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Vinod Khanna (6 Oct 1946–27 Apr 2017), the reluctant star

Blessed with talent, good looks, and a well-toned physique, Vinod Khanna ticked all the boxes required for a matinee idol.

Shriram Iyengar

The news of Vinod Khanna's death did not come as a shock. The actor's frail look had already shocked fans into submission after it went viral on the internet a few weeks ago. Released during his recovery from 'dehydration', caused by a more serious disease, cancer, the picture was shocking because it hurt the memory of Khanna as a young, robust and handsome star. Death, as Maya Angelou said, was a little late in relieving the actor of his pain.

Born on 6 October 1946 in Peshawar in the North West Frontier Province of undivided India into the family of textile and dyes businessman Kishanchand Khanna, Vinod was one of five children. Partition a year later forced the family to relocate to India, where it settled into the hubbub of Bombay.

The early pictures of Khanna define his star appeal. His arrival in Hindi cinema in 1968, in Sunil Dutt's Man Ka Meet, marked him out as another product from the Punjabi heartland that had brought forth Manoj Kumar and Dharmendra.

Handsome as he was, Khanna made his debut as a villain. In Man Ka Meet, he played the suave antagonist who schemes to steal Leena Chandavarkar from Somdutt (Sunil Dutt's brother). He followed it up by playing the villain in Aan Milo Sajna (1970), starring the rising superstar Rajesh Khanna.

A born 'seeker' by his own admission, Khanna wished to join the film industry after watching Mughal-e-Azam (1960). The actor once said, "While at a party, I chanced upon Sunil Dutt, who was in the process of making a movie with two heroes, one of whom would be his brother. He offered me the other role. I was game, but my father held a gun to my head and said he would shoot me if I ever entered Bollywood. Finally, my mother convinced him to allow me to join the industry and try my luck for two years."

While his matinee idol looks marked him out as 'star material', it was Khanna's acting chops that set him apart. His ability to mould his handsome features into a snarling grimace gave him the touch of machismo that a Jeetendra lacked. Raj Khosla's rural dacoit drama Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971) is an excellent example of this. As Jabbar Singh, Khanna delivered one of his finest performances as a villain.

However, his potential as a leading man could not remain hidden for long. Writer Gulzar turned director with the Hindi remake of the Bengali film Apanjan (1968), titled Mere Apne (1971), which had Khanna playing the young, unemployed leader of a street gang. Cast against another villain-soon-to-turn-hero Shatrughan Sinha, Khanna's melancholy and Kirk Douglas-esque features offered the film a poetic touch.

Gulzar went on to form a formidable team with the actor, casting him again as an army officer in Achanak (1973). The film marked a turn in Khanna's career. It was his first as solo lead. Based on the celebrated Commander KM Nanavati case, the film headlined Khanna as the magnetic opposite pole to Amitabh Bachchan's 'Angry Young Man', who had made his appearance with Zanjeer that same year.

Actually, Amitabh Bachchan has a lot to thank Khanna for. Before Bachchan's biggest hits arrived in the form of Sholay (1975) and Deewaar (1975), Khanna was considered a strong rival to the new superstar. A bona fide pinup with a physique that might have put Salman Khan and Hrithik Roshan to shame, Khanna ticked all the boxes for star appeal.

In Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978)

In fact, the threat he posed to Bachchan's superstardom was clearly visible in films like Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) and Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978). Like Bachchan's Vijay, Khanna adopted 'Amar' as his most frequent on-screen name. In Feroz Khan's Qurbani (1980), he romanced a regular Bachchan heroine, Zeenat Aman, in that romantic number 'Hum Tumhe Chahte Hain Aise'. Incidentally, death has claimed Khanna on the same date as his Qurbani co-star, director and friend Feroz Khan, who also died of cancer at the age of 70.

While fans acknowledged his talent, the industry took a while to recognize Khanna's calibre. Even at his peak, the only Filmfare award the actor received was for Best Supporting Actor in Haath Ki Safai (1974), directed by Prakash Mehra. His second Filmfare award would arrive much later in 1999, when he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement award for his contribution to Indian cinema.

Despite his popularity as a star, Khanna kept moving on. In 1982, he shocked the industry, and his family, by becoming a follower of the spiritual guru Osho, then known as Bhagwan Rajneesh, and going to Oregon in the United States to live at the Rajneeshpuram commune in a small town named Antelope. In an interview to The Times of India newspaper in 2002, the actor, who was renamed Vinod Bharti by Rajneesh, said, "I spent four years with Osho. I was his gardener, I cleaned the toilets, I did the dishes, and his clothes were tried out on me because we were, physically, of the same stature."

With Rajneesh

For five years, the actor stayed away from the world of glamour, even at the risk of alienating his family. It resulted in a divorce from first wife Geetanjali. 'When I returned to India, I had nothing," he said in the interview.

The hiatus of five years ended with Khanna returning to the big screen in Insaaf (1987). By then, the industry had found new heroes. Anil Kapoor and Jackie Shroff had broken through. Bachchan still reigned, but was slowing down. This allowed Khanna to sneak in with some memorable performances in Chandni (1989) and Gulzar's Lekin (1991).

Having already found spirituality, Khanna later jumped into politics. Having launched his son Akshaye in Himalayaputra (1997), he opted to stand for a Lok Sabha seat from Gurdaspur constituency in Punjab. While Bachchan might have outshone Khanna in the glamour industry, Khanna took the lead in politics. A charming man, his down-to-earth personality worked well with the voters of small-town Punjab. After being re-elected from Gurdaspur in 1999, the actor went on to become Union minister for culture and tourism in the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government in July 2002. He was later elevated to the position of minister of state for external affairs.

Speaking about his political ambition, Khanna said, "This nation needs a change. I think people like us, we sit in our living rooms and discuss politics, and criticize the government, [but] have not come forward [to] work for the nation."

Since the last decade, Khanna enjoyed a resurrection of sorts as the strong paternal presence in films like Wanted (2009) and Dabangg (2010), both starring Salman Khan. It is no coincidence that Khan's most macho films required a personality stronger and more magnetic than himself to play the paternal archetype.

The news of Khanna's illness first broke earlier this month when he was admitted to the Sir Hurkissondas Narottumdas Reliance Foundation Hospital. While the family reeled out the excuse of 'dehydration', the actor was actually fighting a prolonged battle with cancer of the urinary bladder.

Vinod Khanna, the debonair but reluctant star, passed away on the morning of 27 April. He is survived by sons Akshaye, Rahul, Sakshi, and daughter Shraddha and wife Kavita Khanna. He last made appearances alongside Shah Rukh Khan in Rohit Shetty's Dilwale (2015) and Hema Malini in Ek Rani Aisi Bhi (2017).