Vinod Khanna – Not-An-Obit

(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)

Long before Akshay Kumar starred in Rustom – that won him the questionable National Award for Best Actor this year – there were several films based on the Nanavati case. One of the better films came from Gulzar, the 1973 Achanak that was also one of Vinod Khanna’s first lead roles. The word lead could be wrong here as it is still a film where the army officer played by Khanna, murders his wife and her paramour, and is in death row. Shah Rukh Khan was at least two decades into the future and here was Khanna, making smooth transitions from hard core negative roles to ones with gray shades, on his way to becoming the swashbuckling star of the 70s, who at one point was believed to be the fiercest competition to Amitabh Bachchan.

Long before Salim-Javed and Ramesh Sippy got together with Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra, along the way discovering Amjad Khan, there was Vinod Khanna’s Mera Gaon Mera Desh. It was still Vinod Khanna as villain phase. But can you guess Vinod Khanna’s name in Mera Gaon Mera Desh? He was Jabbar Singh, the local dacoit. Halwaldaar Jaswant Singh played by Jayant, employs the released convict Ajit (Dharmendra) whose paths cross with Jabbar. Themes from here simmer in several minds for a few years before going into the mixer with Once Upon a Time in The West and John Ford classics. The seed always belonged to Vinod Khanna.

Long before Shekhar Kapur’s Mr. India, there was K. Ramanlal’s Elaan. What is common you ask? A film around the power of invisibility. Elaan is not a Vinod Khanna film. It is also not for the fainthearted. It is a film with the other Vinod – Mehra – in the lead, one who would soon be steamrolled by every major 70s star including his namesake in Elaan. Khanna is also not the main villain. In a campy B-movie with Vinod Mehra and Rekha (in one of her earliest roles), all the charm is exuded by Khanna, playing the captain cool version of a wisecracking ruffian, something his 70s nemesis Bachchan would play later in films like Sholay.

Long before today’s new age directors started making 1970s Hindi film references (not counting Farah Khan’s Main Hoon Naa), there was Dibakar Banerjee’s Oye Lucky Lucky Oye. Anurag Kashyap may have referenced Deewar (and several others) in his Wasseypur epics, especially in the is-it-ok-to-laugh-now-or-not scene with Nawazuddin Siddiqui, as he carves up his friend in unchecked rage, but then Deewar is like The Godfather. Everybody gets it. Banerjee’s delightful sophomore feature goes for the esoteric, beginning with Vinod Khanna. The film literally begins with Lahu Ke Do Rang’s Chahiye Thoda Pyaar. That’s not all. In a moment in the film, Lucky, the happy-go-lucky con artist, is compared to Vinod Khanna himself. Wonder what Dharmendra made of that.

Long before this writer was enamored by the world of cinema, there was his mother, one of the biggest Vinod Khanna fans. On hearing the news, she expressed sadness. She said what every casual fan says when the name Vinod Khanna is mentioned – he was the most good looking man of those times. He could have eaten up the Bachchans and Dharmendars for breakfast. She wonders if him joining the Rajneesh Ashram ate into his time and potential. He could have been so much more, she says, almost in regret. You’d agree with her if you watch, not any of his films, but simply, this commercial from decades ago for Baba Chewing Tobacco. It is literally a pitch for Vinod Khanna as James Bond (long before retired Bonds came down to India to star in tobacco commercials). An expensive car comes to a stop at an expensive hotel. A man with the product in hand walks briskly and gets down to the basement casino. We see only his silhouette. Women sipping cocktails, slotting machines, poker chips under the spell of gravity. And then his face turns and bathes in light as we recognize Vinod Khanna, in dinner suit and bow tie. All eyes on him as he takes a seat, gets a note from the mysterious lady at the counter and chews some tobacco. Then he goes all in. Vinod Khanna always went all in.

(Pic courtesy: Rahul Khanna’s Twitter)


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