There was a time in the 1970s when Vinod Khanna was a serious and credible threat to the reigning star of the time, Amitabh Bachchan. Bachchan, the colossus, dominated the box office completely, with no rival in sight, but if anyone could challenge him, it was Khanna. A terrific combination of ruggedness, suave good looks and fine acting chops, Khanna had a fan following to rival Bachchan’s. Plus, the producers loved him.
Yet somehow, they – and the box office – loved Bachchan a bit more. With every film, Bachchan soared higher and Khanna, despite his commercial successes, remained a notch below – adored by fans and critics alike, yet in second place. Together, they had great on-screen chemistry, as seen in the hugely successful Muqaddar ka Sikander and Amar Akbar Anthony, where he shone as the sober policeman who doesn’t know that Bachchan and Rishi Kapoor are his brothers. In AAA, Manmohan Desai got round to showing Bachchan, the leading actor of his time, being beaten by Khanna’s character Inspector Amar by arguing that the latter was a policeman, as well as the elder brother, and therefore could not be defeated.
The stylish Khanna, a Bombay boy, began his career with Man Ka Meet, produced by Sunit Dutt to launch his brother Som Dutt. The film was a flop but Khanna was noticed enough to get more offers. In the early days, he was either a villain or a police inspector, both potential career dead ends for someone who wanted to be a hero. That he still shone on the screen was a tribute to his screen presence. Then came Gulzar’s Mere Apne, where he, along with Shatrughan Sinha, played unemployed drifters drifting young men who picked fights with each other.
But it was Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971) that established him in the industry. As the dacoit Jabbar Singh, Khanna brought a brooding intensity to the role, easily overshadowing the hero Dharmendra. The film was the template for Sholay, which came four years later.
The path to the top was blocked then by Rajesh Khanna and soon after, with Zanjeer, Majboor and Deewaar, by Bachchan, who overtook everybody else. It is never easy in the Indian film industry to shift from playing baddies to becoming the hero, but Khanna managed that transition. Unfortunately, his early roles as a leading man were in relatively smaller productions such as Gaddaar and Imtihan, and Achanak, films where his performance was always praised but where not huge commercial hits.
The emerging trend of multi-starrers saw Khanna acting in many films as a ‘parallel hero’, with Bachchan, Jeetendra (The Burning Train) and Feroz Khan (Qurbani), where, as the true friend who sacrifices himself, he left not a dry eye among the audience. He won the Filmfare Award as the Best Supporting Actor for Haath Ki Safai.
Things were looking good for him, but suddenly, he gave it all up. Khanna had become interested in Bhagwan Rajneesh, the Pune-based godman, spending all his weekends with him and taking on the name Swami Vinod Bharti. Producers complained he had become detached and uninterested – along with other film industry colleagues such as Vijay Anand, Khanna had taken to wearing saffron robes and spouting Rajneesh’s philosophy. The media immediately termed him the ‘sexy sanyasi’. In the early 1980s, when Rajneesh shifted from Pune to Oregon, Khanna packed up his bags, announced his ‘retirement’ from the industry and went along with other sanyasins.
The industry had completely changed when he returned after a few years and while he did give two back-to-back hits such as Insaaf and Satyamev Jayate, most of his roles were in forgettable films such as Rihaee and Suryaa: An Awakening. Yash Chopra’s 1989 hit Chandni put him back in the reckoning.
He retained his looks and his screen persona, but with a new generation of young actors in the forefront, he was mainly considered for roles as a policeman or a feudal Thakur. His last memorable role was in Dabangg, as Salman Khan’s estranged stepfather.
Khanna had joined the BJP and won four elections from Gurdaspur. In 2002, he was made the minister for culture and then minister of state for external affairs. He is survived by his wife Kavita and four children, Akshaye, Rahul, Sakshi and Shraddha.