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Vinod Khanna drove over 150 km during shooting of his last release Ek Thi Rani Aisi Bhi

Unheralded director Gulbahar Singh, whose long-overdue film was finally released on 21 April, recalls times spent with the veteran actor who died today.

Mayur Lookhar

Veteran actor Vinod Khanna, who died today at 70, was battling cancer for the past year and a half, but that did not deter him from doing the odd film. Khanna's last release turned out to be unheralded filmmaker Gulbahar Singh's Ek Thi Rani Aisi Bhi. The film was mostly shot in 2009, but it took a long while for it to be completed and it finally hit the theatres on 21 April 2017.

The film has been adapted from author and Goa governor Mridula Sinha's book Rajpath Se Lokpath Par, a biography of the late BJP stalwart Vijayaraje Scindia, and her journey from aristocrat to political leader. Hema Malini played Scindia while Khanna played her husband Jivajirao.

"It is very sad to know that he is no more," director Singh said. "He was a really nice and warm person, full of life. He always encouraged others to live life to the fullest. He was a hero both in reel and real life."

There were many reasons for the delay of Ek Thi Rani Aisi Bhi, primarily the unavailability of the royal family and Singh's other commitments, but they did not faze Khanna. "He was very cooperative through all these years," the director said. "In September last year he wanted to do the dubbing though he was unwell. But the sound recordist felt it was not possible. So, we shifted it to the next day. However, an hour after he reached home, Khanna told me his infection had worsened. He finally did the dubbing on Diwali. This happened at the Aradhana Sound Studio. He wasn’t well, but I was surprised to see him drive over himself. He completed the dubbing at one go. We had lunch together. It was hard to believe this man wasn’t keeping well."

The director was stunned not only by Khanna’s passion for films, but also by his love for driving. "We initially shot in Jaipur. Thereafter, we shifted to Sawai Madhopur and Ranthambore. That is about 170 kilometres away. He drove himself. Even if there was a driver, he would insist on driving," Singh recalled.

By a strange coincidence, the last day of shooting saw Khanna's character dying. Recalling that day, Singh said, "He suggested to me how his character should die. It’s really sad that he is no longer with us."

Recalling his last conversation with Khanna, Singh said, "I told him the film had got certification from the Central Board of Film Certification and it will be released soon. He said he was feeling better and offered to promote the film. Sadly, that day never came. We were about to release the film. I tried contacting him, but he wasn’t reachable. His servant informed me that he is unwell. So, he couldn’t come for the premiere in Delhi."

With hardly any marketing buzz around it, Ek Thi Rani Aisi Bhi was released last Friday on limited screens, just about 200 countrywide, according to the director. Khanna's death might make people wake up and watch the film and say, "Ek tha abhineta aisa bhi."