Vinod Khanna: The hero who was once a villain

On his 70th birthday today (6 October), we examine how Vinod Khanna changed the narrative of his early film career.

Sonal Pandya

The promotional material for the 1968 film, Man Ka Meet, boasts of a new 'fascinating foursome' from Sunil Dutt's own banner, Ajanta Arts. A newcomer called Vinod Khanna was introduced in the film who went on to compete with the top actors of his time. He might have even surpassed them all to the number one position had he not given it up for eight years in search of inner fulfilment. But back then, in his first film, he was the second lead, an anti-hero foil to Som Dutt, who was being launched.

The other debutants in the film were Leena Chandavarkar (the runner-up of the Filmfare Fresh Face competition) and Sandhya Rani. Directed by Adurthi Subba Rao, former editor on Uday Shankar's Kalpana (1948) and noted filmmaker in the Telugu film industry, Man Ka Meet was a Dutt home production, conceived as a launching pad for his brother Som. Instead, two other newcomers, Chandavarkar and Khanna, were on their way to becoming household names.

A still from Man Ka Meet

Khanna, with several shades of grey in his role, went on to bigger roles act in other films like Purab Aur Paschim (1970), Hum Tum Aur Woh (1971) as the lead and Ek Haseena Do Deewane (1972). He gained further notoriety as a dacoit in Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971) co-starring Dharmendra and Asha Parekh.

It was Gulzar who sought after Khanna as the lead in his directorial debut Mere Apne (1971) after his first choice Sanjeev Kumar passed on the role. Gulzar further asserted his faith in him by casting him again in Achanak (1973), which won him rave reviews for his sensitive portrayal of an officer on death row. The film was influenced by KM Nanavati 1958 murder case which gripped the nation.  

It was extremely fortuitous for Khanna that he was well-appreciated with Man Ka Meet and received many film offers despite being cast as the villain. After graduating from Sydenham Collage, he was personally selected by Dutt to be a part of the film and Dutt mentored Khanna during his premier film experience. Khanna has now been relegated to patriarchal roles in the recent ones he's done, but his leap from anti-hero to star has been truly remarkable to watch.