Sunil Dutt’s home production Man Ka Meet (1968) was a launchpad for brother Som Dutt but the devastatingly handsome anti-hero Vinod Khanna grabbed all the attention.
His baddie act in Hum Tum Aur Woh, Aan Milo Sajna, Ek Haseena Do Deewane in the early ’70s was equally disarming. Pitted opposite the dashing Dharmendra in Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971), Vinod as the cleft-chin dacoit ‘plundered’ many hearts. Ferocious tilak, furrowed dhoti and flaming eyes, he redefined sexy. The soul-ravaged street prince in Gulzar’s Mere Apne the cuckold in Achanak, the Sidney Poiter (To Sir With Love) take-off in Imtihan, a besotted husband in Haath Ki Safaai, it was a smooth crossover to hero roles for the irresistible Vinod Khanna.
His screen presence stood tall in Amitabh Bachchan starrers including Hera Pheri, Khoon Pasina, Parvarish and Muqaddar Ka Sikander (between 1976-1978), Vinod delivering his share of punches and punchlines. In fact, the stand-off between Amitabh and Vinod in Amar Akbar Anthony, where both remain unbeatable, reiterated the buzz that if anyone could rival the Big B, it was Vinod. A solo superhit like Raj Sippy’s Inkaar (1977) raised his chips further.
It was at this turn of time, when the world was at his feet that Vinod sought refuge at the feet of his Guru – Bhagwan Rajneesh! In a shocking move, the superstar jumped off the showbiz merry-go-round even before it had slowed down…
Attribute it to his extreme sensitivity that often made him despair at the hustlers and competitors around or the emotional vacuum created by the loss of his mother and cousin, or just the disquiet of a perennial seeker, who wanted to discover truths ‘beyond the ideas of right or wrong’. “Behind the macho perception, Vinod was vulnerable. His heart would well up if he saw someone in distress. He was generous to a fault,” said close friend Mahesh Bhatt underlining Vinod’s inherent sense of empathy.
Matching this softness was also a rare strength. The strength to give up the arc-lights for the anonymity of being a ‘gardener’ in Rajneesh’s pebbly county, to renounce his own godhood and revere Osho as his godhead, to become a cog in the wheel of Rajneesh’s ‘divine’ chariot… To have everything yet choose to become nothing… Vinod Khanna was perhaps a Buddha, who meandered into Bollywood.
Relooking the actor/sanyasi/politician’s changing trajectories…
Jab he met Bhagwan
Vinod claimed that he’d become a ‘spiritual seeker’ since the time he read Autobiography Of A Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda at the age of 18. He also practised Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation. While his career was on a roll, he was introduced to Acharya Rajneesh or Osho by close friend/filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt. The friendship began when superstar Vinod insisted that a struggling Mahesh direct his Lahu Ke Do Rang (1979). Mahesh cherished the gesture that ‘changed his life forever’.
The two hit it off also because of their restless personalities. “With my LSD experience, the influence of the Beatles, the Berkeley and flower power, I was mesmerised by the spiritual jargon of Osho Rajneesh,” recalled Mahesh. In the early ’80s, the demise of Vinod’s mother and a close relative had left him disturbed. He too began listening to Rajneesh’s tapes and became a disciple. Visiting the ashram in Pune during the weekends bonded them further.
But for Mahesh, who was also undergoing a personal crisis, the spiritual ‘oases’ turned out to be a ‘mirage’. “I’d fallen in love with Parveen (Babi). Though it was condoned by the ashram’s permissive value system, in the real world I found it difficult to deal with the situation of having two women. No words, no meditation numbing my anguish. So, one day I broke Rajneesh’s mala (beaded necklace) and flushed it down the toilet,” revealed Bhatt while speaking to Filmfare. Mahesh moved away but Vinod stayed on and more staunchly. The ‘mind-blowing’ meditation, said Vinod, had brought about a ‘profound shift’ in his priorities both as a person and professional.
Vinod was married to the beautiful Geetanjali Taleyarkhan (from the renowned family of lawyers and businessmen) in 1971. Their older son Rahul (Khanna) was born in 1972 while Akshaye (Khanna) was born in 1975. It cut an ironic picture when in 1982 Rahul aged 10 and Akshaye seven, walked in at a press conference, holding their father’s hands as he announced his retirement from films. The next morning, Vinod left for Rajneesh’s ashram in Oregon’s Wasco County in the United States of America leaving behind his family. The marriage ended in 1985.
For the next four years, Vinod stayed in Rajneeshpuram in Oregon. Bhagwan gave B-town’s blue-eyed boy a new name – Swami Vinod Bharti. He was Osho’s gardener, often cleaning toilets and washing the dishes. He self-confessedly even sharpened his skills as a plumber, electrician, operating machines and learning construction.
But the paradise was soon lost when the godman, with a penchant for Rolls Royces and diamonds, returned to India in 1985. Reportedly, he was booked by the US federal police in Charlotte, North Carolina, on 35 counts of immigration violations, flight to avoid prosecution and conspiracy. Rajneesh pleaded guilty to some charges and left behind his carefully built bastion.
Reportedly, when Rajneesh stepped out of his chartered jet at Delhi airport in the early hours of November 17, around 500 of his disciples welcomed him with chants of ‘Bhagwan, Bhagwan’ and lifted him into a waiting Mercedes with Vinod at the wheel. Later, Rajneesh moved to a resort in Manali and finally to Pune.
In 1987, Vinod returned to the movies. There were rumours about him not being happy with Bhagwan but he denied them. Apparently, he said that he had never stopped following Osho, ‘making his comeback only to assure financial security’. “Vinod came back after that circus collapsed and was under depression. Being resilient, he pulled himself out of that quagmire and had a revival in career,” said Bhatt while speaking to Hindustan Times. But Mahesh insisted that something had ‘withered’ in Vinod.
Once, Mahesh met Rajneesh in Mumbai and told him that Vinod was ‘spiralling into the abyss of depression’… “But he dismissed the conversation in just one sentence. ‘I don’t want to talk about Vinod. That’s another story’. I was appalled by his insensitivity. I could see Rajneesh himself was unstable. His hands were shaking. He was like an actor past his prime trying to put on a show. He looked sad,” said Mahesh in an interview with Filmfare.
Vinod reclaimed himself with Insaaf and Satyameva Jayate in 1987. J P Dutta’s Batwara and Kshatriya, Yash Chopra’s Chandni, Mahesh Bhatt’s Jurm and Feroz Khan’s Davayan… all reiterated the fact that he had never gone from public consciousness. Aruna Raje’s Rihaee (1990) and Gulzar’s surreal musical Lekin (1991) were his offbeat outings.
While Rajneesh passed away on 19 January 1990, aged 58, at the ashram in Pune, Vinod married the much-younger Kavita Daftary, from the illustrious Walchand-Daftary family on 15 May the same year. Son Sakshi and daughter Shraddha completed their family.
In 1997, Vinod joined the BJP. A winning MP from Punjab and Minister of State portfolios in the Culture and Tourism and External Affairs ministries were his designations. While a photograph of Bhagwan still inhabited his plush apartment at Il Pallazo, Malabar Hill, Vinod and his wife Kavita supposedly found a new guru in Sri Sri Ravishankar around 2000.
In a column written for The American Bazaar in July 2015, on the eve of Guru Purnima he wrote, “People ask me whether I am still with Osho. When your Guru accepts you as a disciple, that relationship does not change… Like Guruji (Sri Sri Ravishankar) said, ‘You could only continue your spiritual journey with another Guru with the blessings of your first Guru’.”
In the 2000s, he moved to character roles in films including Wanted, Dabangg and Dabangg 2. Around 2011, there were rumours about him suffering from cancer. But the actor denied them. In 2017, Indian Express mentioned that at a media interaction in Gurdaspur in early 2017, Vinod said that he got to know he had cancer six years ago. At that time, his daughter Shraddha was giving an exam and needed her parents’ support. Hence, the cancer was kept a secret from everyone.
The Peshawar-born actor valiantly fought cancer with alternative therapy. Reportedly, he didn’t undergo intense chemotherapy though he underwent some surgeries. But unfortunately, the disease returned again.
Vinod was hospitalised at the Sir H.N. Reliance Foundation Hospital and Research Centre in Girgaon, Mumbai on 2 April 2017 due to dehydration. A photograph of him looking a faint shadow of himself went viral and took friends and fans by shock. The veteran, aged 70, passed away on 27 April, 2017 after battling advanced bladder cancer.
In retrospect Mahesh Bhatt said, “I didn’t find the answers. So, the questions just dropped. I don’t know whether Vinod found the answers to his questions or he broke away from the quest.” For some the journey is all about seeking answers. For some the questions empower the journey…