Mahesh Bhatt (MID-DAY; April 28, 2017)

My earliest memory of Vinod is from the sets of Raj Khosla’s Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971) , where I was the third assistant, and he was making his debut as a villain — Jabbar Singh, not Gabbar Singh! At the very first shot of the film where Vinod dismounts a horse, kicks open a door, and draws his gun out, Raj Khosla said the prophetic words, “This guy will set this nation ablaze.” As an assistant who was entrusted to attend to actor’s needs, we became very close right from the beginning — even while he was a rising star, and I was a struggling nobody. When the opportunity came for me to direct a film, it was a foregone conclusion in my head that he would agree to star in it, although the movie, ironically titled Mukti, got shelved, for financial reasons.

The loss of Vinod’s mother, who he was extremely close to, had jolted him to seek answers to existential questions of life — who are we, where are we coming from, and where are we going. I introduced him to ‘Bhagwan Rajneesh’, so he could find solace in the Godman’s tips. I was already a sanyasi by then. Every weekend, Vinod and I would drive down to Osho’s ashram (in Pune) in his white Mercedes, meditate for hours, listen to the Godman’s discourse, read books on Sufism, Nanak, the Gita… Those were intoxicating days.

As an actor, Vinod immediately fit the demands of the times. He was extremely good-looking by the standards of the film industry. Women would swoon over his physique, charm, and charisma. Men would look up to him for the obvious machismo. He remained the only contender who could take on the might of Amitabh Bachchan, or perhaps even dethrone him in the '70s. This was the prevailing narrative. And this is why, if you notice, whenever Vinod did a film with Big B — Hera Pheri (1976), Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), Khoon Pasina (1977), Parvarish (1977), Muqaddar Ka Sikander (1978) — audiences instantly lapped it up. They were a delight to watch together.

But much beyond his ambition or determination to succeed as an actor, Vinod had an adventurous spirit. What kind of person would gamble his stardom to seek enlightenment? He packed off at the peak of his career to become a gardener in Osho’s ashram in Oregon. It was considered a suicidal move by the industry. By the time he returned in the '80s, India and its movies had altogether changed. I did Jurm (1990) upon his return from the ‘circus’. Many people still remember that film for the song, Jab koi baat bigad jaaye.

Vinod was basically a man who celebrated life. His spiritual guru also encouraged sensual pursuits, and he thirsted for life’s answers. Over years, while we differed on our views on politics, spirituality and God, and drifted apart, we still stayed in touch. I’ll never forget the time he once called me over to meet him at Filmistaan Studio, Goregaon. I was no more Osho’s disciple — having figured that all I had received from the Godman were words; nothing had changed within me. Vinod was worried for me because the news of me flushing my Osho mala (prayer beads) down the commode had reached the Godman. He wanted to protect me from the wrath of ‘God’. It’s at moments like these that one unwittingly reveals their love and affection. Behind that tough exterior of a hero was a largehearted man, who could cry easily at the sight of suffering, and was generous to a fault. Vinod, to me, is not the person I’ll remember from flickering images of the silver screen. He touched my life, and changed its course. People don’t cease to exist because they die. They continue to breathe within you. As Vinod will — until I die.

Mahesh Bhatt directed Vinod Khanna in Lahu Ke Do Rang (1979), Jurm (1990) and Maarg (1992) 

(As told to Mayank Shekhar)