The first time that I remember seeing Vinod Khanna on the big screen was in Qurbani at Vaishali Cinema in Patna in 1981. The story of the film is a blur now, but outside of the sexed out Zeenat Aman’s Aap Jaisa Koi and Laila O Laila, what still stays with me is Amjad Khan’s sass, Feroze Khan’s style and Vinod Khanna’s swag. It was nonchalant machismo at its best, supplemented by this assured air of self-confidence. The coolth was extempore. The nerves were real. They were all heroes, in the strictest sense of the word.
And our heroes were out there! On that large rectangular piece of awesomeness that showcased moving images from the worlds we did not belong to, and hypnotized our entire being. We were mortals to them gods. It was a deity-devotee relationship, flourishing in those dark shrines not called multiplexes. The television revolution was yet to happen, VCRs were still glints in their makers’ eyes and nobody knew the spelling of cable TV. Films would actually run for twenty-five and fifty weeks. Going to the cinema halls was picnic without the picnic baskets. The cost of samosas was not equal to the GDP of Ethiopia, and the coffee machines hummed consumable froth in those brawny concoctions. There was romance in the aroma of éclairs, cream rolls and popcorns. Watching a film was living an experience. The theatre walls were grimy, the seats weren’t the most comfortable, the loos were stinky, but none of it mattered. That torch light leading you to your seat, and the anticipation of getting transformed into a whole new world to watch those men and women in action was the only thing that mattered.
Then there was Vinod Khanna. The chiselled looks, the rugged sexuality, the undisguised charm, he was all, and more, that a hero could be. Without trying too hard. It was fascinating to just watch him on screen, and get bewitched. Of course, if you had your carnal glasses on, the fog would tell the complete story.
But nobody wanted to become Vinod Khanna.
Because they knew nobody could ever become Vinod Khanna. He was so unabashedly good looking, and in such an exalted space, that one could not even aspire to be him. Amitabh Bachchan was achievable. The hairstyle and the gait and the walk and the dance moves were replicable. Vinod Khanna was beyond reach. Whatever roles he did, whether it was Shyam singing the melancholic Koi Hota Jissko Apna in Mere Apne or Jabbar Singh mercilessly going on a killing spree in Mera Gaon Mera Desh, the bespectacled Professor Pramod Sharma surrounded by students in Imtihaan or that young scheming sonofabitch Anil conning his mother in Aan Milo Sajna, the oomph always elicited empathy. The cameras and the audiences loved him equally.
Which explains precisely how he could move from playing villains to portraying the hero so effortlessly, and then undertake the journey from being a star to becoming a superstar. Hera Pheri made him a phenomenon. This was followed by a series of blockbusters, including Khoon Pasina, Amar Akbar Anthony, Parvarish, Muqaddar Ka Sikandar and, of course, Qurbani.
Technically, he was not the hero in Qurbani. Hell, he doesn’t even get the girl in the end! But check out the man in the song Hum Tumhen Chaahte Hain Aise. Despite the Feroze Khan aesthetics hovering around a gyrating couple on a fishing boat, Vinod Khanna is all that you would notice. Or want to notice. The casually flowing hair being hit by the sea breeze, the underplayed and non-theatrical expressions, the half-acceptance of the unrequited love, and those lovely longing eyes telling so many tales! You cry for the man despite him not shedding a singular tear. I stand corrected. He was the hero of Qurbani. And perhaps one of the few heroes existing in Hindi Cinema at that time.
And then he left the industry in 1982. Randomly. For the truth. Or whatever.
He came back in 1987 with Satyamev Jayate and Insaaf. A lot had happened in the world in those five years. Vaishali Cinema had shut shop. Jeetendra had given five sleeper hits with the help of his PE teacher. The Bachchan phenomenon was on a decline. The newer generation of actors, including Anil Kapoor, Sunny Deol, Sanjay Dutt and Jackie Shroff, was yet to take off. Mohammed Aziz and Shabbir Kumar were churning out hits. TV antennas were becoming a part of the Indian landscape. Video cassette parlours were mushrooming. The motion pictures industry was going through a major crisis. Filmstars could be hired at a price and consumed in molested VHS tapes grasping for breath in night-long marathon sessions. The heroes were becoming more accessible, everyday commodity.
Not Vinod Khanna, though. He still had the charisma. He still was out there, even in his second coming. While Satymev Jayate did not work, Insaaf was a hit. I still remember how the hall erupted in taalis and seeties when the screen said “RE-INTRODUCING VINOD KHANNA”, celebrating his incredibly potent existence amongst us.
He was back.
But. Something was amiss. His charm seemed laboured, his presence awkward. Not that Hindi cinema or the viewers had evolved in those five years. We were still the same, if not deteriorated by the Jeetendra/ Rajesh Khanna onslaught of the Tohfas and Maqsads of the world. We wanted the Vinod Khanna phenomenon to blast off again for very selfish reasons. We were looking for a hero amongst the crowd of newbies and fallen veterans. In Dayavan, Batwara, Chandni, CID and Jurm, we saw traces of the man we used to worship. The screen presence was still as scorching, the smile could still kill millions. But it was not the same. He was getting old, obviously. It was not about that, though. Or just about that.
I figured what it was in Farishtay, the 1991 film from Anil Sharma of the Tara Singh handpump fame.
Farishtay wasn’t just Dharmendra in a yellow cap and Vinod Khanna in a deep red Stetson hat, dancing on the streets of Mumbai with a bunch of Film City extras half their age in the title song. Farishtay also was the tragic realisation that your gods had feet of clay. Farishtay was a beautiful man desperately clutching on to his stardom, and failing to do so.
Vinod Khanna plays Dheeru to Dharmendra’s Veeru in the film. Beyond the Sholay meta-reference, the film is all kind of odd villains dotting the world, and our saviour-angels taking them head on. Between fighting villains and dancing with heroines, Vinod Khanna’s character has a major fixation for milk. So far so good. Only, milk here refers to things beyond milk. Way beyond milk. “Doodh peene ka mazaa hi kuch aur hai”, declares Dheeru to this buxom bar-girl, “Khaas kar woh doodh kisi tandurust aur doodh-doodh-doodh-doodharu gaai ka ho, aap jaisi” while continuously looking at her breasts, and making a major show of it.
And that’s when my hero became just another guy, just another ageing actor. That crass and vulgar display of his baser emotions wasn’t acting. It was an old man refusing to let go. He may have done forty more films after Farishtay, but Vinod Khanna, my superstar, faded way back in 1991.
Vinod Khanna killed my hero. Vaishali Cinema is becoming a mall. The world, as I knew it, does not exist anymore.
I have made my peace. I hope he does, too.
(first published on Arré)