Vinod Khanna: The Actor Who Became a Monk and Sold His Mercedes
Legend has it that when Sunil Dutt saw Vinod Khanna for the first time, he was fascinated with the young man because he was from Peshawar (present day-Pakistan). Dutt decided to launch Khanna and his younger brother Som Dutt in his home production Man ka Meet (1968).
Initially, Vinod Khanna was just a good looking villain. But his solid screen presence ensured that irrespective of whether his role was positive or negative, he was noticed in all his films – be it Purab Aur Paschim with Manoj Kumar or Aan Milo Sajna and Saccha Jootha with Rajesh Khanna (1970).
The year 1971 proved to be a turning point in Khanna’s career – with three films presenting him in three very different avatars. Sunil Dutt’s Reshma Aur Shera, which also launched Amitabh Bachchan, Gulzar’s Mere Apne, that defined him as an actor and Raj Khosla’s dacoit drama Mera Gaon Mera Desh, where he shared screen space with Sunil Dutt and Dharmendra.
On the personal front, Vinod Khanna married his childhood sweetheart Geetanjali. The two went on to have two sons, Akshaye and Rahul Khanna.
The 70s was a decade of multi-starrer films and Vinod Khanna was a prominent player, pairing up with Amitabh Bachchan and other actors. He worked with Randhir Kapoor in Haath Ki Safai and Amitabh Bachchan in Khoon Pasina, Parvarish and Amar Akbar Anthony.
When I met Vinod Khanna for the first time in 1978, he was already into Osho Rajneesh. He wore an orange kaftan and a beaded mala to shootings. He walked around the studio and his set with an orange cloth bag strapped around his shoulder. He would delay getting into his costume till the shot was ready.
During this phase, I interviewed him a number of times. No matter what question you asked him, he had a knack of relating the answer to Rajneesh’s philosophy.
When in Mumbai (then Bombay), he shot from Monday to Friday. After pack-up, he drove to Pune (then Poona) to spend the weekend with Rajneesh. Producers were concerned about his obsession with Rajneesh but Vinod Khanna was blissfully indifferent to his surroundings.
This was in 1980, a time when Vinod Khanna was the darling of the nation, the action hero of The Burning Train and the heartbreaker of the very popular Qurbani. Would Vinod Khanna stake his career for his guru?
His co-stars were alarmed and his distributors were angry. The media wanted to know what was going on. So finally, on the advice of his manager (then secretary), Vinod Khanna called a press conference. The venue was the newly launched Centaur (today Tulip Star) Hotel. His first wife Geetanjali and their sons were a part of the conference.
In those days, press conferences were not as common as they are today. Everyone was surprised at how composed Vinod Khanna was. He did not make any elaborate speeches. He said he had made up his mind to quit films and shift base and that he wanted to follow his heart. His wife Geetanjali seated beside him was supportive of his decision.
In the following weeks, Vinod Khanna left for Oregon. If the stories are to be believed, he transformed into an able gardener at the Rajneeshpuram ashram. Every morning, he woke up and watered the plants and sang to the flowers. During his years away, Vinod Khanna hardly visited India. The media lost touch with him until news of his divorce in 1985.
After his long exile, Vinod Khanna was first spotted on a popular magazine cover with a white beard. It was a signal to the film industry that the prodigal son had returned and producers clamoured to queue outside his home.
His first release post his spiritual break was the Mukul Anand-directed Insaaf, starring Dimple Kapadia, followed by Feroze Khan’s Dayavan. The attractive actor was among the first crop of actors to endorse a brand (Cinthol).
Yash Chopra signed him for Chandni, while Mahesh Bhatt roped him in for Jurm.
The 90s saw him experience a professional decline. But on a personal level, Khanna announced his marriage to Kavita. In 1997, he launched his son Akshaye Khanna in his home production Himalay Putra. The film tanked.
The year 1997 also saw him join the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and win from the Gurdaspur constituency, Punjab in the Lok Sabha polls. In 1999, he was re-elected to the Lok Sabha from the same constituency. By this time, Khanna had learned to balance both Bollywood and politics.
I happened to bump into him at a film event soon after the release of his two films Kranti and Deewanapan. He said he enjoyed politics but found it stimulating to be in a creative environment and vowed that he would pursue both for as long as he could. And he did.
After losing out in the 2009 Lok Sabha poll, Khanna bounced back in the 2014 general elections. For a monk who sold his Mercedes and turned a gardener, the actor/politician has gone through too many highs and lows to worry about his popularity.
The Vinod Khanna I know has no fears and lives each day as it comes.
(Actor Vinod Khanna died on 27 April 2017 after a reported battle with cancer. This article, by film critic Bhawana Somaaya, is being reposted from The Quint’s archives.)
(Bhawana Somaaya has been writing on cinema for 30 years and is the author of 12 books. Twitter: @bhawanasomaaya)