When Vinod Khanna died on April 27 in 2017, battling cancer, Karan Johar, one of the evergreen star’s legion of fans, sent out a Tweet that mentioned an aspect of Khanna that many have touched on before – his “superstar swag.” We knew death was staring in the face when that infamous image of him, propped up by his wife and son straight from the hospital bed, began circulating some time before the news of cancer leaked. The image sparked a debate and triggered shock among Bollywood circles. How can this dashing matinee idol, once a screen rival (though a firm friend in many a 1970s hit and in personal life) to Amitabh Bachchan, become so frail, so soon? It was only recently that audiences had seen him in Dabangg and Dilwale and courting political headlines, as one of BJP’s more popular MPs. But in the end, the 70-year-old Vinod Khanna proved to be mortal, just as much as Dev Anand, Sridevi or Rajesh Khanna. “Just saw a 48-year-long relationship go up in flames,” read Amitabh Bachchan’s late night Tweet on April 28 in 2017, along with an emotional dedication in the form of a poetry.
Transition from villain to hero
The friendship between Vinod Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan was rare and unique to have survived innumerable ups and downs, fame and failures. The old friends go back to a time when they were strugglers sharing lunch, midnight drives to Juhu beach and sneaking out to hip discos in the anonymity of their youth. The future stars had met at Sunil Dutt’s Ajanta Arts in 1969. Dutt had cast the handsome Khanna as an antagonist in Man Ka Meet, a launchpad for his brother Som Dutt as a leading man. Two years and a slew of anti-heroic roles later, Khanna made his first big splash with Raj Khosla’s Mera Gaon Mera Desh. This man of urbane charm had been cast as a dacoit. (Who would have thought?) Many critics have interpreted Khanna’s much-feared Jabbar Singh as a precursor to the terror-striking Gabbar Singh, Amjad Khan’s iconic turn as a sadistic spaghetti Western baddie in Sholay (1975).
Despite his smouldering good looks and the only voice that could match Bachchan’s, fame did not come instantly to Khanna. The great Sunil Dutt, who was known for spotting a star when he saw one, indeed picked the right face in Khanna for Man Ka Meet but not necessarily in the right role. One wonders what made him think of Khanna, who in the coming years would amass a following among audiences as a sexy beast, as your average anti-hero? This man was as heroic and leading-man material as Amitabh Bachchan himself, equally larger than life and a linchpin of memorable 1970s masala hits. By the 1970s, the tide had turned for Khanna. The 1970s was a decade of Amitabh Bachchan but also a decade of Vinod Khanna, Shashi Kapoor, Shatrughan Sinha and Rishi Kapoor. Save for Rishi Kapoor, all these stalwarts were epitomes of rugged masculinity. Seeing their interviews today, as they recollect the heyday, you get a feeling that beneath the healthy rivalry there was a layer of warm friendship that helped lit up their best-known hits. Be it Hera Pheri, Muqaddar Ka Sikandar, Amar Akbar Anthony or Parvarish, Khanna and Bachchan were an invincible duo who, between them, share some of the 1970s’ finest cinematic moments.
Male friendship and brotherhood were at the heart of their success. Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978) opens with Kader Khan as a fakir dispensing aphorisms to a young Sikandar (Amitabh Bachchan) about death, grief and misery that the impressionable kid makes his own when he grows up. And this being a 1970s Hindi film and one directed by the inimitable Prakash Mehra to boot, cut to Sikandar, all grown-up in the very next scene, riding a motorcycle into the heart of Bombay. Along the way, he meets a lawyer, Vishal (Vinod Khanna) and they strike a lifelong bond, until the film’s fateful climax when Sikandar dies in the arms of his best friend. He has already sacrificed his childhood love (Rakhee) to the more respectable Vishal. Now, he has embraced death, the “mehbooba” (beloved) he has always fancied.
In the musical Parvarish (1977), Bachchan and Khanna show up as brothers. But there’s a twist – this being a typical Manmohan Desai film, where leap-of-faith rules supreme.
The duo appear as brothers in another classic Manmohan Desai hit. A pure gold of the lost-and-found genre, the madcap Amar Akbar Anthony is easily a film that every Indian has seen multiple times and probably knows its characters, songs and dialogue by heart. The sombre Amar is Khanna, the goofy Akbar Rishi Kapoor and the loveable rogue Anthony Gonsalves is Bachchan. They are blood brothers separated at birth, who grow up to follow different religions but reunite in a Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not climax singing and dancing like one big happy family. Last year, in a rare appearance with Rishi Kapoor to promote 102 Not Out, Bachchan recalled the madness of Manmohan Desai, his brain-twisting plots and his suspension of disbelief formula.
“In the closing song from Amar Akbar Anthony, the heroes are singing, loudly calling themselves ‘Amar’, ‘Akbar’ and ‘Anthony’ but the villain doesn’t yet know that they are ‘Amar’, ‘Akbar’ and ‘Anthony’,” Bachchan said bemusedly, amidst thunderous applause and laughter. One of the most memorable scenes from AAA is when Amar, the honest police officer, locks horns with popular local bootlegger Anthony. Although the film belongs to Bachchan’s antics this scene belongs to Vinod Khanna. As the elder brother, Amar smashes Anthony black and blue, but Anthony, later in the lock-up, brags that he at least managed to land “two solid shots” on the more powerful Amar.
Number 2 or Numero Uno?
In the 1970s, when Amitabh Bachchan – having replaced Rajesh Khanna, to become the undisputed king of box-office – was the ultimate crowd-pleaser, the kitschy multi-starrers and two-hero films also allowed stars like Vinod Khanna, Shashi Kapoor and Shatrughan Sinha to flourish and make a unique name for themselves. Khanna was dubbed the ‘Number 2’, with the top slot belonging to Bachchan. However, no one can deny that Khanna was well-loved by the masses and often put up a tough fight to Bachchan. While Big B stayed on and had to slug it out in the 1980s before his infamous downfall with ABCL, the restless Khanna packed his bags and quit films (and family, friends, fame and success, not necessarily in that order) to join Osho. Spirituality came calling and ever-the-seeker, Khanna couldn’t resist. Many aver that if the Salieri to Bachchan’s Mozart hadn’t quit films the history of Hindi cinema and most certainly, Amitabh Bachchan’s own fate, would have turned out differently. How differently, we will never know. What we know, and can be cherished, is the memories Vinod Khanna has left behind.
PS: As a parting shot, it must be pointed out that, way before anyone did, the legendary Gulzar had captured the poetic gloom, machismo, deep reserves of anger and shy love that Khanna was capable of. The film was Mere Apne, Gulzar’s powerful directorial debut, whose political content remains strikingly relevant (more so in this election season).