Vinod Khanna conquered Hindi cinema by just being there

Mustansir Dalvi

Before Gabbar Singh, there was Jabbar Singh.

Not a grumpy, grungy, paunchy dacoit on the run from the police, but a smartly turned out young man with a twirled-up moustache, clean-shaven cleft chin and a black tikka, a daakuon ka sardaar, who laid down his own law at the end of a double-barrel gun. Before Amjad Khan, there was Vinod Khanna. A leading man/villain to face off a leading man/hero Dharmendra. It would be easy to be confused, watching Raj Khosla’s Mera Gaon Mera Desh, to decide on whose side you would rather be. This was the film that made Khanna a marquee star. Graduating from his several turns as a conventional bad guy, it would only be a few films before he would become one of the most sought after leading men of the 1970s.

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And yet, one could argue that becoming the good guy emasculated him. In his early roles as an antagonist he inevitably chewed more scenery, and had more eyes riveted on him than on whichever hapless protagonist he was cast against, whether Manoj Kumar, Vinod Mehra, or even Dharmendra and Rajesh Khanna. Not since the heyday of Pran was Hindi cinema blessed with a youthful bad guy of immense charm and swagger, one who could deliver threats with an edge and a smile.

One wonders what direction Hindi cinema in the ’70s would have taken had Khanna remained with the dark side. Look at Mere Apne, a two-antagonist film, in which Khanna as the gang leader is still remembered for his intensity even though he is cast against the usually bombastic Shatrughan Sinha.

Khanna was cast with Amitabh Bachchan in Hera Pheri, Khoon Pasina, Amar Akbar Anthony, Zameer, Parvarish and Muqaddar Ka Sikandar. In all these films, except the last one, there are no real villains to pose a significant challenge to the heroes. Imagine the possibilities had Khanna been cast as the villain in each of them.

Why is Vinod Khanna so fondly regarded upon his passing, while still making us feel that there could have been more to him? As a leading man, he strode the ’70s with other colossi like Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna, Dharmendra and Shashi Kapoor. In nearly 50 of his 140-odd films, he was cast with another hero or with multiple heroes. Apart from the six with Bachchan, he made two films with Feroze Khan and Randhir Kapoor, three with Shashi Kapoor, five with Rajesh Khanna, six with Jeetendra and seven each with Dharmendra and Shatrughan Sinha. Almost all his significant hits came from some of these films.

Here’s the rub. When not playing the villain, Vinod Khanna, Adonis, heart-throb and ladies man, retreated into the scenery, playing straight man to his more garrulous co-stars. In most of his roles, he is the upright do-gooder, the head of the family or a police officer, serious and sacrificing in nature, a witness to the shenanigans of more expressive scene stealers. Slightly boring, in fact.

This self-effacement is the leitmotif of Khanna’s career and can be seen even when he is cast in women-centric films. As the stoic spouse alongside Hema Malini in Meera and Rihaee, in Lekin with Dimple Kapadia or in Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki opposite Nutan and Asha Parekh, Khanna subsumes his role to that of a foil, allowing the women to take centrestage, and by holding back, allowing them to shine.

His solo roles were rarely blockbusters, but they have some of his best performances. In Gulzar’s Achanak, almost a one-actor film, he can be seen in virtually every shot, and is a good example of character development as a cuckolded army man who murders his wife and her lover and goes on the run.

Among the many roles Khanna has played as police inspector, the best by far is in Inkaar, a police procedural inspired by Akira Kurosowa’s High and Low, a story of the misdirected kidnapping and rescue of a child who belongs to the servant of a rich man. The climax is a long chase, and his quest to find the villain (Amjad Khan) and the ransom money allow Khanna to shine as a realistic action hero.

Among the many loving remembrances after Vinod Khanna’s death on April 27, filmmaker Paromita Vohra described his screen persona best, as one of “unhurried hotness”. He could capture both your gaze and imagination but with suaveness and cool. It is a persona more suited to the ’70s, when the leading man was one of a film’s characters and not its raison d’être, a protagonist in a quotidian setting who could still do extraordinary things.

My favourite Vinod Khanna film embodies all these qualities. In Imtihan, he is cast as a college teacher. Leaving a rich father, he departs from home to the stirring song Ruk Jaana Nahin and ends up as a teacher in a college filled with long-haired, wide-collared and bell bottomed delinquints. Over the course of the film, he reforms them and finds himself and his lady love. This was an action film without much filmy action (one fight scene in the end) that kept moving, with Khanna in the most canonical role of his career. There is nobility in his bearing and a dignity that he holds on to despite the adversities he has to undergo. Imtihan was one of his few solo hits.

It may be counter-intuitive, but the most famous role of his career, as Inspector Amar in Amar Akbar Anthony, is the one that probably led Khanna down the slippery slope to retirement. Typecasting at its worst, we find Khanna once again as the straight man to slapstick Amitabh Bachchan, feeding him lines that would be answered by memorable retorts (Robert? Kaun woh fast bowler Andy Robert?) in a movie that is less a narrative and more a variety show.

Khanna had the least to do in this burlesque that allowed both Bachchan and Rishi Kapoor to take centrestage. He does little other than react and is the least proactive in driving the pace of the film. His own slapstick turn as a one-man band in the climax is completely unbelievable, given his dour persona throughout.

Bachchan, on the other hand, consolidated his superstardom with a big-top performance – performances really – as hero, lover, fighter and comedian, killing once and for all the need for the mandatory parallel comedy track in Hindi films.

Movies after Amar Akbar Anthony would be more and more crafted as vehicles for superstars who were the narrative rather than part of it. Little wonder then that Vinod Khanna found it best to quit movies for his spiritual quest with Osho.