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The Actor Who Renounced Success

Coastweek -- Vinod Khanna was possibly the only male star in the Hindi film industry that forsook fame at the height of success, writes DINESH RAHEJA.

After a long string of hits in 1977-1978, Vinod was Amitabh Bachchan’s direct competitor in the superstar sweepstakes.

He shocked filmdom and the public by announcing his retirement.

Nonchalantly, he determinedly embarked on a quest for spiritual fulfillment.

After all, a few years earlier, he had already worked the rare alchemy that let him manage the difficult crossover from ‘villain’ to ‘hero.’

Vinod Khanna, who has died aged 70, on 27th April, 2017, belonged to the second wave of Punjabi heroes who ruled Bollywood - known as “Partition Punjabis”.

His family hailed from Peshawar in Pakistan and had moved to India in 1947 when the country was divided.

The heroes on screen then were all swashbuckling heroes known for their strapping good looks, cultivated on screen mannerisms and individual styles.

 
Coastweek -- Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna and Rishi Kapoor. It may not have the humour of Amitabh’s Anthony or the flamboyance of Rishi’s Akbar, but the smooth machismo Vinod projects as super cop Amar is what gives Manmohan Desai’s lost and found classic some much-needed balance.

He embodied all that but also brought all the panache of 1970s cinema to his acting.

A student of Mumbai’s elite Sydenham College, he found acting more exciting than his family business and signed on Sunil Dutt’s home production Man Ka Meet (1968) as his debut.

Designed as a launch pad for Sunil’s brother, Som Dutt, Man Ka Meet, ironically, made stars of its moon-faced heroine Leena Chandarvarkar and its tall and hunky anti-hero, Vinod Khanna.

Film writer Jai Arjun Singh points out that “Khanna’s villainy was impressive as it combined his dashing looks with an edgy dangerous menace that made him impressive on screen. He was better at playing villain parts than the conventional Bollywood hero”, says Singh.

If Dharmendra was the original “beefcake of Bollywood” in the 1970s, the 1980s was dominated by the figure of Amitabh Bachchan’s “angry young man”.

But Mr. Singh says there was a time when Bollywood watchers “predicted that Khanna was a threat to superstar Bachchan’s popularity”.

The two acted in a number of films together.

As a villain whose handsome face hid ugly designs and deeds, Vinod was lapped up by the audience.

But few producers had the confidence to let a major film ride on his brawny shoulders.

He had to pair with starlets like Bindu (Nateeja) and Bharati (Hum Tum Aur Woh); or be the unwanted hypotenuse in many a triangular tango (Aan Milo Sajna, Ek Haseena Do Deewane) where all he was required to do was sneer and exude charisma.

As a blackguard, Vinod was most memorable playing the dacoit in Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971).

Sporting a huge black tilak, a crumpled dhoti and bloodshot eyes, Vinod matched he-man Dharmendra shoulder to shoulder.

A section of the audience was convinced that second leads Laxmi Chhaya and Vinod Khanna had stolen the thunder in this horses-and-bullets megahit.

 
Coastweek -- Zeenat Aman and Vinod Khanna in Qurbani.

Not content with being a sought-after model of male nastiness, Vinod yearned for more.

Debutant director Gulzar provided the much-needed breakthrough, giving Vinod the role of a soul-troubled street desperado in his Mere Apne (1971).

The audience enjoyed the sparring between Vinod and Shatrughan Sinha as rival street gang leaders.

Vinod capably blended toughness with sensitivity (his character was jilted by his girlfriend).

He began his transition to hero roles in right earnest.

Gulzar’s songless Achanak (1973) saw Vinod retain the audience’s sympathy despite playing a man who murders his adulterous wife.

Vinod was still the toughie in his films but the roles were increasingly lined with romantic hues, like 1974’s Imtihaan (where he successfully reprised the role played by Sidney Poiter in To Sir With Love) and Haath Ki Safaai.

The mid-1970s was a heady phase for Vinod.

He formed a thumping box-office team with Amitabh.

The two heroes delivered five huge successes together - Hera Pheri (1976), Khoon Pasina (1977), Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) Parvarish (1977) and Muqaddar Ka Sikander (1978).

 
Coastweek -- Vinod Khanna with his guru in Rajneesh’s ashram during his 5-year spiritual break.

The larkiness inherent in these films ensured a high entertainment quotient.

In Amar Akbar Anthony, one of Bollywood’s biggest hits ever, a scene has Khanna beating Bachchan to a pulp and carting him over his shoulders.

It left many fans of the superstar dumbfounded.

“It was inconceivable for me to imagine my hero getting beaten. Even by his elder brother in the film,” writes Diptakirti Chaudhuri, in a book on Bollywood.

Vinod was even pitched as Amitabh’s contender for the top spot after he fuelled successes on his own steam like Raj Sippy’s Inkaar (1977), a slick kidnap drama.

Thankfully, the actor also attempted risky, offbeat roles.

Vinod won raves for his mature and complex performance as a murder suspect in Aruna Vikas’ small budget sleeper success, Shaque (1976).

His lovemaking scenes with Shabana Azmi were considered bold for the times and created a stir.

In Gulzar’s Meera (1979), Vinod brought alive the frustration of an essentially decent man unable to reconcile himself to his wife Meera’s devotion to a force bigger than himself.

Khanna was a hunk with dreamy eyes and the combination of his muscularity and good looks helped him race to the top.

He did action, thrillers, and romances and, for a while, ruled the marquee in Bollywood.

Even as Main Tulsi Tere Angan Ki and Muqaddar Ka Sikander light up the marquee, Vinod found himself questioning the gossamer nature of worldly glory.

It shored his resolve to join his guru Rajneesh’s ashram.

Neither the runaway success of his starrer Qurbani (1980) nor his early 1970s marriage to Geetanjali (which ended in a divorce) stopped Vinod from setting off on a spiritual odyssey.

In the early 1980s, Vinod followed Rajneesh to Oregon, where he busied himself with gardening.

The tabloids called him “Sexy Sanyasi”, referring to an ascetic follower of Hinduism.

 
Coastweek -- Sridevi and Vinod Khanna in Chandni. At a time when Vinod Khanna’s macho appeal was his biggest draw, he valiantly shows up in Chandni’s second half to poignantly describe how it feels to get your heart broken not once but twice.

“I am, I guess, a human being who does what feels right to him at the time, does what he really wants to do,” he once told a journalist who asked him whether he was a star or a sanyasi.

“Sure, it is easy to latch onto one thing, to be and do that all your life - but within you is a voice saying there must be something more to life. I look for that something more.”

After his return from the ashram, his marriage ended and he went missing from popular imagination.

Till he decided it was wiser to let his spiritual self coexist with the material world.

Two people keen on a comeback - Vinod Khanna and a separated-from-her-husband Dimple Kapadia - came together in Insaaf (1987) and made it a winner.

The philosophy contained in Insaaf’s song, Rang lati hai henna patthar pe pis jaane ke baad proved prophetic.

Vinod was one of the hottest marquee names once again.

Big banners like J P Dutta (Batwara, Kshatriya), Yash Chopra (Chandni, Parampara), Mukul Anand (Mahasangram, Khoon Ka Karz) flooded Vinod with films.

But the failure of Dayavan (an ambitious remake of Kamal Haasan’s Nayakan) and a mindless spree of action movies - CID, Muqaddar Ka Badshah - took the sheen off Vinod’s star rating in the 1990s.

Aruna Raje’s Rihaee (1990) where he played an emancipated man who accepts his wife’s straying and Gulzar’s underrated metaphysical melodrama, Lekin (1991) were the two bright spots in a by now speckled career.

Vinod went about rebuilding his life and married again.

He launched his son Akshaye with Himalayaputra (1997), entered politics, became the minister of state for tourism and culture and proved himself willing to act in the occasional film like Leela, Wanted, Dabangg and Dilwale (which was his last), if it took his fancy.

 
Coastweek -- Salman Khan and Vinod Khanna in Dabangg. He doesn’t get much screen time but the veteran works up a stern face and daunting daddy air to validate a peeved Salman Khan’s Pandeyji-themed quips.

He will be forever remembered as an actor who wrote his own jagged script.

A stunning combination of robust star power and self-possession, Vinod Khanna’s illustrious filmography is imprinted on every Hindi film buff’s soul.

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