Late Hindi movie star Vinod Khanna’s effortless style and rugged good looks have always suited the big screen. The Cinthol soap campaign in the 1980s worked his appeal into households. The print and the television campaign, produced by advertising filmmaker Shantanu Sheorey, turned out to be an innovative idea in the world of male star endorsements – no bathing scenes, no women, just a play on Khanna’s easy masculine charms.

Cinthol, launched in 1952, was initially positioned as an unisex deodorant soap. But with Khanna’s star endorsement, it became synonymous with masculinity.

Khanna racing with a stallion and mounting it in slow motion, looking confident and ridiculously sexy in his all-denim attire, looked like a man who was simply out there having a blast. “And that was exactly how it happened,” said the commercial’s cinematographer, National Film award winner Mahesh Aney, who later shot Khanna’s Baba Zarda campaign as well.

The film was meticulously planned by Parmeshwar Godrej, the high priestess of Bombay society and custodian of the brand’s image. Godrej was friends with Khanna and Sheorey. She threw open the pool of the Godrej mansion in Juhu for the crew to shoot a few scenes there for the campaign, which did not make it to the final cut.

The crew – two cameras, a horse provided by stuntman Pappu Verma, Aney, Sheorey and their team of assistants – arrived at Juhu beach around 7 am. Khanna landed up with his sleeves and trousers rolled up – a styling tip from Godrej – and began to shoot. “It is not easy to mount a horse in motion,” Aney said. “You have to be incredibly fit to be able to do that. Neither is it easy to do bareback riding. But Vinod was a good rider and the horse was a gentle soul, and it all came together effortlessly.”

The Cinthol commercial.

The campaign was “revolutionary”, according to Aney, because Khanna made it look “so easy and casual.” That’s also how Vinod Khanna was in person. “The campaign just killed the market when it arrived,” Aney said. “People were taken completely by surprise. I don’t think anyone can replicate this moment in advertising history. Even if films, you may use a lot of special effects, but I don’t know of any actor who can actually do a bareback riding shot as well as he did.”

Aney, who had been in touch with Khanna later for the Baba Zarda campaign and a film that Khanna wanted to produce but never eventually did, spoke of the actor as someone who was “extremely peaceful”.

“He was the most good-looking actor in Hindi cinema; he still is,” Aney said. “But he knew that and never really pushed himself or gave a damn. If you wanted him to take off his shirt, he would do it without blinking. He was the original Salman Khan. Another reason why he looked so good while just being himself was probably because he came from a wealthy family. When you are from a privileged background and used to a certain lifestyle, you will look comfortable and easy in a yacht or even in a pair of flip flops. That was Vinod for you.”

The Cinthol brand tried to hold its hard won-ground with other celebrities such as Imran Khan, Hrithik Roshan and Shah Rukh Khan. But a clean-shaven Khanna with the sea, surf and a stallion are hard to replicate.

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Vinod Khanna (1946-2017): Villain, hero, sanyasi, politician and perennial heartthrob