In her just-published memoir Freedom: My Story, the director and editor Arunaraje Patil recalls working with Vinod Khanna for the first time in the 1976 Shaque. This being a low-budget film made by FTII graduates who took their cinema seriously and had a proper script ready beforehand, sessions were held to help the actors understand their characters' back-stories, behavioural traits and motivations – and Khanna was initially surprised.
"[On the first day of shooting] when he saw our commitment to detail, he told us that he had not done the necessary preparation and that if we let him off that day, he would come fully prepared the next day. And he was true to his word… He spent a lot of time with us and the unit even when he was not required."
The story suggests that like other mainstream stars of the era, Khanna could be taken unawares by a working environment that wasn't slapdash, where dialogues weren't scribbled down on the sets an hour before the shooting began, and actors weren't mollycoddled. But it also suggests that he had the discipline and humility to step out of his comfort zone.
Little wonder then that this strikingly handsome man, who might have made a career out of being a poster boy, letting his sunglasses and open shirts do most of the work for him, participated in a number of relatively offbeat or understated films – starting with Gulzar's Mere Apne and Achanak, and Sunil Dutt's Reshma aur Shera, and continuing for the next two decades, through Meera, Lekin… , Muzaffar Ali's uncompleted Zooni, or Patil's Rihaee (in which he played a man who returns to his village to find his wife pregnant by someone else).
The story suggests that like other mainstream stars of the era, Khanna could be taken unawares by a working environment that wasn't slapdash, where dialogues weren't scribbled down on the sets an hour before the shooting began, and actors weren't mollycoddled
Yet Khanna's abiding legacy will be his work in commercial cinema. (My first major memory of him was the buzz created in the mid-1980s by his impending return to films after a five-year stint with Osho – followed by the frisson-producing opening credit in Insaaf, which proclaimed "Re-Introducing Vinod Khanna".) And the most intriguing thing about his mainstream career is the transition, over a few short years in the 1970s, from being a dashing young villain – devilishly good-looking and urbane in a way that other bad men of the time simply weren't – to becoming a conservative, mostly straight-arrow hero.
It's quite a leap. To appreciate it, look at some of his early films. Watch the sneering, clean-shaven Khanna in the goofy 1971 Elaan, for instance, where he plays sophisticated henchman to Madan Puri and Shetty, derisive one-liners dripping from his thin, curved lips as he effortlessly steals scenes from the "hero" Vinod Mehra. Or a moustached, more bucolic Khanna as the dacoit Jabbar Singh (a proto-Gabbar), terrorizing a village in Mera Gaon Mera Desh. Watch Aan Milo Sajna or Purab aur Paschim for glimpses of a screen personality that was edgier, less predictable, therefore more unsettling than the regular villains of the time.
Then fast-forward a few years and see how Khanna – through a shift to more positive parts, such as the large-hearted truck driver Sher Khan in Prem Kahaani – became the solid second lead in Amitabh Bachchan films such as Hera Pheri and Khoon Pasina. And yes, "second lead" it very much is, though others might phrase it differently. Personally, I don't subscribe to the myth-making idea that if Khanna hadn't left the film industry for Osho, he would have usurped Bachchan's number one position.
This might not seem a kind thing to say – especially in an obituary – but keeping in mind Khanna's undisputed status as a big star from the mid-70s onward, chunks of his career have a cipher-like quality; and not just because of the years when he was absent. No doubt he worked in many terrific films during his hero period – among them Qurbani, The Burning Train and the Amitabh films – and nothing about his performances can be faulted. He had a strong screen presence, could be very sympathetic when required, and he always looked great. But equally, very few of those films can be said to rise or fall on the strength of his contribution.
He could come across as a little bland in some of them, and this quality was cleverly harnessed by Manmohan Desai (a man no one could accuse of blandness) in Amar Akbar Anthony. In their entertaining book about Desai's film, William Elison, Christian Lee Novetzke and Andy Rotman make a few subtextual observations about Khanna's Amar – the Hindu as eldest brother, the head of the multicultural family who is expected to be restrained and proper and humourless, while there are no such constraints on his siblings Anthony and Akbar.
Even if you dismiss this as academic "over-analysis", and even if you disregard his later roles as a benevolent paternalist and his political career with the BJP, one can note that Khanna's mainstream career – after he "graduated" to being a leading man – has a certain primness to it. As a leading man, he was more vanilla than Bachchan's heroes, not as uninhibited and energetic as the dancing stars like Jeetendra and Rishi Kapoor, and there weren't as many flourishes of personality as Shatrughan Sinha. "Solid" and "personable" are the words that come to mind.
This might be an unpopular opinion, but I prefer the actor's earlier avatar, and feel that if he had stuck with it for a few more years, we might have seen a truly potent villain (or an anti-hero who was nastier and less sympathetic than Bachchan's Vijay) instead of a generic, honourable hero.
Fast-forward a few years and see how Khanna – through a shift to more positive parts, such as the large-hearted truck driver Sher Khan in Prem Kahaani – became the solid second lead in Amitabh Bachchan films such as Hera Pheri and Khoon Pasina
The steely glint in the eye, the withering putdown, the smirk that could make that handsome face look so cruel – vestiges of these qualities can be seen in even the good-guy roles. Watching these with knowledge of his early career, I sometimes fancy him as a Jekyll waiting impatiently for his inner Hyde to reemerge.
Consider something like the "O Saathi Re" sequence in Muqaddar ka Sikander, a film that gave Khanna one of his most thankless second-lead parts. In itself, this is a lovely scene built around a lovely song: Bachchan is performing soulfully, Raakhee is watching him all teary-eyed… and by her side there's Khanna smiling at them both like an extra. The villainous VK of a few years earlier would have cracked a barbed whip, or walloped them over the head with a briefcase full of gold biscuits. And then sneered. And it would have been great.