Vinod Khanna is possibly the only male star in the Hindi film industry who forsook fame at the height of success. After a long string of hits in 1977-1978, Vinod was Amitabh Bachchan’s direct competitor in the superstar sweepstakes. He shocked filmdom and the public by announcing his retirement. Nonchalantly, he determinedly embarked on a quest for spiritual fulfillment.
People should have learnt to expect the unexpected from Vinod Khanna. After all, a few years earlier, he had already worked the rare alchemy that let him manage the difficult crossover from ‘villain’ to ‘hero.’
A student of Mumbai’s elite Sydenham college, he found acting more exciting than his family business and signed on Sunil Dutt’s home production Man Ka Meet (1968). Designed as a launch pad for Sunil’s brother, Som Dutt, Man Ka Meet, ironically, made stars of its moon-faced heroine Leena Chandarvarkar and its tall and hunky anti-hero, Vinod Khanna.
As a villain whose handsome face hid ugly designs and deeds, Vinod was lapped up by the audience. But few producers had the confidence to let a major film ride on his brawny shoulders. He had to pair with starlets like Bindu (Nateeja) and Bharati (Hum Tum Aur Woh); or be the unwanted hypotenuse in many a triangular tango (Aan Milo Sajna, Ek Haseena Do Deewane) where all he was required to do was sneer and exude charisma.
As a blackguard, Vinod was most memorable playing the dacoit in Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971). Sporting a huge black tilak, a crumpled dhoti and bloodshot eyes, Vinod matched he-man Dharmendra shoulder to shoulder. A section of the audience was convinced that second leads Laxmi Chhaya and Vinod Khanna had stolen the thunder in this horses-and-bullets megahit.
Not content with being a sought-after model of male nastiness, Vinod yearned for more. Debutant director Gulzar provided the much-needed breakthrough, giving Vinod the role of a soul-troubled street desperado in his Mere Apne (1971). The audience enjoyed the sparring between Vinod and Shatrughan Sinha as rival street gang leaders. Vinod capably blended toughness with sensitivity (his character was jilted by his girlfriend). He began his transition to hero roles in right earnest.
Gulzar’s songless Achanak (1973) saw Vinod retain the audience’s sympathy despite playing a man who murders his adulterous wife. Vinod was still the toughie in his films but the roles were increasingly lined with romantic hues, like 1974’s Imtihaan (where he successfully reprised the role played by Sidney Poiter in To Sir With Love) and Haath Ki Safaai.
The mid-1970s was a heady phase for Vinod. He formed a thumping box-office team with Amitabh. The two heroes delivered five huge successes together — Hera Pheri (1976), Khoon Pasina (1977), Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) Parvarish (1977) and Muqaddar Ka Sikander (1978). The larkiness inherent in these films ensured a high entertainment quotient.
Vinod was even pitched as Amitabh’s contender for the top spot after he fuelled successes on his own steam like Raj Sippy’s Inkaar (1977), a slick kidnap drama.
Thankfully, the actor also attempted risky, offbeat roles. Vinod won raves for his mature and complex performance as a murder suspect in Aruna Vikas’ small budget sleeper success, Shaque (1976). His lovemaking scenes with Shabana Azmi were considered bold for the times and created a stir. In Gulzar’s Meera (1979), Vinod brought alive the frustration of an essentially decent man unable to reconcile himself to his wife Meera’s devotion to a force bigger than himself.
Even as Main Tulsi Tere Angan Ki and Muqaddar Ka Sikander light up the marquee, Vinod found himself questioning the gossamer nature of worldly glory. It shored his resolve to join his guru Rajneesh’s ashram.
Neither the runaway success of his starrer Qurbani (1980) nor his early 1970s marriage to Geetanjali (which ended in a divorce) stopped Vinod from setting off on a spiritual odyssey.
In the early 1980s, Vinod followed Rajneesh to Oregon, where he busied himself with gardening. Till he decided it was wiser to let his spiritual self coexist with the material world.
Two people keen on a comeback — Vinod Khanna and a separated-from-her-husband Dimple Kapadia — came together in Insaaf (1987) and made it a winner. The philosophy contained in Insaaf’s song, Rang lati hai henna patthar pe pis jaane ke baad proved prophetic.
Vinod was one of the hottest marquee names once again. Big banners like J P Dutta (Batwara, Kshatriya), Yash Chopra (Chandni, Parampara), Mukul Anand (Mahasangram, Khoon Ka Karz) flooded Vinod with films. But the failure of Dayavan (an ambitious remake of Kamal Haasan’s Nayakan) and a mindless spree of actioners — CID, Muqaddar Ka Badshah — took the sheen off Vinod’s star rating in the 1990s.
Aruna Raje’s Rihaee (1990) where he played an emancipated man who accepts his wife’s straying and Gulzar’s underrated metaphysical melodrama, Lekin (1991) were the two bright spots in a by now speckled career.
Vinod went about rebuilding his life and married again. He launched his son Akshaye with Himalayaputra (1997), entered politics, became the minister of state for tourism and culture and proved himself willing to act in the occasional film like Leela, if it took his fancy.