This is not my first post on Vinod, for additional background you can look at his birthday post from last year here, and my post on his involvement with Osho here. And my review of his Chandni here, and Parampara here. But moimeme just informed me that he passed away this morning, so I felt like I should do a special post explaining why he was important and why this death matters.
Vinod Khanna is one of those people who seemed to always end up in the middle of the biggest historical movements of the era. Right from the beginning, he was born in Peshewar in 1946, smack in the middle of the British retreat from India, and at 10 months old, became a refugee from Pakistan to India.
Vinod joined films in 1968, back when you could join films just because you were handsome had could speak well. Vinod fell in love with film when he saw Mughal-E-Azam in college. He was a perfect representative of that era of actor. Tall, attractive, from a good family (good enough that he had a college degree and could speak good English and Hindi), but not extremely wealthy or extremely connected. The late 60s/early 70s were in a perfect balancing point, when film had started to be established enough that it was no longer the last resort refuge it used to be, but wasn’t established enough to be the closed and nepotistic system it is now. Mughal-E-Azam and other films of the 1950s were successful enough and high quality enough to make young college students fall in love with film, and film was an established enough industry that a college graduate seeking work wouldn’t seem terribly out of the ordinary.
It still wasn’t easy, Vinod couldn’t just waltz into a launch film they way his sons did in the 90s. He had to prove himself, starting out in “negative” roles and supporting roles. It took 3 years before he got his big break in a romantic role in Hum Tum Aur Woh. From 1971 until 1982, Vinod Khanna was one of the top actors in the industry.
In the 1970s, being a “top actor” wasn’t the constant all consuming quest that it is now. There were enough films, and enough audience members, for everybody. Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh might have been battling it out for the very top, but below them there were actors like Dharmendra and Vinod Khanna and Rishi Kapoor and Sunil Dutt and dozens of others who kept on doing good work and being kind to their fans and supporting each other rather than tearing each other down.
Vinod in particular had a somewhat unique appeal. While primarily known as an action star rather than a romantic lead, he also embraced his image as a sex object for women. He would take his shirt off in most films, and in photo shoots. And he had no problem doing love scenes in the middle of an action film.
One of the most significant creations of Vinod during this period were his groundbreaking ads for Cinthol soap. This was in the era when Doordarshan, state run TV, was the only option for television viewers. With a lot of classical music concerts and documentaries about farmers (along with some groundbreaking parallel cinema, but that was rare), Doordarshan was not people’s favorite entertainment. But, unlike other state run TV, Doordarshan did allow for ads. And these ads quickly became the most popular form of TV entertainment. By the 90s, it was accepted that the biggest stars would appear in these ads and the highest production values would be used. But the 80s was just the beginning of this era. And Vinod Khanna, a top star, appearing in this high concept advertisement for soap was earth shaking. The ad was so popular that it played for over a decade, well into the 1990s.
The 1970s was not just significant in India because of the changes in the film industry, it was significant because of the changes in society. On the one hand, there was Indira Gandhi and The Emergency. But on the other hand, there was the proliferation of lost westerners coming to India looking for spirituality. And that is where Vinod, once again, ended up at the center of the storm. While other movie figures dabbled in spirituality, Vinod went all the way, leaving his family and his career behind to follow his Guru all the way to America for 5 years. Leaving behind a few unreleased films, and that reliable Cinthol ad, to keep him fresh in the minds of his fans.
Vinod returned in 1987 and, once again, captured the zeitgeist of the day. While the majority of his films were action pictures (like most films released in the late 80s), the most memorable roles of this era were romantic (presaging the shift to romance that was starting in the late 80s). His performance in Chandni in particular was remarkable.
Vinod, thanks to his career intermission, was in a stronger position than many of his contemporaries going into the 1990s. The mid-80s are generally agreed to be one of the worst periods of Indian film critically and commercially. Amitabh’s repetitive action films were the only ones making any kind of a profit. Vinod missed all that, going from the significant social drama era of 1970s straight to the exciting transition period of the early 90s. And Vinod ended up being the bridge between the two eras, acting opposite Salman and Aamir Khan, and Saif Ali Khan, in some of their earliest films. And providing the gravitas and familiar screen presence that helped bring in the audience and introduce these new heroes.
(Terrible terrible movie, but notice how Sunil and Vinod are in the center of the poster, grabbing our attention before we see those young unknown heroes Aamir and Saif above them)
And Vinod was also timely in his choice to move out of the hero roles and on to a new era of his career. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from FilmFare in 1999, a graceful way of stepping back from the film industry. But he had already made the more significant step in 1997, becoming one of the first Hindi film heroes to join the BJP and run for political office. Just as he had since birth, Vinod was on the knife edge of history.
From 1997 to 2009, Vinod held increasingly important roles in the state government of the Punjab. The BJP lost national power in the 2004 elections, and slowly became less and less relevant. Just as Vinod’s political career slowly faded. In 2009, after his loss, he returned to film, taking a step back from politics, and accepting the smaller roles that were offered him.
In this new era of film, there is no space for “lessor” heroes. Just supporting actors to the few major stars. And so Vinod became a valuable support. In films from Dabangg to Dilwale, he made an impression in small but important roles. And he was still the gentlemen, helping his old friends without regard to his own career, for instance appearing in Hema Malini’s Tell Me O Khuda as a favor to his old friend.
In 2014, along with the rest of the BJP, Vinod was swept back into political office. But he was part of the old guard, not the new young BJP that was about rapid political and economic reform. He didn’t have as many responsibilities as before, and he didn’t leave his film career behind this time.
And now Vinod has died, at 70, following Rajesh Khanna as one of the first 1970s heroes to pass away. They aren’t supposed to die, we are used to the 1950s heroes passing away, Dilip Kumar being the only one left. But the 1970s heroes, they are still vibrant, still working, and their fans still number in the billions.
Once again, Vinod is on the cutting edge. Not the first, but not the last. Right at the perfect time. This funeral, and the after death articles (like this one!) will be templates for many more in the years to come, as we lose Rishi Kapoor, Zeenat Aman, Shatrughan Sinha, Dharmendra, and someday maybe even Amitabh.
(Such a happy song shouldn’t make me feel teary!)