30 April 2017

Friend and Lover

My Mirror column:

Vinod Khanna’s star persona combined sexy shirtless masculinity for the female gaze with an intense rendition of male friendship.

A male film star, people might assume, is a man whom women like. By that account, all our heroes ought to be sexy. But of course it isn’t so simple. One, because plenty of Hindi film heroes are men whom other men like. In Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur II, Tigmanshu Dhulia, playing the mining mafia don Ramadhir Singh, offers a pithy rendition of this gendered history of film heroes: “First men liked Dilip Kumar, and women liked Dev Anand. Then men liked Amitabh Bachchan, and women liked Rajesh Khanna." In more recent years, it’s been men liking Salman and women liking Shah Rukh. And two, because Indian women for many years weren’t quite allowed to confess to liking sexy men. It was more socially legitimate to like the sweet, enthusiastic good boys, or the dramatically tragic ones.

The late Vinod Khanna seems to have managed the rare feat of being both: a man’s man, as well as the sexy creature that women couldn’t stop looking at. Watching Qurbani after Khanna’s death this week, I was struck by how clear Feroze Khan seems to have been about the sexiness quotient of both the film and his friend Vinod. The highest grossing film of 1980, Qurbani is filled with the hotness of Zeenat Aman, and the camera caresses her curves in exactly the way you’d expect, in song after song as nightclub dancer Sheela. It was only two years after Satyam Shivam Sundaram and Khan ensured that he got Aman into a drenched sari: in Qurbani the excuse is an innocent little girl spraying her with a garden hose. In the legendary Hum tumhe chahte hain aise song, the already betrothed Aman looks sadly and sexily away as Khanna’s Amar turns upon her the full blaze of his yearning look.

But director Feroze Khan makes sure that in his film, Khanna is not only the owner of the lustful gaze, but also its object. Qurbani has at least two sequences that have passing women characters giving Khanna’s fit bod the once-over: one is a Parsi lady who casts appreciative glances in his direction even as her husband picks a faux-fight with him (Bawa masculinity is comically derided); the other is a youthful nurse who gives Khanna the most loving spongebath ever (when he’s recovering from grave injuries in the hospital).

Qurbani also homes in on the other crucial aspect of the Vinod Khanna persona: the loyal friend. In Qurbani, having been twice the recipient of Feroze Khan’s life-saving skills, it is Khanna who performs the film’s titular sacrifice – giving up the girl as well as his life. In Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978), where he played second lead and loyal friend to Amitabh Bachchan, it was Khanna’s character who got to save Bachchan’s life early on, in exchange – this might be the necessary way the trope worked – receiving both the love of the heroine (Rakhee) and the longer life.

Friendship and loyalty also had a crucial role in Khanna’s persona in at least two of the star’s important earlier films, both directed by Gulzar – Mere Apne (1971) and Achanak (1973). In those though, it was the reverse side of it –betrayal – that made the character what he was. In Mere Apne, Shyam’s neighbourhood friendship with Chhenu (Shatrughan Sinha) turns sour and their enmity becomes a defining feature of his life. In Achanak, based on a KA Abbas story somewhat inspired by the Nanavati case, Khanna plays a loving husband and army man who murders his best friend in cold blood when he discovers that his wife has been having an affair with him. In both these films, the women are disloyal – one is weak and leaves his side out of family pressure, while the other’s actions are minimally explained as those of an incorrigible flirt.

To cynical postmodern eyes, films like Muqaddar ka Sikandar or Qurbani may seem to brim over with an emotional excess most of us think we’re too cool for. Think of Farooq Qaiser’s lyrics to the film’s titular song about friendship as sacrifice, sung by the two heroes, Khan and Khanna – in real life, one a Muslim and one a Hindu, both playing Hindus on screen and yet shown dancing on Eid in the house of a character called Khan Baba:

“Yaar khadein hain seena taan,
Aandhi aaye ya toofan
Yaar khadein hain seena taan,
Yaari meri kahatee hai
Yaar pe kar de sab qurbaan
Ho qurbani qurbani qurbani
Allah ko pyari hai qurbani

And later, in extending its ode to friendship to
the bond between religions:

“Do haathon ki dekho shaan
Ye allah hai yeh bhagwaan.”

And yet, clearly we imbibed something from those filmi definitions of friendship, something that continues ineffably to shape our understanding of reality. No wonder that the death of Khanna on April 27 was remarked upon, over and over again, as having taken place on the same date as that of his friend Feroze Khan, eight years ago. In life – which is to say in death – Khanna seemed to prove, yet again, that he was the extraordinary friend.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 30th April 2017.


Anonymous said...

The other scene stealer in 2 of the songs from the film is Amjad Khan - in Laila O Laila as well as the title track. A real delight to watch!

Anonymous said...

The Dayavan song too has a young Madhuri bathe him... a bit disturbing given the age difference. Also directed by Feroze Khan.