Farewell Vinod Khanna: Heaven must be full of swagger today

My earliest memory of Vinod Khanna is sealed in anger.

On screen, he was burning up the dance floor with Raakhee to the carefree beats of Pyar zindagi hai in Muqaddar Ka Sikandar. Off screen, I was seeing red and feeling the intensity of Amitabh Bachchan’s heartbreak as if it were my own.

It didn’t matter how attractive he appeared or how happy Raakhee looked around him — how could I possibly like the man responsible for Amitabh’s misery?

My mother and her best friend would often get into schoolgirl-like arguments over who’s better, unknowingly giving me a clearer understanding of their neck-to-neck rivalry as Khanna had already retired to join Osho by the time I woke up to movies.

Despite my deep-rooted Big B bias, I couldn’t resist Vinod Khanna’s charms for too long. It’s like the gods had fussed lovingly over his chiselled features — cleft chin, soulful eyes, sharp nose and strapping machismo, so flawlessly captured in an iconic 1980s Cinthol commercial.

There was an obvious sophistication to him — one he smeared in the darkest shades of sinisterness to portray a dacoit in Mera Gaon Mera Desh or underplayed to uphold the solemnity of the teaching profession in Imtihan revealing a rare risk taker in the realm of safe playing leading men.

While most actors today are insecure about signing on two-hero projects once they hit the top league, VK’s resume is chockfull of multi-starrers. Yet, his poise stood out every time he was pitted opposite AB, Dharmendra, Shatrughan Sinha and Feroz Khan or Rishi Kapoor.

In Manmohan Desai’s Amar Akbar Anthony, his Amar is the most straightforward of the three — the classic no-nonsense cop. But when he finally gets to slip out of uniform, Khanna doesn’t miss any chance to show off his versatility, taking on every single musical instrument possible as if to prove a point. It’s delightfully unrealistic and a befitting fulfilment of Desai’s madcap vision.

In Qurbani and Chandni, it’s his turn to lose the girl. But he’s such a gracious loser and worthy opponent, I felt more respect than pity for his character’s loss.

The emotionality and vitality he projected through his innate elegance struck an enduring chord across various genres of storytelling. Though his work in Gulzar’s creations ranks among my personal favourites.

Whether it’s his angst in Mere Apne, remorse in Achanak, turmoil in Meera, curiosity in Lekin.. or even a brief part as Jeetendra’s buddy and roomie in Parichay, the geniality he brings to their interactions, showcased a sensitivity outside a space of glamour and guts.

Somewhere though his brawny appeal in action-heavy potboilers overshadowed his proficiency for nuanced drama, particularly in his post-Osho innings.

Still the excitement he generated on his comeback trail is a scene I will never forget. The deafening applause welcoming his dashing entry on screen in films like Insaaf and Satyamev Jayate spoke volumes for his unchanged popularity.

My most recent memory of Vinod Khanna is marked in anger as well. Only this time, it wasn’t directed at him. I was upset when the ailing actor’s photograph was insensitively tossed about in media to generate sensation.

As the news of his passing away comes to me, I choose to remember him at his fittest, fabulous best.

A scene from Qurbani featuring him and friend/filmmaker Feroz Khan, who died on this very day eight years ago, plays before my eyes.

FK comes to VK’s rescue following a scrap with the baddies. The latter thanks him for saving his life. In his trademark swagger, FK quips, ‘Maar bhi deta toh kya farak padta? Fauladi aadmi ho, goli takrake wapas chali jaati.’

Heaven must be full of swagger today and a cleft in its cloud.

This column was first published on rediff.com.

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