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Vinod Khanna: The Unshackled Superstar



Yesterday, for some reason,  I hunted for a DVD I had bought many years ago but never watched. And then as Aruna-Vikas’ little known 1978 murder mystery Shaque unspooled, I realised, the film in a way exemplified Vinod Khanna’s approach towards fame. He did not give a damn about it. He did love the actor’s life before the camera and of course, the camera always, unconditionally loved him back. Even in that Cinthol ad all those years back where within a few seconds,  your senses registered the sweeping life force of a man who had never needed props or reams of dialogue to stun you with his staggering screen presence. Even in that infectiously joyful song from Jail Yatra where he wore denim dungarees and danced like no one was watching with Reena Roy.


We always knew that a Vinod Khanna cannot be created by intentional machinations. He was too rebellious to be manipulated by success or failure. Too spirited to be a prisoner of box-office, awards, popularity polls and carefully managed social media accounts. That is why Shaque was a film that no other superstar of his generation would have done. It was marked for failure because it broke away from the larger than life swagger that largely defined male stardom then. This was a small budget film about the shadow of a crime that almost tears a loving couple apart. Khanna played a family man, someone with unapologetic ambition who in a moment of cold-blooded cruelty teaches his son to kill a fish with just the exact amount of violence and even as he is saying these words, he steals a glance at his wife (Shabana Azmi) who is already beginning to suspect him of the unthinkable.

It wasn’t much of a crime thriller but worked in parts as a psychological study of a marriage in the throes of an impossible situation and it is clear why Khanna chose the role. He chose it because the film makers gave him the kind of a creative space he did not often get in mainstream films like Khoon Paseena where pitted against Amitabh Bachchan, he was made to wear an uncomplimentary wig and given only a few memorable lines. Though that one scene where he battles a bog reminded us of just how he would always shine even in roles unworthy of him.


Coming back to Shaque, the film unblinkingly lingered on his undeniable masculinity in a way that again big budget films did not. The camera captured him frolicking with his child on the beach and in a quiet, unobtrusive way showed us just what a desirable man he was even when he was only relaxing in a casual kurta, with the last cigarette of the day, next to a tape recorder playing classical music.  Shaque was one of the many risks Khanna took in his career. He would go on to star in Aruna Raje’s controversial 1988 film Rihaee, where he played a carpenter living away from his wife in an impersonal metro. In 1979, he played the tortured Rana Bhojraj in Gulzar’s Meera and there was also the 1973 mind-bender Achanak, based on a short story by K.A. Abbas. He played an army officer who is madly in love with his wife and then in a fit of rage, commits a crime of passion. Khanna played the morally ambivalent Major Ranjeet Khanna with an innocence that was  disturbingly endearing. This role also demonstrated why Khanna would never be associated with just one kind of cinema, image or role.  He was too restless to plot his way to the top. He was the self-contained mentor of Imtihaan who in a casual moment (when his girl-friend is sketching him), tries to get comfortable on a slippery rock and bursts into helpless laughter.  In the 1971 hit Mera Gaon Mera Desh, that in a way foreshadowed Sholay, he played the impossibly gorgeous and convincingly menacing dacoit Jabbar Singh.
Director Raj Khosla would also in 1979, cast him as the main lead in Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki where he memorably sang an entire song on horseback. He was also the heartbroken outcast of Mere Apne. An actor who even took a chance on Gulzar’s Lekin and Muzaffar Ali’s Zooni, a film that never got made. And films like Rajput, Amar Akbar Anthony, The Burning Train and Kudrat where he showed no desire to steal a scene away from an ensemble cast and films like Parvarish and Hera Pheri where he effortlessly did.
At the peak of the Bachchan hysteria, when he was being unwittingly pitted against the one man industry, he quit the race to explore his spiritual side and lived to tell the tale. Khanna never showed any desperation to upstage anyone and he had no fear of the unknown or of anonymity. Yet no matter what he did, he dared you to look away disinterestedly. He always wore his charisma lightly even though if there was a face made for the spotlight, it was this face that once prompted  Jeetendra to ask in genuine wonderment, why if the villain looked as good as  Vinod Khanna, would any heroine care to fall in love with the hero!


He of course saw Khanna’s star power from close quarters when the two worked together in Anokhi Ada. What set Khanna apart was this insouciant confidence with which he navigated film sets and life. He knew that no matter which path he chose, he would always succeed. And he did even though he played the villain in his debut role in the Sunil Dutt production Man Ka Meet. He played a forgettable cameo in Purab Aur Paschim, a murderer in Aan Milo Sajna and yet became an inevitable front runner. The stand out roles were many. There was the 1977 Sudhendu Roy comedy Aap Ki Khatir (a remake of For Pete’s Sake), where he played a rich heir who gives it all up for love and becomes a taxi driver. Whether he was shaving before a small mirror in a cramped flat or singing Bambai Se Aaaya Mera Dost, he had a great deal of fun and so did the audience.
One of my favourite Vinod Khanna memories is his role in 1974’s Haath ki Safai for which he won his only Filmfare award apart from the one he was given decades later for a lifetime of work. He also memorably played a CID officer in Raj  Sippy’s Inkaar (A 1978 remake of Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low), a film that slickly celebrated his minimalist approach to potentially melodramatic sequences. His collaboration with Mahesh Bhatt in films like Lahu Ke Do Rang and Jurm is remembered till date. He was also delightful in Yash Chopra’s Chandni especially in the screen time he shared with Sridevi when the two discuss heartbreak and life and even crack a few jokes to lighten things up. Vinod Khanna almost never hammed his way out of even films that merited a lesser actor.
Strangely enough, he left us on the death anniversary of his close friend Firoz Khan who passed away also on April 27 in 2009. The  two shared a warm chemistry that went beyond the dynamics of rivalry as was visible in the two films that Khan created around Khanna’s often untapped potential. Apart from Dayavan, Qurbani was perhaps one of the few films where Vinod Khanna got to do it all. He was the heartthrob who walked stylishly across a London dockyard to the riff of a Kalyan ji Anandji score, the single father who doted on his daughter, the man who fell in love with a woman he knew nothing about, a best friend and a hero who could deliver a line and a punch and also take a bullet without losing his cool. And you also took back home, his caramel gaze reflecting a sunset and the unspoken longing of Hum Tumhe Chahte Hain Aise.
In the end, it was befitting that Vinod Khanna left us the way he had lived amongst us. Without drawing too much attention to his achievements or his life. And yet, somehow always managing to remain indelible, unforgettable.
Reema Moudgil is the editor and co-founder of Unboxed Writers, the author of Perfect Eight, the editor of  Chicken Soup for the Soul-Indian Women, a  translator who recently interpreted  Dominican poet Josefina Baez’s book Comrade Bliss Ain’t Playing in Hindi, an  RJ  and an artist who has exhibited her work in India and the US and is now retailing some of her art at http://paintcollar.com/reema. She won an award for her writing/book from the Public Relations Council of India in association with Bangalore University, has written for a host of national and international magazines since 1994 on cinema, theatre, music, art, architecture and more. She hopes to travel more and to grow more dimensions as a person. And to be restful, and alive in equal measure.

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1 Comment

  1. BK BK
    May 12, 2017    

    What a wonderful tribute: a very fine analysis of the actor. Vinod was such a non-conformist. They don’t make them like that anymore.

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