Vinod Khanna (1946-2017): The Debonair

Vinod Khanna (1946-2017)
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The manly magnetism of Vinod Khanna (1946-2017), Bollywood’s last seeker

THE PHOTOGRAPH OF Vinod Khanna in hospital that got leaked and went viral has something heartbreaking about it. He looks weak and frail, unshaven and unkempt, and in his embrace of the people closest to him, you notice how his frame fails to even fill his hospital gown. It evokes a sadness that all pictures of men and women who have come to realise that they are in the final moments of their life do. But this image impacts us especially hard—because the individual is Vinod Khanna.

His family tried to quell rumours of his poor health. But Khanna is now dead at the age of 70. A man who was so many things at so many points of his life—a villain, a hero, someone who chucked everything away to become a sanyasi, and later even a politician—but who always remained, in the minds of the people who followed him, the eternal Bollywood pin-up.

Unlike other actors of that period, Khanna was in possession of a face and physique that the camera genuinely loved. He had a casual sex appeal. He left several buttons of his shirt undone to reveal what women now fondly remember as a manly chest. Many of these women, now mothers, perturbed by later heroes, are still known to point to Khanna and tell their daughters that they don’t make them like that anymore. He would snarl or smile with his pronounced cleft chin. He would play a cop or a dacoit with an easy charm. And he perhaps even single-handedly brought the word ‘debonair’ into the film industry. And the camera, so in love with his face, drew him up from the lower levels of Bollywood where he started off as a villain, gave him starring roles in big budget films as a lover-boy and an angry young man, and at one point even had him nearly threaten Amitabh Bachchan’s monopoly on superstardom.

Khanna was born on October 6th, 1946, to a businessman who dealt in textiles and dyes in Peshawar. His father was said to be exceptionally tough on him. As Khanna once said in a Times of India interview, he would never ask him what he wanted to do but always tell him what he had to do. The senior Khanna even enrolled his son in a college without informing him. But Khanna rebelled and joined show biz.

Sunil Dutt gave him his first role, that of a villain in the film Man Ka Meet (1968). The former was using the film to launch his younger brother Som. The film failed and took down, along with it, the fortunes of its leading man. But amidst the rubble, it was the villain, a dashing man of just 22, who caught everyone’s eye. “After my first movie… I got rave reviews. (And) within a week, I had signed 15 films,” Khanna once said in an interview.

In the coming years, Khanna appeared in several more films, gradually moving from the roles of villains and lesser characters to playing leads. It was a phase in Hindi cinema where the stardom of Rajesh Khanna was declining and that of Bachchan was on the ascent. Khanna did several successful films with Bachchan too. He was a latecomer compared to many other actors, but by 1980, when Qurbaani was released in theatres, Khanna was being spoken of as a rival to Bachchan.

But Khanna had other quests. He had already been a follower of the spiritual guru Rajneesh (later known as Osho) for several years. And in 1982, just as his career was heading for a new peak, he called a press conference to tell a stunned group of journalists that he was quitting cinema to follow Osho. The guru was setting up an entire township in Oregon, US, called Rajneeshpuram, a controversial mega-ashram project that would result in Osho being deported some years later. Khanna returned to cinema after a hiatus of about five years, but joined politics soon after and became a BJP leader.

But even when he had renounced the world to pursue spirituality, his fellow seekers, it appears, couldn’t quite blind themselves to his looks. Khanna told Times of India back in 2002, “They called me the sexy sanyasi.”