, Khanna might have enjoyed a longer spell with hits like Jurm but his reputation suffered a major blow when he started reporting late on sets and was the cause of delays for many films.
Khanna began the 1990s with one of his oldest co-stars, Dharmendra in Farishtay (1991), yet another film where the producer, Sattee Shourie, blamed him for the incessant delays. But at a time when Bachchan suddenly rediscovered his groove with a variation of the Angry Young Man in Agneepath (1990), Khanna, in a blink of the eye became a ‘character’ actor. He played Salman Khan’s estranged elder brother in Nischaiy (1992) and within a year he was relegated to playing uncle and father to actors like Sanjay Dutt in Kshatriya (1993) and Aamir Khan in Parampara (1993) respectively. Although he never shared the screen with Aamir in Parampara, or Saif Ali Khan, who played his son as well in the same film, Khanna for all intent and purposes had crossed over to the baap-bada bhai variety of roles. The star that until the very end epitomised the classic leading man good looks, Vinod Khanna will forever remain the original debonair.