Vinod Khanna, the star who was Amitabh Bachchan's closest rival — Birthday special

It was a chance meeting with actor-producer Sunil Dutt that led to Khanna's entry into the film industry.

Keyur Seta

How time flies. Who would have thought the handsome, dashing Vinod Khanna, heartthrob of many a young lady, idol of many a lad, and the only actor who could give superstar Amitabh Bachchan a run for his money in the late 1970s, would ever turn 70? But believe it or not, Vinod Khanna enters the eighth decade of his life today (6 October).

Khanna was born in 1946 in Peshawar in the North West Frontier Province. His family migrated to Bombay after Partition. A few years later, they shifted to the capital, Delhi, only to return to Bombay once again. In an interview, Khanna has revealed that it was during this time, when he was in the ninth standard, that he was floored by K Asif’s magnum opus Mughal-e-Azam (1960).

After he was forced to enrol for a degree in commerce, the young Vinod took up theatre in college. A chance meeting with star actor-producer Sunil Dutt gave him a chance to make his Hindi film debut. However, he faced stiff opposition from his father, who at one stage even threatened to shoot him if he entered the film industry. Finally, his mother intervened on his behalf and the young man was given one chance, "only one chance", to try his hand at films. It was a chance Vinod Khanna was not going to let go of.

While Vinod Khanna is better known today as the action-cum-romantic hero of the 1970s and 1980s, it was as a villain that he got his first break in Dutt's Man Ka Meet (1969). The film was a success and Vinod Khanna turned into a sensation overnight, remembers veteran film journalist Jyothi Venkatesh. Khanna was so well received that he signed 15 films in a single week after Man Ka Meet's release, including a couple each opposite reigning superstar Rajesh Khanna and leading star Dharmendra.

Khanna had quite a few early successes in his career, including films like Sachcha Jhootha (1970) and Elaan (1971). Khanna received critical appreciation for his role as a local tough opposite newcomer Shatrughan Sinha, who also played a role with negative shades, in Gulzar's directorial debut Mere Apne (1971). He was celebrated again for his role as dacoit gang leader Jabbar Singh, a precursor to Sholay's Gabbar Singh, in Raj Khosla's Mera Gaon Mera Desh the same year.

Following these early successes, Khanna had a run of average to bad films. But as the saying goes, you can't keep a good man down, at least not for long. Khanna was soon back to winning ways with films like Achanak (1973) and Haath Ki Safai (1974).

He, however, scaled new heights of popularity and success when he featured as parallel hero with Amitabh Bachchan in films like Hera Pheri (1976), Khoon Pasina (1977), Parvarish (1977) and Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978) and as one of three heroes in Manmohan Desai's superhit Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), the others being Bachchan and Rishi Kapoor.

“Hera Pheri also showcased Khanna's comical side,” said Venkatesh. At the same time, he continued to find success in solo-hero films too, the best example of which was Raj Khosla's Inkaar (1977).

Through the latter half of the 1970s, Khanna was a regular at Acharya Rajneesh's ashram in Pune along with good friend and filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt. Yet, when he decided to quit films in 1982 and joined the ashram as a full-time devotee, it came as a bolt from the blue to his fans.

However, five years later, Khanna made a dramatic return to films. His first comeback film, Mukul Anand’s Insaaf (1987), hit bull's eye at the box-office. There were reports that his entry scene in the film was met with applause in the theatres. In an interview with India Today magazine, scriptwriter Salim Khan had said, “What’s so amazing about Vinod is that when he left he was number two. And now he’s walked straight back into that position again.” The stardom was intact.

Khanna was also helped by the fact that apart from Bachchan, he had no real competitor. Stars like Raj Kapoor, Shammi Kapoor, Rajesh Khanna and Dev Anand had long faded away. 

Unfortunately, success in the second innings was short-lived. “He didn’t acquire much stardom after his return,” Venkatesh said, though he did sign up for different roles in films such as Rihaee (1988), Dayavan (1988) and Chandni (1989). While many of these films, with the exception of Dayavan, did not do well, Khanna was also seen in many a dud like Faisla (1988), C.I.D. (1990), Pathar Ke Insan (1990), Muqaddar Ka Badshaah (1990) and Khoon Ka Karz (1991).

Fans of the star still believe that if Khanna had not opted to go on the spiritual path at the height of his career, he could have become the industry's opposite pole to Amitabh Bachchan. Venkatesh, for one, is certain about this. “He easily could have done that for Bachchan,” he said. 

The veteran journalist also revealed that the 70-year-old Khanna did some films just to earn money after resuming his career. “All A-grade films used to go to Bachchan and the rest used to land up with Khanna,” he said.

Thankfully, despite a stint in active politics as member of Parliament from Gurdaspur, Khanna has not hung up his acting boots. He has been seen as, for instance, Chulbul Pandey's stepfather in the Dabangg films. And he will be seen next in Ek Thi Rani Aisi Bhi where he is paired opposite an old co-star, Hema Malini.