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Sunday, November 28, 2021

A star, an actor

Vinod Khanna was an artist confident enough to play second fiddle.

Written by Shubhra Gupta |
Updated: April 28, 2017 1:51:34 pm
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“Maar diya jaaye ya chhod diya jaaye, bol tere saath kya sulook kiya jaaye?”

It was 1971, and from every street corner blared this catchy ditty from the Raj Khosla musical blockbuster Mera Gaon Mera Desh. In a time-honoured climactic scene, Dharmendra and Asha Parekh are tied to two (separate) pillars, and a “ghaghra choli”-clad vamp is waltzing around, belting it out. The camera stays mostly with the muscle-flexing hero and the grimacing heroine, but our attention is caught and held by the villain, slouching sexily in a corner. That guy was a strikingly handsome rookie called Vinod Khanna, who sported a dishy cleft in his chin, and stole every scene in the film.

In the word which would come into play several decades later, Vinod Khanna was hot. And he trotted, and did the things that leading men did — sang and danced, fought and romanced — with such understated suavity, and such versatility, that he speedily became one of the most popular stars in the 1970s.

In the same year ( ’71), he leapt off the screen in Gulzar’s Mere Apne, as a fiery youth who clashes with another. He faced-off with Shatrughan Sinha, who habitually chewed up every bit of scenery he could find, but Vinod Khanna stood his own: Sinha could spout dialogues, but no one was going to sigh over him. Khanna, on the other hand, was destined to be a pin-up from the time he showed up on screen. After playing the bad guy, Khanna switched to playing the noble hero, just as Shah Rukh Khan would 20 years on, and he did it with disarming élan. It had to do with his ability to underplay and yet stay visible, a quality very few performers have. But then, Khanna was the rare star who started off as an actor, and stayed an actor right through.

He was also one of those actors who was confident enough to play second fiddle: Khanna’s Tweedle-dum to Amitabh Bachchan’s Tweedle-dee was one of the finest acts you would have been witness to if you watched the masala entertainers of the ’70s : The crackling chemistry between the two in their 40-inch bell-bottoms and tight printed shirts in Prakash Mehra’s Hera Pheri (much more than they showed with their simpering romantic interests, Saira Bano and Sulochana Pandit), was evident in the other two-handers he did with Bachchan (Khoon Pasina, Parvarish, Muqaddar Ka Sikandar).

Khanna was equally comfortable carrying a film on his very capable shoulders. One of his early films, Achanak, is also one of his most memorable, in which he plays an army man dealing with past trauma. And one of my favourites is Imtihaan, loosely adapted from the Hollywood classic To Sir With Love. One of its many melodious songs stays with you: ruk jaana nahin tu kahin haar ke… o raahi, o raahi…

It felt like the song was written for him when he returned from a prolonged hiatus to a film industry which had undergone a sea-change. Khanna had vanished without warning, to become an Osho acolyte, abandoning all thoughts of Bollywood. There were photos we would occasionally see of him in “gerua” garb with a string of rudraksh beads nestling against that broad chest, which led the tabloids to dub him “Sexy Sanyasi”.

He came back with a couple of hits, launched his son Akshaye in the movies (his other son Rahul shows up in select roles too) and then meandered along with the odd appearance here and there, while running a full-fledged political career from his constituency in Punjab. His last significant cinematic outing was in Rohit Shetty’s Dilwale: The moment he came on, like every time, he lifted the film.

Today is as good a time to bring up that question again, one that’s been asked countless times: Would Amitabh Bachchan have been forced to divvy up his dizzying stardom if Khanna hadn’t disappeared into a haze of seeking-spiritual-salvation? Would Bachchan have had such a clear run?

The question is now moot. But posterity will remember Vinod Khanna as a wonderful actor who inhabited all kinds of roles with ease, as well as a complex man with a wild streak in him, which spoke of a strong inner life, which was not just bound by the screen.

Vinod Khanna, old-style matinee idol, who wore his good looks and intelligence lightly, was always more than the sum of his parts.

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