Busting two Bollywood myths – that an actor who became successful as a villain would be fated to remain one, and that a prolonged disappearance could be career-finishing – Vinod Khanna made his mark as the first ‘angry young man’ of Hindi films, well before Amitabh Bachchan, and ended up playing an ‘angry old father’ around four decades down.
But whatever role he played – good, bad, or even supporting – he ended up making his presence felt. Can you think of any other Bollywood hero who won applause for beating up Amitabh Bachchan on screen?
Born in Peshawar in 1946, Khanna’s family translocated after Partition to then Bombay, and Delhi, where he studied at Delhi Public School, and then back to Maharashtra. It was at a boarding school in Deolali, near Nashik, that he picked up a fondness for films and a desire to join the industry. But he completed graduation first. He was also a keen cricket player, but he realised he did not have enough skills to go far in it and plumped for acting instead.
Standing out with his imposing height and physique, crowned with a sculpted and expressive face, he caught Sunil Dutt’s attention at a party and was offered the villain’s role in his Man ka Meet (1968), set to launch his brother Som Dutt.
However, Vinod Khanna had to play a stratagem to convince his father, who did not hold the film industry in very high regard. And for this, he dragged along a Sunil Dutt employee, whose father was known to his father, to show how there were respectable people in the field. He never forgot his debt to Dutt – and some years later, when the latter was in a tight financial problem, and even was mulling over shutting down his Ajanta Arts, Khanna, on learning about it, cancelled his shooting schedule and went to him to express solidarity. He also worked on his next film, which became a hit, and covered his losses.
While his roles in Mastana and Sachaa Jhuthaa (both 1970) were appreciated, it was 1971 which was a watershed – he appeared in a dozen films, including the acclaimed Mere Apne where as Shyamu, he stood his ground against a bombastic Shatrughan Sinha, while displaying the vulnerability of the ‘angry young man’ in that pensive song, “Koi hota jisko apna…”
He went on to play another police inspector in Shammi Kapoor-starrer Jaane-Anjane (1971), vicious dacoit Jabbar Singh in Mera Gaon, Mera Desh (1971), opposite Dharmendra, a hoodlum in sci-fic flick Elaan (1971) – whose story predated Mr India (1987), and a key role in Sunil Dutt’s Reshma Aur Shera (1971).
The year also saw Vinod Khanna in his first role as hero in Hum Tum aur Woh (1971).
Noticed for his special appearance in Jeetendra’s Parichay (1972), the role that actually brought him to prominence was as a military officer on death row after killing his wife and her paramour in Achanak (1973), one of the Bollywood adaptations of the notorious Nanavati case.
After that, there was no looking back for him – as a hero. Cast as a police officer or a criminal so far, he proved he could display a softer side too as in Imtihaan (1974), playing an idealistic college professor trying to reform a group of unruly students. The song ‘Ruk Jaana Nahi’ is particularly memorable.
Appearing in a string of famous Bollywood films, Vinod Khanna always left his mark whether by himself or against established or upcoming stars – from Shammi Kapoor and Rajesh Khanna, down to Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan. However, some of his best films were with Amitabh Bachchan and Feroz Khan.
In the first part of his career, his memorable roles included the stern, dutiful Inspector Amar in Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) – where he thrashed up Anthony, played by Amitabh but unbent towards the end to appear as a cheery, one-man band in the climatic ‘Honi ko anhoni kar de’, as con-artist Ajay in Hera Pheri (1976), again opposite Amitabh, another Amar, but on the other side of the law in Qurbani (1980) where he displayed his Pathan heritage in the eponymous song and eventually lived up to the film’s name.
He was the workaholic railway engineer in multi-starrer The Burning Train (1980), and an understanding doctor in the reincarnation love story Kudrat (1981), where he did not let Raaj Kumar and Rajesh Khanna eclipse him.
Khanna, who had become a disciple of godman Rajneesh in the mid-1970s, then took an extended break from the film industry, notwithstanding being at the peak of his career. He moved to the godman’s ashram in the US where he reportedly was also a dish-washer and gardener. However, he found time to wrap up his pending commitments.
He returned to Bollywood in 1987, where his career took off again seamlessly. Mostly seen in action films, usually in his trademark police inspector role, he paired well with Meenakshi Seshadri in Satyamev Jayate and Dimple Kapadia in Insaaf (both 1987).
But what signalled his comeback in full vigour was Feroz Khan-helmed Dayavan (1988) where he played a crime don, patterned on Varadarajan Mudaliar, and shared a sparkling chemistry with Madhuri Dixit (sharing a long kiss and the sensuous Aaj Phir Tum Pe).
He did well again with Madhuri in ‘Maha-Sangram’ (1990) – also a film noted for Gulshan Grover in a positive role. His other notable performances included Chandni (1989), Lekin (1990) and Jurm (1990).
Khanna, who had only won one Filmfare Award (for best supporting actor), despite being nominated twice as best actor and once more as best supporting actor), was conferred a Lifetime Achievement award in 1999 and the Dadasaheb Phalke Award posthumously in 2018.
He also enjoyed a flourishing political career, which saw him rise to Minister of State for External Affairs in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, and though his output slackened, he never fully abandoned the film industry, or lost his penchant, holding his own against Salman in the Dabangg series.
His last film was Dilwale, starring Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol (2015), before he lost his battle against cancer in April 2017.