When Akshaye Khanna had a quiet word with the producers of Ittefaq that he wouldn’t report for shooting the next day, it was an unstated confirmation that his father Vinod Khanna’s condition had turned critical. Brother Rahul Khanna too was asked to fly in from England.
However, till the very end, the family threw a veil of secrecy around the fact that the 70-year-old actor and politician was battling for his life at the HN Reliance Foundation Hospital in Mumbai. It was only in the last few weeks, after he was hospitalised, that whispers grew louder about his deteriorating condition.
Unfortunately this time, one of Hindi cinema’s handsomest men had to bow to the inevitable after the dreaded C returned with virulence.
Typical of the physically tough Peshawar-born actor, Vinod Khanna had valiantly fought a successful fight against cancer a few years ago. He had recovered with alternative therapy, and his belief in the ayurvedic doctor who cured him so strong that he recommended him to any friend who was diagnosed with the disease.
But at that time too, Vinod had chosen to play it down and would, on record, pass it off as a back or stomach problem, never admitting that he was either suffering from cancer or that he was in regression.
When the disease returned, the same secrecy was maintained. For instance, when Vinod was dropped from a Lok Sabha committee a few months ago, there were unsubstantiated stories about undisciplined MPs who were being dropped by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for non-performance. There was, typically, no statement from the Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament from Gurdaspur. Key leaders of his party knew, but in deference to his wishes, they too didn’t make an announcement about it.
A private man
In his last days, nobody but Vinod’s family was encouraged to visit the hospital, which was entirely understandable. Anyone who knew Vinod Khanna would know that he prided himself on his Punjabi robustness and would have opposed letting anyone see how the disease had shrunk him out of existence. But the inescapable end has come, and with it, an important page on a man who led a charmed life, has turned. Charmed, because Vinod Khanna never knew the meaning of struggle.
Born to a well-to-do businessman, Vinod was a fun-loving collegian at Sydenham College in the 1960s who once had a boisterous run-in with the management for disrupting classes. But life was too full of exciting opportunities for the campus heartthrob to worry over any disciplinary rap on the knuckle.
His leap from college to the film studios was one big easy step. He became an actor without the proverbial round of producers’ offices when Sunil Dutt picked up the fellow Peshawari for his film Man Ka Meet (1968). Vinod’s father, Kishanchand Khanna, was aghast at the thought of his son going into a profession as notorious as the film industry. Once his father had met Sunil Dutt personally, he let Vinod have his fling with films.
Providence played favourites once again. “Look at fate,” Sunil Dutt once said to me. “I made Man Ka Meet only because my mother who never asked me for anything, requested me to make a film and launch my brother Som Dutt. I did it but it was Vinod Khanna who took off as an actor while Som never did make it in the film industry.”
Although Vinod climbed higher and higher, his father was never a part of his film business. “My dad rarely saw my films,” Vinod told me a few years ago in his lovely apartment at Il Palazzo in Mumbai’s Malabar Hill neighbourhood. It was done up by Parmeshwar Godrej, one of his closest friends for over three decades. “The first premiere that dad attended was as late as Dayavan (1998).” It was 20 years after his son had made his debut, but his father was aghast again. “He’d never seen me kiss a girl,” Vinod chuckled. “And he was shocked when he saw my kissing scenes with Madhuri Dixit in the film.”
Vinod had it all, always. If rugged roles in films like Mere Apne and Mera Gaon Mera Desh made him one of the most important villains of Hindi cinema who could stand up to any leading man, dozens of films like Gulzar’s Achanak, Prakash Mehra’s Haath Ki Safai and Manmohan Desai’s Amar Akbar Anthony gave him many more helpings of critical acclaim and stardom and facilitated a smooth transition to the main hero’s position. Unafraid to do a spate of two or even three-hero subjects, Vinod was also perhaps the only actor who could bash up Amitabh Bachchan and get the better of him at the height of the latter’s superstardom in Amar Akbar Anthony (1977).
Vinod’s personal life was without noticeable bumps. Like Shammi Kapoor and Shashi Kapoor, he was one of the few major stars who opted to stay on in South Mumbai, where he had grown up. He dated and married pretty Geetanjali Taleyarkhan (from the well-known family of lawyers and businessmen) in 1971, almost as soon as he became an actor. Rahul was born in 1972 and when Geetanjali was expecting her second child, Vinod would tell me and other friends that he yearned for a girl. But the desire to be the father of a daughter didn’t happen until years later from his second marriage. For now, he had to be content with another son, Akshaye, born in 1975.
As one of the best-looking actors of the ’70s and ’80s, Vinod Khanna was quite the ladies’ man. If Geetanjali knew about them, she would have had a few sleepless nights. Female company came easily to him, as it does to any good-looking film star, that too a hunk with a deep cleft in his chin. In fact, he whisked Shabana Azmi away from under the nose of Shashi Kapoor, leading to quite a bit of friction between the two men.
Film magazines would always use the word “rugged” and “handsome” when they mentioned his name. Vinod himself was only too aware of his looks but not arrogant about it. He knew too that he was hot. Once, I could see an actress making a play for him and told him that she obviously had “the hots” for him. He found that immensely amusing and admonished me chuckling, “Hots for me? What words you use.” But he didn’t deny it of course.
With good looks, success, fame, fortune and women, Vinod had life’s best served to him on a platter. But struggle, perhaps, provides enough turmoil to keep a person going. In the absence of it, Vinod found turmoil in the death of a close cousin. That started his trek towards Acharya Rajneesh or Osho, a hunt to seek answers to happenings that perplexed him.
The Rajneesh years
But once he got involved with Rajneesh, he became more brazen about flaunting, say, his romance with Smita Patil, in public. He also bought himself a bungalow in Pali Hill in suburban Mumbai, where he often stayed while Geetanjali continued to live in south Mumbai. A reckless “It’s-my-life” chant began to tell on his career too. His weekend trips to Osho’s ashram in Pune in saffron robes and a beaded necklace, and turning up when he felt like for work, were indicators that he was going off the rails in his spiritual quest.
One cannot forget the press conference he had in 1982 when two tender young school boys (Rahul aged 10, Akshaye seven) came holding their father’s hand as he announced his retirement from films and left his family behind to move to Rajneesh’s ashram in Oregon in the United States of America. It was heartrending. The children had no clue about what was to follow in the months to come, while Geetanjali knew just what the score was going to be. The marriage ended in 1985.
But the charmed life was not over. After being away for over four years, when Vinod returned to Bombay in 1986, he assured a wary industry that he was back for good. And they believed in him again. Films like Insaaf and Satyamev Jayate followed. He also had a successful marriage with Kavita Daftary, from the illustrious Walchand-Daftary family. This marriage gave him another son, Sakshi and finally, Shraddha, the daughter he’d always wanted.
On a parallel track, Vinod joined the BJP in 1997. Gurdaspur, from where he was the winning MP, and Minister of State portfolios in the Culture and Tourism and External Affairs ministries, became a part of his resume. The charmed life continued.
Vinod continued to dabble in films too. But like everything else in life, even a charmed life had to come with an expiry date.
In October 2016, four days after Vinod turned 70, Parmeshwar Godrej, a woman full of life, succumbed to cancer. Vinod followed his long-time friend six months later. RIP my friend and Hindi cinema heartthrob.