KOLKATA: Vinod Khanna was perhaps, the handsomest eye-candy to grace the Indian screen till date. He was tall, fair and handsome in a very pleasant way that charmed both men and women in the audience.

A journalist friend of mine who got close to him for some time confessed that she had gone to interview him and was truly smitten for a while. Like most film stars, he took it all in his stride and smiled and made matters really worse for her till she learnt that he was engaged to the then-famous and beautiful model Geetanjali Talyarkhan. The marriage gifted us with two male actors – Rahul Khanna and Akshaye Khanna who, however, though good actors could not reach even half-way the height their father did.

It was a time when six-abs and eight-abs were not even discovered and bare-bodied heroes were conspicuous by their absence. But he carried it all so well as if he was born with that adoring sex appeal and that winsome smile that had a charisma of its own even when he was paired opposite the famous Angry Young Man known as Amitabh Bachchan.

It is truly ironical when one looks back at Vinod Khanna’s entry into films. He made his debut in a film called Man Ka Meet (1968) which Sunil Dutt had produced to launch his brother Som Dutt as hero. It was the Hindi remake of a Tamil film called Kumari Penn. The film sank along with the new hero but the villain Vinod Khanna, grew from height to height till he became a much-in-demand star to contend with even when stars like Dharmendra, Jeetendra and Amitabh Bachchan was reigning as hero in Hindi films.

Over his career spanning more than four decades, Khanna had acted in more than 100 films and many of them were big box office hits while some were socially significant films. There is perhaps no leading lady he has not worked with crossing two generations. This covers a huge wall of stellar names – Asha Parekh, Hema Malini, Mumtaz, Saira Banu, Dimple Kapadia, Shabana Azmi, Tanuja, Lakshmi Chhaya, Reena Roy, Zeenat Aman, Raakhee, Meenakshi Sheshadri, Sulakshana Pandit, Madhuri Dixit, Neetu Singh, Amrtia Singh and many others, either as hero, or as villain.

The best part of his career decision was not to differentiate between and among characters he was asked to portray even at the height of his popularity and his career. He began his career as a villain the audience loved, moved over to a handsome hero with varied manifestations, and did not shy away from supporting roles with big stars beside him. Yet, at one time, is he reported to have been the highest paid star in Indian cinema.

He was initially dismissed by critics and film scribes as the handsome star who needs to gear up his acting stuff. But there are some memorable films where he was given the opportunity to prove his acting and convince his critics that he was not only good-looking but also a good actor. His role as arch villain in the bumper hit Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971) proved that he could truly deliver a negative role with the magic realism cinema demanded and with conviction. Directed by Raj Khosla, Mera Gaon Mera Desh saw Dharmendra playing the hero but it was Vinod Khanna’s outstanding performance as dacoit Jabbar Singh that stole the hearts of the audience.

The same year, Gulzar’s directorial debut Mere Apne, adapted from Tapan Sinha’s Bengali film Aponjon, saw him play the leader of a group of youngsters gone wrong who almost terrorise the neighbourhood with their attacks. The leader of the opposing gang was portrayed by Shatrughan Sinha who has praised Khanna’s performance in the film in his autobiography. It is the only film in which the young actors had the golden opportunity of working with the legendary Meena Kumari who passed away soon after the film was released. The film needed some very good young actors and neither Vinod nor Shatrughan were big names but the film became one of their launch pads towards becoming great actors.

Gulzar’s next directorial film Achanak (1973) had a beautiful story about a doctor’s dilemma. He had to save a man from certain death only to hand him over to the judiciary that had already sentenced him to death. He had killed his wife in cold blood, when he learnt she was having an affair with his friend. Vinod Khanna as the husband did such a good job that the entire audience empathised with him and felt sorry for him when the doctor saved him and he was handed over for the death sentence. Om Shivpuri as the doctor and Vinod Khanna as the defence officer fleshed out the characters extremely well. Though most critics find resonances of the Nanavati case in this story, the film does not bear this out.

In 1974, Vinod Khanna potrayed a moving role as a professor in a college in Imithaan filled with terribly wayward and unruly students and a shrewish over-aged female student (Bindu) who has a keen eye on him. But he is more attracted to the young, polio-stricken woman (Tanuja) who suffers from a deep complex because of her physically challenged state. He is faced with clearing his name of a molestation he did not commit and also to rescue his lady love from her wretched state. It is a memorable film though it did not do extremely well at the box office.

Hera Pheri (1976) directed by Prakash Mehra was one of the several films that saw Amitabh Bachchan and Vinod Khanna paired as friends who are con men but with nature and attitude completely polarised from one another. Khanna as the confirmed bachelor deeply devoted to Lord Hanuman won a Filmfare nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the film. This very entertaining film with delightful moments offered by the two actors became a big box office hit at a time when both Bachchan and Khanna were at their peak.

Amar Akbar Antony (1978) directed by Manmohan Desai followed Desai’s cliché story of three brothers separated in childhood who discover their relationship only in the climax. Vinod Khanna played Amar, the boy brought up within a Hindu ambience and the film became one of the biggest commercial hits of the year with famous song numbers and very good performances that made the film a delight to watch.

No dossier on Vinod Khanna can be complete without the mention of Qurbani (1980) which turned out to become the biggest ever box office grosser in that particular year. Produced by Firoze Khan who did the hero’s role in the film, Vinod Khanna’s character was equally important as the young widower who fell madly in love with the character portrayed by Zeenat Aman.

But Vinod Khanna also revealed a very extraordinary feature of his character when, in the prime of his career, after a long string of hits between 1977-1978, he quit films to embark on a quest for spiritual fulfilment in Rajneesh’s ashram in Pune. Neither the runaway success of his starrer Qurbani (1980) nor his early 1970s marriage to Geetanjali that ended in divorce could stop him from going his own way and choosing to live life on his own terms. In the early 1980s, Vinod followed Rajneesh to Oregon, where he busied himself with gardening. He had this very rare strength of mind that could make him turn away from fame and wealth and glamour to leave everything and follow his belief. After some years, he decided it was wiser to let his spiritual self coexist with the material world.

After a five-year break from work, he started signing films again and gave two superhits, Insaaf and Satyamev Jayate. He was a BJP member of the Lok Sabha from Gurdaspur in Punjab. He won the seat four times. He came back and resurrected his career from where he had left off as if the years between did not exist. In 1990, he married Kavita Daftary from a famous business family and this marriage remained stable till he passed away. They have two children, Sakshi, a son and Shradhha, a daughter.

His final films as a senior character artist, where he performed extremely well are Dabangg, Players, Dabangg 2 and Dilwale. He kept his serious illness a secret and this sheds light on his low-profile way of handling his life through his entire career. RIP Vinod Khanna. We love you.