Villain Se Hero Tak: Why Vinod Khanna Was a Rare Find for Cinema

The story of how Vinod Khanna transitioned from being a villain to a hero, a rare feat for any Bollywood actor.

7 min read
The late Vinod Khanna in a scene from <i>Mere Apne</i>.&nbsp;

Scenario 1 - The dreaded daku points the barrel towards the six year old and, with lesser hesitation than that of a jungle beast gorging on a fleshy rabbit, he pulls the trigger. The curious look on the boy’s face (Master Bunty, who one might recall as the kid singing Kya Hua Tera Wada in the 1977 film Hum Kisise Kum Naheen) would be his last. The boy’s father had already been gunned down by the daku moments earlier, despite pitiful pleas for mercy from him and his wife.

Scenario 2 – The shapely dancer Bela (Jayshree T) dizzily stumbles out of chhote sarkar’s luxurious bedroom having been subjected to his masculine virility for the last couple of hours. The young chhote sarkar indulges in a victorious puff of his cigarette at his ‘conquest’, as a sneer slants across his bony face. His insatiable appetite for power, manifesting itself in multiple ways, a direct consequence of being the jagirdar of the terrain, keeps fuelling him with a sense of entitlement over the womenfolk of the village too.

The aforementioned scenarios were not about Amjad Khan. Neither were they about Ranjeet. Or Prem Chopra. They actually featured Vinod Khanna (in Mera Gaon Mera Desh, 1971 and Chowkidaar, 1974 respectively), probably the most loved good-bad man in the history of Hindi cinema.

Vinod Khanna in a scene from Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971).
Vinod Khanna in a scene from Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971).

In his role as Daku Jabbar Singh, Khanna nonchalantly kicks the hero out of the frame. And out of the film Mera Gaon Mera Desh itself for all practical purposes. Suspending the hero-dominance legacy, the audience, during re-runs of the film in the mid-1970s, started clapping for the more masculine of the two. The one biting the dust was another brawny man of Bollywood– Dharmendra, no less.

One would witness something similar happening during Pathar Aur Payal in its rerun in 1977-78, when Sarju (Khanna) and Chote Thakur (Dharam) come to blows over Hema Malini. Part of the audience claps for the moustached villain in a ghastly wig, notwithstanding that he is actually engaged in an attempt to rape the leading lady.

The reason did not mandate a crash course in logic. By 1977-78, Vinod Khanna had become a safe box-office draw. Three non-multi starrers of 1976-77, which he had steered to success on the strength of his own, namely Shaque (1976), Hatyara (1977) and Inkaar (1977) had perched him higher than anyone else apart from Amitabh Bachchan. Bigger than Dharam too, who, the press would despairingly try to promote as the number one draw in Bombay. Amitabh, with his official “no-speak” to the press, rarely made it to the stories or the covers then.

While Vinod Khanna’s career landscape and milestones are well known to many, not much is documented on how he transitioned from being a villain to a hero. Was it a voluntary shift? Or did the industry feel that they wouldn’t be able to consistently fool the audience, that the lady would resist someone as devastatingly handsome as Vinod Khanna? Bollywood paradigm of yore suggests that the hero has to be good looking. And even if the villain is unfortunately born handsome, he is painted in grungy shades, almost as if hurriedly cautioning the audience from getting attracted to him.

In his negative/villain roles, Vinod Khanna avoided the obvious traits like the dramatized laughter with the head thrown back, or the lewd glances on slightly bent knees as the camera zoomed in on her backside. He did not need to do any of that. If anything, it was that he needed to keep his wiry torso and bulging arms buttoned up. Unlike his contemporary villains, in his quest for the lady or wealth (or both), his personality conveyed the sense of being a loner or the troubled one.

Vinod Khanna, the man, almost legitimized the villain that he was playing – just that the credits did not label him a hero. The role of Shyam in Gulzar’s Mere Apne (1972) was the cusp that underscored the point. While the review by M J Akbar in the inaugural issue of Stardust did not quite pay rich tributes to the film, Mere Apne was a metro hit. Vinod Khanna with his brooding demeanour and betrayed looks during Koi Hota Jisko Apna, made a point. One senses that filmmakers remained indeterminate on whether Khanna would be better used as a villain or as a hero.

Hence, one could find a sinusoidal pattern in his career graph after Mere Apne. The spectacularly successful villain of MGMD was now in a dichotomy. He was, on one hand, the honest, cycle riding small town editor in Aarop (1973), or the usurper cum murderer in Anokhi Ada (1973). If he was the bandit sans ethics in Pathar Aur Payal, the notorious and at times licentious dacoit of Kacche Dhage (1973) rises above family rivalry for love – at the expense of his life.

But it was Imtihaan (1974) which revved up his engine. In his career-turning role as lecturer Pramod Sharma, he demonstrated rare personal integrity and character. True, even the pure-white heroes of the 1960s had been living icons of virtuosity. But they had no machismo. Khanna had everything girls aspire in a man. Dashing good looks apart, (a face most handsome with flowing hair, and a physique to match all of 185 centimetres) he could outwit the disreputable students in class, play badminton and football as good as the best, if not better, and be a role model for both the teaching and the student fraternity. One can go back to the film and check out the white sweater he wore – it gave him the look of an Indian cricketer in the English summer. Cricket is the one game he actually played well, and followers of Bollywood magazines would recall his match winning batting and fielding sprees in the charity games played in the late 1970s.

Amitabh Bachchan and Vinod Khanna walk out to the cricket pitch at a charity match. (Photo courtesy: <a href="">Twitter/@<b>buneesha</b></a>)
Amitabh Bachchan and Vinod Khanna walk out to the cricket pitch at a charity match. (Photo courtesy: Twitter/@buneesha)

Vinod Khanna, the actor, was the loyal, sincere lover. Even when spurned, he would remain dedicated to the memory of the relationship as he did in Mere Apne. A young man so forbiddingly attractive could have so easily got into alternate relationships, something he eschewed with great pride. In Imtihaan, here was a man with the fragrance of manly sweat that could send a woman swooning a mile away. (Yes, he endorsed Cinthol body soap a few years later as a modelling assignment). He was brown and brawn minus the concomitant ‘take-for-granted’ braggadocio.

While his peer Rajesh Khanna was exaggeratedly expressive in his romance, Vinod Khanna did not need music or overt body language to express himself to his woman. His self-assurance and uprightness was enough. There was a lot more sincerity of purpose in his portrayal of lovers.

Though Rajesh Khanna’s style did reflect in Vinod’s stylization in a few sequences with Tanuja, he emerged as the more enduring pro. Girls would love to romance Rajesh, but given an opportunity, they probably would have preferred Vinod as ‘long term life partner’ material. There was a rock-solid approach in his deportment, a no nonsense attitude towards love and life in general, that people identified with.

Even when he was ‘widowed’ in Qurbani (1980), the script suggested that he wasn’t into any other relationships. He had dedicated himself to his little daughter’s upbringing. Khanna was the single-mindedly committed lover even when it came to taking his wife’s life. In Achanak (1973), he lovingly caressed his wife in bed moments before strangulating her to death for her infidelity. Later, limping with near-fatal wounds on his body, he carried her ashes and immersed them where he had promised her he would. He would do no wrong. At the same time, he could tolerate no wrong.

Vinod Khanna also played the loyal friend out of his skin. In Hera Pheri (1976), Ajay (Khanna), through all his external ruthlessness, was actually play acting and protecting his friend, it transpires, even when he has to plump for him over his own rogue father. Mehra recast Khanna in Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978) as a more mellowed, sympathetic friend Vishal, who lends emotional stability to his lonely friend Sikandar; he does not realize that he has unwillingly contrived to marry Sikandar’s love-interest. In Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), inspector Amar allows the ‘highway hooker’ to get fresh with him in his car. His duty demanded that. Once he gets to know her tragic story, he marries her, and the relationship is suggestive of platonic undertones. Little wonder that Vinod Khanna’s photo adorned the walls of the Rai family, as the deceased husband of Nutan in Shakti Samanta’s Anurag (1972). While his profession is not mentioned, his moustache is suggestive of a position in the army. He projected an image of assurance. Of reliance. Of sympathy.

Vinod Khanna and Shabana Azmi in a scene from <i>Amar Akbar Anthony</i> (1977).
Vinod Khanna and Shabana Azmi in a scene from Amar Akbar Anthony (1977).
Vinod Khanna had his limitations. His was not an electrifying screen presence. His mere appearance on the screen did not enliven the audience. He was certainly not a Rajesh Khanna. His expressions were limited, he could never be a Sanjeev Kumar. He did not have the voice, the charisma, the comic timing or the larger than life presence of Amitabh Bachchan. He did not exude the naiveté of Dharam either. Neither was his dialogue delivery in the manner of Shakespearean elegies or political discourses, the favourite playing ground of his BJP party member and Mere Apne rival Shatrughan Sinha.

What he had was sincerity of purpose. He worked hard for his films. The Best Actor award for Shaque, which he received from Film World magazine in 1977, was perhaps a fitting tribute to the man who had just crossed sides – from the big bad villain to the good bloke.

What would we miss with Vinod Khanna’s going away? The tweet by Varun Dhawan probably tells it best.

Vinodkhanna will always remain the coolest and most good looking actor to grace the Indian screens. The industry has lost a legend today.
Varun Dhawan, Actor (via Twitter)

The women would miss his musk. The cold-warm eyes. And the innocent, childlike smile in a frame, which would make them weak at the knees.

(Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal are authors of the National Award winning book R D Burman- The man, The Music and the MAMI award winner Gaata Rahe Mera Dil)

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