Talk of rugged good looks in Hindi cinema and the first name that comes to mind is that of Vinod Khanna. At his peak as a leading man in the late 1970s and 1980s, he was one hero who had his own iconic following and gave the then superstar Amitabh Bachchan a pretty good run for his money.
Khanna was born on October 6, 1946, in Peshawar in undivided India. His father was a business man who dealt in textiles, dyes and chemicals. However, with India’s Independence in 1947 and the consequent partition of the sub-continent, the Khanna family had to leave Peshawar and relocate to Bombay, now Mumbai, where Khanna attended St. Mary’s School, Mazgaon and then St Xaviers High School. He continued his studies at Delhi Public School when the family shifted to Delhi followed by the Barnes school at Deolali as a boarder once the Khannas returned to Bombay. It is here that he recalled getting swept away by Mughal-e-Azam (1960) and where his love for the movies really began. He completed his graduation at Sydneham College of College and Economics event as his father wanted him to join the family business even though he was more interested in the sciences and wanted to actually be an engineer. Khanna remembers having a good time in college dabbling with theater and having several girlfriends, one of whom Gitanjali would become his future wife.
He met actor Sunil Dutt at a party. Dutt was at the time making a film, Man Ka Meet (1968), to launch his brother Som Dutt as an actor. He offered Khanna a meaty role in the film. When his father heard of it, he would have none of it and it was his mother who convinced him that let Khanna try the movies for two years and if he didn’t succeed, he could always join the family business. As it turned out, the film, intended to highlight Som Dutt, actually saw Khanna getting rave reviews and a spate of further offers. In his early films, he was mainly cast in negative roles where he vied with the hero for the heroine (Aan Milo Sajna (1970)) or played the second lead to the main hero (Purab Aur Paschim (1970), Sachaa Jhutha (1970)).
1971 proved to be a breakthrough year for Khanna. As a villain, he scored heavily as a ruthless dacoit, named Jabbar Singh no less, in Raj Khoshla’s seminal predecessor to Sholay (1975), Mera Gaon Mera Desh. He also played a solo lead role that year in Hum Tum Aur Woh co-starring South Indian actress Bharathi. Among other films, he also made a major impact in Gulzar’s directorial debut, Mere Apne (1971), a film that focused on issues dealing with the youth and their search for some direction in their lives, as seen through two groups that are at constant loggerheads with each other. Khanna sensitively played the leader of one of the groups, while the song he sings recalling his old love, Koi Hota Jisko Apna Hum Apna Keh Lete Yaaron, endures till date as one of the best ever songs filmed on him.
It would be in his next collaboration with Gulzar, Achanak (1973), that Khanna received some of the best reviews of his entire acting career. A loose adaptation of the Nanavati murder case, Achanak sees Khanna in top form playing an army officer who finds out his wife is having an affair with his best friend. He kills them both and is convicted. He escapes to immerse his wife’s mangalsutra in the Ganges but is grievously wounded as the law catches up with him. Though he survives, he is sent to the gallows to fulfill his sentence. Achanak and Mere Apne both highlight the fact that Khanna was quite open to doing films outside the regular mainstream, something he would continue with his fine work in films like Shaque (1976), Rihaee (1988), Lekin (1990) and Leela (2002), besides the incomplete Zooni.
Khanna broke through majorly as a hero with Prakash Mehra’s Haath Ki Safai (1974), a film for which though he played the parallel hero to Randhir Kapoor, he won the Filmfare award for Best Supporting Actor. Thereafter, the climb was rather rapid. With blockbusters like Hera Pheri (1976), Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), Parvarish (1977), Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978) and Qurbani (1980), he was second only to Bachchan. What’s more, in Amar Akbar Anthony, he got to win the fight with the big B and perform as a one man band in the film’s climactic song.
Even as Khanna tasted much success on the professional front and on the personal side, though he had married Gitanjali in 1971 and had two sons, Rahul, born in 1972 and Akshaye, born in 1975, he was restless. In Osho Rajneesh, Khanna found a spiritual mentor whom he felt could guide him towards peace of mind. Initially, he used to go to Osho’s ashram every weekend in Pune, sometimes even driving his shootings there, before being fully ordained on December 31st, 1975. In 1982, giving up his career and family, he would follow Osho to America where in ‘Rajneeshpuram’, he cleaned toilets, washed dishes and tended to the gardens. The strain told on his separation from his family. Gitanjali and he divorced in 1985.
Leaving Osho and refusing his offer to run his Pune ashram, Khanna returned to Bollywood, where he was welcomed with open arms, and made a grand comeback with two back-to-back hits, Mukul S Anand’s Insaaf (1987) co-starring Dimple Kapadia, and Raj N Sippy’s Satyamev Jayate (1987) opposite Meenakshi Seshadri and Anita Raaj reclaiming his position as one of Hindi cinema’s top stars. While his second innings of about a decade was, no doubt, highly successful and starred him mostly in action films (there were exceptions like Rihaee and Chandni (1989)), it wasn’t quite the same as the high he had reached before leaving for America. He also remarried once he returned to India, marrying Kavita Daftari, daughter of Industrialist Sharayu Daftary, in 1990. The couple have two children, a son Sakshi, and daughter, Shraddha.
Even as he launched son Akshaye Khanna in Hindi films with Himalay Putra (1997) and continued doing the occasional film, now playing father and character roles, Khanna entered politics joining the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 1997. Barring the 2009 general elections when he lost, he has successfully contested and won from the Gurdaspur constituency in 1999, 2004 and 2014. He has also served as Union Minister for Culture and Tourism and as Minister of State for External Affairs. Prominent among his last films have been the Pakistani film, Godfather (2007), Wanted (2009), Dabangg (2010) and its sequel, Dabangg 2 (2012), and Rohit Shetty’s Dilwale (2015).
Suffering from advanced bladder carcinoma, Vinod Khanna died in Mumbai on April 27, 2017. In 2018, he was awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke Award posthumously for his contribution to Indian cinema.