Screen legend and Member of Parliament Vinod Khanna died this morning at HN Reliance Hospital. He was 70. He’d been battling bladder cancer for years. With his passing, Indian cinema has lost one of its most popular leading men, an actor who had the misfortune of coinciding with Amitabh Bachchan’s career, and the personality and charisma to not be overshadowed by him.
Khanna acted in over 100 films, most often playing the square-jawed hero. He was at his peak in the 1970 and ‘80s, starring in masala blockbusters such as Haath Ki Safai, The Burning Train, Qurbani, Muqaddar Ka Sikandar and Amar Akbar Anthony. In between, he managed to insert softer, subtler shades in performances in films like Parichay, Achanak and Lekin. Here are just a few of the films that Khanna will be remembered for years from now.
Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971)
Vinod Khanna started out in Hindi cinema playing the villain before he graduated to hero roles. In Mera Gaon Mera Desh – directed by Raj Khosla, a commercial filmmaker with a generous dash of visual style – he was a very effective heavy, with a black tika, sideburns and a moustache that looked like it had been painted on, and a sexy snarl.
This 1973 movie by Gulzar —loosely inspired by the Nanavati murder case of 1958—was one of the acting highlights of Khanna’s career. Playing an army officer who kills his wife, after finding out she’s having an affair, and then turns himself in to the police, Khanna is restrained and emotional, accessing the depth he always seemed to find when he worked with Gulzar.
Amar Akbar Anthony (1977)
The film that typified “Bollywood” before the term even existed. Amitabh Bachchan is at the centre of Manmohan Desai’s film, but Khanna, as police inspector Amar, gives a typically square-jawed performance, and carries off a thin moustache like few before or after him could.
Feroz Khan’s Qurbani, regarded as one of the classier Hindi thrillers not directed by Vijay Anand, had Khanna in relaxed form, directed by and starring opposite the even more relaxed Khan.
By the end of the 1980s, Khanna wasn’t the box-office draw he’d once been. Dayavan, a remake of Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan (itself a remake of The Godfather), was one of the last effective outings of Khanna the action hero. The film lacks the polish of the Ratnam version, but in the latter half, Khanna displays the kind of weight that would inform his “dangerous elder statesman” roles in Risk and 99.
Khanna only had a small supporting role in this 2002 film, but as a womanizing poet whose wife (Dimple Kapadia) finds herself attracted to a younger man, he reveals a gentler side to his virile persona than most would associate with the actor.
Khanna’s last great performance came in this madcap screwball comedy by Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK. He plays JC, an expert in cricket betting, with the kind of attention-demanding authority that comes from clocking four decades of screen-time.
Two film-makers look back at their association with Vinod Khanna
“For people who have grown up watching Hindi films, Vinod Khanna was a legend. We needed someone iconic, larger-than-life for the character of JC in 99. We needed a star with baggage, so that as soon as he came in, the audience knew they need to pay attention. When we went to see him with the script, we had no connections with the industry and didn’t have much hope. But to our surprise, he said yes. He had a beard at the time and a sort of gruff look. We told him to retain it.”
“When there were reports sometime back about him being sick I didn’t believe in them. Maybe it’s because I still look at him as the smart, manly superstar I grew up watching, with this great body and broad shoulders. On my films Wanted and Ramayya Vasthavayya, I remember he would arrive on the sets with style – carrying a small leather bag, chewing gum. He was a great guy. On the sets of Ramaiyya, he and Randhir Kapoor would chat about the old days and we would sit like kids asking “What happened next?”