With his rugged good looks and suave appeal, Vinod Khanna was the man who charmed his way into the audience’s hearts in the 1970s. Whether it was playing a dacoit or a cop, Khanna had it all locked down with his signature swagger of a walk that made sure the audience couldn’t look away from his charismatic personality. While this was a decade where multi-starrers ruled the roost, Vinod Khanna was the man who held his own against superstar Amitabh Bachchan and was the one who gave the ‘angry young man’ a run for his money. Khanna passed away in 2017.
The 1970s is now remembered as the decade that made Amitabh Bachchan a superstar but many other greats – Shashi Kapoor, Vinod Khanna, Rishi Kapoor, Shatrughan Sinha were trying to keep up with the stardom of Big B. When Vinod Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan shared screen space, they looked like worthy competitors who were fighting tooth and nail for the audience’s attention. “I was the only contender to Amitabh Bachchan. There was nobody else,” said Khanna in a 1998 interview with Anurradha Prasad.
Amar Akbar Anthony, Hera Pheri, Parvarish and Muqaddar Ka Sikandar – the duo worked in many films together and kept the myth of their competition alive. But the story of Amitabh Bachchan and Vinod Khanna goes back a few years before Bachchan had found a strong foothold in Hindi cinema. In his blog, Bachchan had once shared that he first spent some time with Vinod on the sets of Reshma Aur Shera where Vinod was playing a significant role, and Amitabh had a small part. The two bonded well as they shot in the scorching heat of Rajasthan. Soon after the shoot of the film, Vinod’s father passed away and it was in those hours of grief that they found a deep and valuable friendship. “The sudden passing of his father soon after our work together in Reshma Aur Shera, I being with him in his hour of grief… and then… the amazing chemistry of the several historic films that we did together, an association that was so loveable and considerate,” wrote Amitabh.
While the film journalists of the time often spoke about the rivalry between the two stars, they never spoke ill about each other. “I think it’s the media that created the rivalry. We were friends, we’re still friends,” Vinod told NDTV in 2006.
In Manmohan Desai’s Amar Akbar Anthony, Vinod played the morally upright police office Amar and Amitabh played the jovial, comic Anthony who sells liquor. The film had an iconic scene where Amar and Anthony fight each other. “Tu yahan ka dada hai?” asks Amar and challenges him to a combat. In those days, who gets beaten up on screen wasn’t wholly decided by the journey of the character, and who won those fights was solely decided by the stardom of the actor. So when Amar had to beat Anthony to a pulp, Desai used comedic music to lighten the mood. After a few punches, the fight was taken to a shed and the audience could only assume what was happening behind closed doors. Amar being the older brother won the fight as Anthony later celebrated punching the hunk of a man twice in this quarrel. Vinod was one of the few stars who could win against Amitabh in his heyday, and he make it look believable and convincing.
“I think we both worked very cordially with each other. But, of course, we were both very different in the sense of the roles we portrayed on screen. We complemented each other. Both were very wary of the scripts and both would be very sure about each other’s roles – that nobody’s getting more and somebody’s getting less. And accordingly, we did those films together and could have gone on and on till I quit the industry.” shared Vinod Khanna with NDTV in 2006 as he recounted his journey with Amitabh Bachchan.
The last film they did together was Prakash Mehra’s 1978 release Muqaddar Ka Sikandar. By Vinod’s own admission, by the time he started shooting for this film, he had decided to move away from the arclights and live the rest of his days in Rajneesh’s ashram. And so he moved, but his life as a sanyasi lasted for only 6 years.
When he came back to the movies in the late 1980s, Amitabh Bachchan was no longer the star he once was. In fact, he was struggling in his political career. In 1987, when Vinod Khanna had reclaimed the mantle of a star, he was asked by India Today about the comparison with Bachchan, to which, he gave a very self-actualised response, “I don’t want to be number one. I don’t want to be that at all. I just want to live from moment to moment and do my work well.”
A Stardust cover of 1978 had claimed in big bold letters ‘Vinod Khanna turns No 1’ but unbeknownst to everyone, Vinod was never a part of the rat race and it was perhaps this nonchalance that made him one of the most iconic stars of Hindi cinema.