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01 May 2017

Thus Endeth Another Chapter

It’s been some time since I visited my own blog, and it is doubly sad that it took a death to rouse me out of stupor. I woke up three days ago to learn that Vinod Khanna had died. It was a shock. Because while there had been a spate of deaths the past couple of years, including my idols Dev and Shammi, they belonged to a different era. Vinod Khanna was different – he belonged to my childhood. Along with Amitabh Bachchan and Rishi Kapoor, Vinod Khanna defined the 70s.

6.10.1946 - 27.04.2017
Of course, Khanna was not my ‘hero’ the way Bachchan was. I’d fallen in love with ‘Jai’ the minute I saw him in Sholay. While I liked sundry other heroes and certainly watched their films, I’d enshrined Bachchan in my heart and allowed no one else entry. Khanna, to me, was rather bland – like Sunil Dutt before him, I liked him well enough when he was on screen; he was so dashed good looking. 
But he didn’t impinge on my consciousness afterwards.

In fact, my initial impression of him wasn’t too favourable – he beat ‘Anthony’ up in Amar Akbar Anthony. My Anthony! How dare he! ('He's the only actor other than Dharmendra who made action look real', my sister crowed later. I wanted to smack her.) But Amar’s exasperated expression when Anthony remarks endearingly from inside the jail cell, ‘Tum apun ko dus dus maara. Apun tumko sirf do maara; par solid maara ki nahin, huh?’  made me laugh out loud.
Nor was I enamoured of him in Muqaddar ka Sikander where he walks away with the heroine whom my hero loved! (Of course, Raakhee’s Kaamna was such a whiny, morose mess that I wasn’t too sure I envied Khanna’s Vishal.)

But. It is not that I didn’t like Vinod Khanna. I liked him well enough, and once the TV came into our home, had the good fortune of seeing some of his more off-beat performances. Having been a Gulzar favourite from his Mere Apne days – a film which, upon viewing, my sister professed the urge to console Vinod Khanna – Khanna acted in several of the director’s movies, giving both his emotional and physical best for the director who was known to eke out sensitive portrayals from his actors. 

If Achanak saw him as a cuckolded husband who kills his wife and her lover and then goes on the run, Shaque had him playing a husband cut from a diferent cloth. Meera found him playing the unfortunate Bhojraj, the Sisodia monarch, husband to a woman who is so immersed in her spiritual connection to Lord Krishna that she has no love to offer him; and Mere Apne saw a troubled youth trying to come to terms with a society that looked upon him as a wastrel.
In fact, if I have to think of one song that comes to mind when I think of Khanna, it is Koi hota jisko apna from Mere Apne. These lines: 
Aankhon mein  neend na hoti
Aansoo hii tairte rahte
Khwaabon mein jaagte hum raat bhar
Koi toh gham apnaata
Koi toh saathi hota... 
...from a film about the turbulence of youth, fit a man who seemed to have spent his youth seeking someone – or something. 
In 1981 came Qurbani, Feroz Khan’s magnum opus, in which Vinod Khanna took on the second lead. It was a blockbuster, and Khanna walked away with the audience sympathies. One would think that he had it all.
Perhaps he did. But whatever it was, it wasn’t enough. For, a year later, Khanna would chuck it all – his career, his wife, his two sons. (My sister, who waxed eloquent about his cleft chin and chiselled good looks, mourned his departure.) Fame, adulation, wealth, celebrity status were all left behind as Khanna sought solace in spiritualism. It was seen as career suicide. Certainly, it would end his marriage to his childhood sweetheart.

Five years and a divorce later, Vinod Khanna returned. In style. With seemingly effortless ease, he dived back into the action era with Insaaf and Satyameva Jayate. It was as if he had never left. The industry welcomed the prodigal back with open arms; even those who had sounded the death knell of his career eating their words and signing him to headline their films. What stood out was the man’s supreme self-confidence, whether he was helming a solo film or being part of an ensemble. Two-hero films or multi-starrers, Khanna didn’t blink an eye.
What I remember from those years is his iconic Cinthol Ad. There was an untamed look about the man now, a look that suggested that he had nothing left to lose. The ad channelled that attitude. Like fine wine, he had aged well. He continued to act in films, good, bad, indifferent, using his magnificent physique to the hilt in the mindless action films of the 80s, all the while reserving his best for directors who were willing to trust him to deliver more than a few well-thrown punches. 
While Rihaaee (1988) (directed by his Shaque director Aruna Raje) saw him as an absentee husband who returns to his village to find his wife pregnant, Gulzar continued to pull the best out of Khanna – his performance in Lekin (1991) was surely one of his best.

As I think back on my cinematic trysts with Vinod Khanna, what I remember is a man with sad eyes, self-confident without being arrogant, the quietness of a man who was – finallyat peace with himself. For someone who was so much a man’s man, so ruggedly handsome, what remains with me is the half-smile that quirked his lips in the most endearing way, and the way his eyes lit up when he smiled. That smile made him at once real, and human. 

In the past days, Khanna’s erstwhile colleagues, Bachchan amongst them, have paid him rich tribute. In a moving eulogy, Bachchan had chronicled how he had initially met Khanna when the latter was shooting for Man ka Meet, while he was wearing his footwear out going from studio to studio in search of work. What came across in the tribute was what a truly generous man Khanna was – how kind he was to a newcomer, how unaffected by his ‘star status’. So unaffected, in fact, that he didn't care about their supposed rivalry.
Shabana Azmi wrote about how grateful she was that he chose her to be his heroine in Amar Akbar Anthony, and how kind he had been in easing her fears while they were working on Shaque.

From Shatrughan Sinha to Hema Malini, from Mahesh Bhatt to Subhash Ghai, from his constituents in Gurdaspur who are obliged to him for tirelessly working to address their issues to his old classmates – whom he affectionately referred to as ‘Barnacles' (their high school) – who were surprised to find that he remembered them despite his fame and celebrity status, the opinions seem to be unanimous – here was a man who was genuinely nice, with no starry airs, no rising sense of self-importance. 

Perhaps that is the most fitting epitaph for Vinod Khanna – ‘He was a good human being.’

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