Last week, I happened to watch Gulzar’s Mere Apne (1971). It told the story of an old woman who comes from a village to live in a city after being persuaded by a distant relative and his wife, only to realise that she is nothing more than an unpaid aayah in the city, meant to take care of the home and the child of this working couple. But she finds her way out as the nani ma of a group of youngsters engaged in constant street violence and gang rivalry. It was Gulzar’s directorial debut and one of Meena Kumari’s last films before she died in 1972. It was also the film where Vinod Khanna showed his earliest stroke of brilliance.
Vinod Khanna and Shatrughan Sinha essayed shades of grey in this urban drama, which was a remake of Tapan Sinha’s Bengali movie Apanjan. Vinod Khanna’s character Shyam was representative of the average youngster of the 1970s – educated, unemployed, pessimistic and an easy tool in the hands of local politicians, willing to fight someone else’s battle. He was angry and directionless. Shyam belonged to the generation that spent its childhood under the shade of optimism in Nehru’s India, still more hopeful under Shastri and yet, when they came of age in the years of Nehru’s daughter, they met with disappointment at all fronts. They knew a solution didn’t exist in the foreseeable future. Shyam was the angry young man. Vinod Khanna got it right two years before Amitabh Bachchan was presented by the master packagers Salim Javed as the angry young man in Zanjeer (1973).
To think of it, Vinod Khanna had it in him to be the next big superstar. He was a rarity among the Hindi actors of that time, for he started off portraying shades of grey and even outright villainous roles but easily moved on to playing the dashing young hero. He was tall, handsome and an actor who knew his art. And yet, the mantle never went to him.
Unlike Amitabh, whose films, post the Zanjeer-Deewar era, invariably revolved around him, Vinod Khanna would unhesitatingly do a period film like Meera, where Hema Malini scorched the limelight. In that sense, he was like Sunil Dutt, who could easily play a female oriented film and still hold his own in the narrative. He killed his adulterous wife in Gulzar’s Achanak (based on the Nanavati case) and was forgiving of his wife’s infidelity in Rihaee. While most of Amitabh’s co-stars got literally dwarfed by his charisma and screen presence, Vinod Khanna was seen as the only one who could give him a tit-for-tat on screen.
In the mid 1970s, he was initiated by Rajneesh (Osho) into spirituality and in 1982, he literally renounced everything and went to the US to return five years later. Things had changed on-ground in Bombay and new actors had entered the arena. And yet, films were waiting for him. But the prime time was over. What if, he wasn’t disillusioned by name, fame and money all of a sudden at the zenith of his career? Would Amitabh still have been able to become a one-man industry, as a cover story of India Today called him in the 1980s? We will never know.