One of India’s most well-known Bollywood actors Vinod Khanna has died aged 70, his hospital has confirmed.
Khanna was an active politician, had been suffering from cancer and was admitted to hospital earlier this month as his illness became more serious. He acted in more than 100 Bollywood films and was widely seen as a counterfoil to the “angry young man” played by Amitabh Bachchan.
He was elected to parliament four times and was once a junior foreign minister.
This article, by film critic Bhawana Somaaya looks at the life of the actor during his illustrious career.
Legend has it that when Sunil Dutt saw Vinod Khanna for the first time, he was fascinated with the young man because he was from Peshawar (present day-Pakistan). Dutt decided to launch Khanna and his younger brother Som Dutt in his home production Man ka Meet (1968).
Initially, Vinod Khanna was just a good looking villain. But his solid screen presence ensured that irrespective of whether his role was positive or negative, he was noticed in all his films – be it Purab Aur Paschim with Manoj Kumar or Aan Milo Sajna and Saccha Jootha with Rajesh Khanna (1970).
The year 1971 proved to be a turning point in Khanna’s career – with three films presenting him in three very different avatars. Sunil Dutt’s Reshma Aur Shera, which also launched Amitabh Bachchan, Gulzar’s Mere Apne, that defined him as an actor and Raj Khosla’s dacoit drama Mera Gaon Mera Desh, where he shared screen space with Sunil Dutt and Dharmendra.
On the personal front, Vinod Khanna married his childhood sweetheart Geetanjali. The two went on to have two sons, Akshaye and Rahul Khanna.
The 70s was a decade of multi-starrer films and Vinod Khanna was a prominent player, pairing up with Amitabh Bachchan and other actors. He worked with Randhir Kapoor in Haath Ki Safai and Amitabh Bachchan in Khoon Pasina, Parvarish and Amar Akbar Anthony.
When I met Vinod Khanna for the first time in 1978, he was already into Osho Rajneesh. He wore an orange kaftan and a beaded mala to shootings. He walked around the studio and his set with an orange cloth bag strapped around his shoulder. He would delay getting into his costume till the shot was ready.
During this phase, I interviewed him a number of times. No matter what question you asked him, he had a knack of relating the answer to Rajneesh’s philosophy.
When in Mumbai (then Bombay), he shot from Monday to Friday. After pack-up, he drove to Pune (then Poona) to spend the weekend with Rajneesh. Producers were concerned about his obsession with Rajneesh but Vinod Khanna was blissfully indifferent to his surroundings.
As months went by, his disinterest in work became more apparent. And then, the inevitable happened. There was some problem at Rajneesh’s Poona resort, because of which Osho shifted overnight to Oregon and wanted his favourite disciple Vinod Khanna to follow him.
This was in 1980, a time when Vinod Khanna was the darling of the nation, the action hero of The Burning Train and the heartbreaker of the very popular Qurbani. Would Vinod Khanna stake his career for his guru?
When the news first reached our ears, nobody took it seriously and was dismissed as a crazy rumour. But slowly, as days went by, directors confided that Khanna had stalled all his new projects indefinitely. Producers confirmed that Vinod Khanna was returning signing amounts. This was serious.
His co-stars were alarmed and his distributors were angry. The media wanted to know what was going on. So finally, on the advice of his manager (then secretary), Vinod Khanna called a press conference. The venue was the newly launched Centaur (today Tulip Star) Hotel. His first wife Geetanjali and their sons were a part of the conference.
In those days, press conferences were not as common as they are today. Everyone was surprised at how composed Vinod Khanna was. He did not make any elaborate speeches. He said he had made up his mind to quit films and shift base and that he wanted to follow his heart. His wife Geetanjali seated beside him was supportive of his decision.
In the following weeks, Vinod Khanna left for Oregon. If the stories are to be believed, he transformed into an able gardener at the Rajneeshpuram ashram. Every morning, he woke up and watered the plants and sang to the flowers. During his years away, Vinod Khanna hardly visited India. The media lost touch with him until news of his divorce in 1985.
After his long exile, Vinod Khanna was first spotted on a popular magazine cover with a white beard. It was a signal to the film industry that the prodigal son had returned and producers clamoured to queue outside his home.
His first release post his spiritual break was the Mukul Anand-directed Insaaf, starring Dimple Kapadia, followed by Feroze Khan’s Dayavan. The attractive actor was among the first crop of actors to endorse a brand (Cinthol).
Yash Chopra signed him for Chandni, while Mahesh Bhatt roped him in for Jurm.
The 90s saw him experience a professional decline. But on a personal level, Khanna announced his marriage to Kavita. In 1997, he launched his son Akshaye Khanna in his home production Himalay Putra. The film tanked.
The year 1997 also saw him join the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and win from the Gurdaspur constituency, Punjab in the Lok Sabha polls. In 1999, he was re-elected to the Lok Sabha from the same constituency. By this time, Khanna had learned to balance both Bollywood and politics.
I happened to bump into him at a film event soon after the release of his two films Kranti and Deewanapan. He said he enjoyed politics but found it stimulating to be in a creative environment and vowed that he would pursue both for as long as he could. And he did.
After losing out in the 2009 Lok Sabha poll, Khanna bounced back in the 2014 general elections. For a monk who sold his Mercedes and turned a gardener, the actor/politician has gone through too many highs and lows to worry about his popularity.
The Vinod Khanna I know has no fears and lives each day as it comes.