Vinod Khanna’s career can be summed up in one question: What if?

What if his potential had been spotted early and he hadn’t slaved away in low-budget films as a bit-part actor? What if he hadn’t played a villain in his formative years despite his blinding leading man looks? What if he hadn’t chucked away his stardom at the height of his career for a spiritual quest? How would the cinema of the 1970s and ’80s have been if Vinod Khanna had been an early riser rather than a latecomer?

The debate has moved into the academic realm, just as Vinod Khanna has passed into the beyond. He died at 11.20 am on April 27 due to advanced bladder carcinoma. He was 70. His filmography has many good roles, many forgettable parts, and at least a few questionable choices. But there is no doubt that here was one actor whose name was destined to be on the marquee, along with other such ’70s personages as Amitabh Bachchan, Rishi Kapoor and Mithun Chakraborty.

One of Khanna’s most popular roles was alongside Bachchan and Kapoor in the multi-starrer Amar Akbar Anthony. The madcap comedy, directed by Manmohan Desai in 1977, follows three brothers separated during their childhood. Khanna had the least showy part, as the inspector Amar, who beats up Anthony (Bachchan) without realising that he is one of his two siblings.

Amar Akbar Anthony (1977).

Khanna started out as a villain in a cinematic universe in which characters were etched in strong black and white shades. In Man Ka Meet (1968), produced by Sunil Dutt’s banner Ajanta Arts and directed by A Subba Rao, Khanna made his acting debut alongside Dutt’s brother Somdutt and Leena Chandavarkar. The movie was designed to boost Somdutt’s leading man prospects, but it was Khanna, who was 22 at the time, who caught the eye as the malefactor who schemes to marry the heroine.

Khanna was born on October 6, 1946, in Peshawar in undivided India, to KC Khanna, a businessman, and Kamla, a housewife. He was one of five children. After the Partition, the Khannas arrived in Mumbai, where the family has lived since except for a few years in Delhi.

By his own admission, Khanna wanted to join the movie industry after watching Mughal-E-Azam (1960) as a boy. He rebelled against his father’s dictates against partying and acting, and, was, as Protima Bedi recalls in her memoir Timepass, a South Mumbai layabout and a member of one of two local gangs (the other was led by actor and filmmaker IS Johar’s son Anil).

“Almost all social life in the Bombay of the mid-sixties revolved around these groups,” Bedi writes. “Bistro and Volga, right next to each other in the Fort, were the places to go to. In Churchgate there was Napoli, and Venice at the Astoria, where Biddu used to sing as the lone Trojan, with his crowd gathered all around.”

It was at a party that the young man with the hypnotic gaze, brooding personality and Kirk Douglas-style cleft chin met Sunil Dutt, who signed him up for Man Ka Meet. Several roles followed either as a hero in a low-budget movie or a side character in a prominent production, including Nateeja (1969), Aan Milo Sajna (1970), Purab aur Paschim (1970) and Saccha Jhuttha (1970). In Aan Milo Sajna, Khanna furthered the menace that marked his debut. He plays a mean-minded heir who brings home a fake girlfriend so that he can get his share of the inheritance.

Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971).

Khanna’s ability to mould his handsome features into a snarl was perfected in Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971). Raj Khosla’s rural drama is a precursor to Sholay (1975) in numerous ways – it features Dharmendra as the saviour of a village plagued by a gang of dacoits led by the fearsome and sadistic Jabbar Singh. As Jabbar, Khanna is the blackest shade of black, and he delivers one of his most effective performances.

In 1971, Khanna finally got the opportunity to expand his repertoire when Gulzar remade Tapan Sinha’s Bengali film Apanjan (1968). Khanna plays the leader of one of two packs of aimless young men whose constant clashes are mediated by a widow (Meena Kumari).

Koi Hota Jisko Apna from Mere Apne (1971).

More villainy awaited Khanna (for instance, Anokhi Ada, in 1973) before he could prove his ability to evoke empathy and identification rather than fear and revulsion. In Gulzar’s Achanak (1973), loosely based on the KM Nanavati case of 1959, Khanna is very effective as the Army officer who kills his wife and her lover and escapes, leading to a manhunt.

Achanak marked the beginning of a shift in Khanna’s fortunes. He was now headlining films, and even though many of them didn’t set the cash registers ringing, his smouldering presence and ability to suggest a volcanic temperament were increasingly unmistakable. Khanna was the other Angry Young Man alongside Amitabh Bachchan in the ‘70s, grimacing at the injustice and corruption around him and using his conscience and fists to set things right.

Unlike Bachchan, Khanna was a bona fide pin-up. In the arthouse thriller Shaque (1976), directed by the couple Aruna Raje and Vikas Desai, Khanna plays a bespectacled husband and father whose sudden wealth creates suspicion in his wife. The movie showcases Khanna’s casual sex appeal – it includes a brief lovemaking scene and a swimwear moment set on a beach, which has been enshrined on YouTube. Aruna Raje later celebrated Khanna’s manliness in her sexual liberation tract Rihaee in 1988.

Among Khanna’s hits in the ’70s were Nehle Pe Delha (1976) and the multi-starrers Amar Akbar Anthony (1976) and Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978). Mahesh Bhatt cast Khanna in a double role in Lahu Ke Do Rang (1979), as an Indian National Army soldier who has an affair with a Hong Kong national, and as the son who tries to unravel his past.

Chahiye Thoda Pyar from Lahu Ke Do Rang (1977).

Khanna began the ’80s with Feroz Khan’s Qurbaani (1980), and its success bolstered his claim to star status. If Bachchan has played numerous characters named Vijay, Khanna has his share of Amars. In Qurbaani, Khanna’s Amar is a criminal who is one of two men (the other is Feroz Khan) who is besotted with the club singer Sheela (Zeenat Aman). The soundtrack has the club song Aap Jaisa Koi, sung by Nazia Hassan and composed by Khanna’s teenage friend Biddu, and the ballad Hum Tumhe Chahte Hai Aise, in which Khanna’s character pays tribute to the lissome Zeenat Aman.

Hum Tumhe Chahte Hai Aise from Qurbaani (1977).

Despite his popularity, Khanna’s career remained a rough and tumble affair, marked by more misses than hits. A force greater than cinema was already beckoning the actor, who was by now married to his college sweetheart Geetanjali Taleyarkhan and the father of Rahul and Akshaye (both became actors in the ’90s). “I have always been a seeker,” he said in an interview to the Times of India in 2002. “In the film industry, I had money, glamour, fame but wondered a ‘now what?’”

The answer was provided by Rajneesh, the headline-grabbing godman later known as Osho, who was running an ashram in Pune at the time. “Initially, I visited Osho’s ashram in Pune every weekend,” Khanna said. “I even diverted shooting schedules to Pune. I was finally initiated on December 31, 1975. When I announced my retirement from films, nobody believed me. I was called the ‘sexy-sanyasi’. I took it in my stride.”

Khanna’s decision to quit films in 1982 left the field wide open for Bachchan, his close rival and frequent co-star. Another “What if” in Khanna’s career concerns Bachchan, who similarly navigated a series of early disappointments before breaking out with Zanjeer in 1973. Bachchan’s unmatched hold over the ’70s was destined, but would he have continued to be the face of the ’80s if Khanna had chosen to stay and fight rather than shrug and walk away?

Vinod and Kavita Khanna on Rendezvous with Simi Garewal.

“I was very angry… I had reached a saturation point,” he told Simi Garewal on her celebrity talk show Rendezvous with Simi Garewal, which began airing on Indian television in 1997. He began to meditate, which helped him become “the master of my mind” and pushed him further towards a spiritual journey that let to Rajneesh’s doorstep.

Khanna was Rajneesh’s devotee for close to five years, and was a part of the cult leader’s controversial attempts to carve out a city for himself named Rajneeshpuram in the Oregon state in the United States of America in the ’80s. Rajneesh was deported from the US in 1985, and he returned to India and resettled in Pune, where he ran his commune till his death in 1990.

At the ashram, the movie star went by the name Swami Vinod Bharti. “I was his gardener, I cleaned the toilets, I did the dishes, and his clothes were tried out on me because we were, physically, of the same stature,” Khanna told the TOI. “Gitanjali couldn’t take it any more: While I was at Rajneeshpuram, I was in touch with my family over the phone. But those were terrible times for my sons – they didn’t have me around and people said: Tumhara baap apne guru ke saath bhaag gaya… Gitanjali and I settled for divorce. When I returned to India, I had nothing.”

Khanna’s close competitor had also undergone a change of heart about showbiz. Bachchan’s best films were already behind him, and he had taken an ill-advised break from acting to contest Lok Sabha elections on a Congress Party ticket. Bachchan won a parliamentary seat from Allahabad in 1982, but fled politics three years later, and was back under the arc lights in the same year as Khanna.

Vinod Khanna in Mere Apne (1971).

Vinod Khanna made a better landing than Bachchan when he resumed acting in 1987. He had two hits that year. In Mukul Anand’s crime drama Insaaf, he plays a professor who becomes a criminal. In Raj N Sippy’s Satyamev Jayate, he plays a rule-breaking police officer who has a change of heart.

As in the initial phase of his career, Khanna continued to labour in mediocre productions that brought in the cheques but no personal glory. There were some highlights – Rihaee (1988), the multi-starrer Batwara (1989), and Gulzar’s acclaimed ghost story Lekin (1990).

Yash Chopra’s Chandni (1989) gave Khanna one of his best-loved roles. Khanna plays the sad-eyed and dignified Lalit, who overcomes his grief over his girlfriend’s death by falling for the titular heroine (Sridevi), only to reunite her with her one true love (Rishi Kapoor) in the end.

Lagi Aaj Saawan from Chandni (1989).

Among Khanna’s hits in the ’90s was Mahesh Bhatt’s Jurm, a copy of the 1978 Hollywood movie Someone To Watch Over Me. Khanna plays a police officer who falls in love with the witness he is assigned to protect.

In 1997, he launched his younger son, Akshaye Khanna, in the multi-starrer Himalayputra. In the same year, he joined the Bharatiya Janata Party and won the Lok Sabha elections from Gurdaspur in Punjab the following year. Khanna has represented Gurdaspur in Parliament in 1999, 2004 and 2014.

Khanna enjoyed a later-career resurrection in paternal parts in Wanted (2009), and Dabangg (2010), both starring Salman Khan. One of his most relaxed roles is in the cricket match fixing comedy 99 (2009), in which he is perfectly cast by directors Raj and DK as a lush Delhi bookie.

Apart from his sons Rahul and Akshaye from his first marriage, Khanna has two children, Sakshi and Shraddha, by his second wife Kavita Khanna. His last release was Rohit Shetty’s multi-starrer comedy Dilwale in 2015, in which he plays the bete noire of his fellow traveller from the ’70s, Kabir Bedi. Among his final films is the 2017 production Ek Thi Rani Aisi Bhi, a biopic of Vijaya Raje Scindia that stars Hema Malini.