It’s undesirable to talk about a person’s death on his birthday. But when Vinod Khanna died last year in April, succumbing to bladder cancer at 71, most obit-writers viewed him through the lens of his ‘rugged sex appeal.’ Yes, Amitabh Bachchan, his abiding foil and friend of the 1970s, had the world at his feet. Dubbed ‘one-man industry,’ he got it all. In a single film, Big B could be a star, actor, brawler, anarchist, comedian, tragedian, lover and circus joker. But he was never a sexy poster boy. That honorific was reserved for the two Khannas – Rajesh and Vinod.
Along with Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan, Rishi Kapoor, Shashi Kapoor and Shatrughan Sinha, Vinod Khanna, who would have turned 72 today, was a fellow-traveller on that long Bollywood bridge connecting the 1970s and 1980s. Of these, Bachchan and Sinha were the alpha males, but Khanna was a tantalising mix of alpha maledom multiplied by the-top-three-buttons-undone rugged manliness that made him rakishly attractive to women. In the female-crazy popularity department, he was in the same league as Rajesh Khanna, for whom women posted love letters in blood and kissed his Impala in the absence of their heartthrob.
Rajesh Khanna was a different kind of eye candy. In his heyday, the Aradhana star was irresistible to young shrieking girls and inspired a sort of rockstar hysteria wherever he went, much like a one-sided love affair between an idol and his groupies and fantasists. With Vinod Khanna, the adulation came from the thinking women. He was sophisticatedly sexy. So, it was titillating appropriate when the press labelled him as ‘sexy sanyasi’ after he quit the movie world in 1982 to follow his spiritual guru Rajneesh ‘Osho’ all the way to America.
Khanna’s career can be divided roughly into pre-Osho and post-Osho. The son of a South Bombay businessman who had relocated to India from Peshawar after Partition, Vinod Khanna had the frontier-man roots about him and with looks like his, by turns as brawny as Dharmendra and brooding as Dilip Kumar’s, he could have been an easy fit in any of the numerous romantic pictures that was the order of the day in late-60s. But he opted for villain-hood and blame Sunil Dutt for it.
One story goes that Dilip Kumar’s Mughal-E-Azam inspired him to become an actor. Until then, Khanna lived a glamorous life of partying and boozing in the wild, wild country that Bombay was in the 1950-60s. The heady days of youthful reverie was interrupted when Sunil Dutt, having spotted the handsome future star at a party, offered him Man Ka Meet. What on earth did Mr Dutt, ever the star-spotter, see in the young man to cast him as a villain in the 1968 film? Or should we applaud him for his foresight in surprise casting? Whatever it may be, what followed for the rookie was a succession of appearances as screen baddies, cops and small-time thugs in early ’70s. For any other actor, playing a villain in the formative years would have been a serious handicap. But Khanna, with his strong-jawed, Kirk Douglas-cleft good looks turned it into a weapon. The young man had a magnetic screen presence. One of his earliest hits, Aan Milo Sajna from 1970, pitted the two Khannas against each other with Vinod playing the anti-hero to Rajesh Khanna’s protagonist. An undisputed romantic softie, if Rajesh had played the villain, chances are the adoring public would have gone hysterical. In Vinod Khanna’s case, he was too young and raw and still some years shy of his top innings. He had nothing to lose and though this was a role that could have sat well on any scowling and scheming veteran like Prem Chopra, Khanna made it watchable with his swagger and deep voice. In the film’s climax duel, the two Khannas lock horns and Vinod is ultimately shot at by his mother Nirupa Roy. This anticipates the ending of Amitabh Bachchan’s Deewaar (1975), in which Nirupa Roy, Bachchan’s eternal screen mother, shoots her criminal son. In a matter of a few years, Khanna would go from playing the lech forcing himself on a frail woman in Aan Milo Sajna to having women throw themselves at him. Following Aan Milo Sajna, he went on to star opposite Dharmendra in Mera Gaon Mera Desh in 1971. As the menacing dacoit Jabbar Singh, a character that some believe to have inspired Sholay’s much-feared Gabbar Singh, Khanna set the stage for a promising career.
But the man who was too good looking to be a villain would soon graduate from bit roles and bad guys to the leading man status. So much so that at one point, in an era ruled by Amitabh Bachchan like a Saudi monarchy, VK posed a serious challenge to his frenemy. If there was anyone who could have toppled the Bachchan monopoly, it was Vinod Khanna. And yet, some of his most loved roles are those alongside Bachchan, usually as his loyal and abiding friend or brother in broad-chested male fests of the ’70s. The Khanna-Bachchan pairing, the world of their male kiss, bromances, friendships and brotherhood, has supplied the Hindi audiences with some of the most distinctive cinematic images. Most viewers can recall Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978) and its memorably sappy climax. Bachchan collapses into his friend’s arms, sacrificing his life and the woman he loves for his buddy. Trust showman Manmohan Desai to have the vision to reimagine the co-stars as brothers. Parvarish in 1977 starred them as brothers, though like any classic Manmohan Desai it was a case of lost-and-found, a formula that the director put to greater creative force in the same year’s Amar Akbar Anthony.
Khanna versus Bachchan debate
AAA features Khanna as the sombre elder brother Amar to the loveable bootlegger Anthony (Bachchan). Over the years, the film — a perfect example of the masala entertainers that Bollywood churned out with great success in the ’70s — has acquired a reputation as an evergreen and wholesome family drama with a strong and loyal fan base. Many Big B fans think of Vinod Khanna as a second wheel in hits designed to flatter Bachchan’s growing mass appeal. It’s true that Bachchan was a bigger star in his day but Khanna had his own cult following. Their rivalry sometimes reminds one of Akshay Kumar-Suniel Shetty alliance — only Khanna had infinitely more charm and swagger than Shetty. And he was no ham, no sir. Yes, the old boy had his limitations, especially not having the brilliant comic timing of Bachchan. But those are minor blemishes in an otherwise enduring career.
The screen rivalry between Khanna and Bachchan, thankfully, did not spill over into the personal realm. They were said to be on good terms. On Khanna’s passing, Bachchan mourned the old friend in a nostalgic blog post. It was, the Thugs of Hindostan star claimed, an “association that was so loveable and considerate .. spending time in each others (sic) make up rooms, sharing our lunch, just biding time and talking of all kinds of talk .. the late shoot pack ups and the beyond midnight drives to Juhu Beach, to just sit with our directors and he to have a drink, and I mine.” Incidentally, the two legends first met as struggling actors. Both had a Sunil Dutt connection, having shared screen in Reshma Aur Shera in 1971. What was it about the great Sunil Dutt that though he bet on these stars early on, he chose to put his eggs in the wrong basket? Dutt is not alive to explain but we will have to accept his logic of hiring the dashing Khanna as a villain and having to forgo the one thing that Bachchan would become best known for (his voice) in Reshma Aur Shera. Worse, casting his own son Sanjay Dutt as a hammy kid joining in the qawwali as a background player in Reshma Aur Shera.
“He was a restless spirit,” Gulzar told The Hindu, remembering his friend. Besides his commercial cinema legacy, Khanna’s association with the poet filmmaker gave us Mere Apne (1971), a sensitive take on student activism that tapped the star’s smouldering persona and Achanak, based on the Nanavati crime of passion. In 1980, the 34-year-old Khanna starred in one of the top grossers of the time. Feroz Khan’s Qurbani, released the same year as Rishi Kapoor’s Karz, marked his return to the favourite hunting ground — male friendship, an abiding subject of much of Khanna’s cinematic journey. Zeenat Aman shows up to turn on the heat. But director Feroz Khan is an equal opportunity offender. He presents Khanna in the sexiest pin-up avatar, yet. She does for the men what Khanna does for the women.
Nobody saw it coming but in 1982, just two years after the unprecedented success of Qurbani, Khanna went AWOL to join his spiritual guru Osho to the utopian commune in America. Some say if he hadn’t hung up his boots so abruptly the history of Hindi cinema (and most certainly, the future career of Amitabh Bachchan) would have turned out differently. The spiritual seeker returned after a gap of five years. Mukul S Anand had a special credit included in Insaaf (1987) which declared, with heroic flourish, “Reintroducing Vinod Khanna.” The Osho-returned pilgrim’s second innings included Yash Chopra’s hit Chandni and Gulzar’s literary Lekin. The more recent years had him in gentle fatherly roles, usually done as a favour to friends (read: Salman Khan). Khanna’s sons Akshaye and Rahul Khanna followed in his footsteps, with mixed success. The veteran also served as an MP, one of the few Bollywood stars to have successfully crossed over to politics.
But for movie buffs, Vinod Khanna embodies all that was good, muscularly enjoyable and masala about the ’70s.
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai)