[Directed : Raj Khosla/ Produced: Lekhraj Khosla & Bolu Khosla/ Written: Akhtar Romani/Screenplay: G. R. Kamat/ Cinematography: Pratap Sinha/ Edited:Waman Bhonsle/ lyrics: Anand Bakshi/ Music: Laxmikant-Pyarelal/Playback: Lata Mangeshkar and Mohd.Rafi/ Starring: Dharmendra, Vinod Khanna, Asha Parekh, Laxmi Chhaya and Jayant]
On 3rd May, I was fortunate to be doing live commentary on Radio in English for the 65th National Film Awards at the Vigyan Bhavan, I was fortunate because one of the symbols of my childhood- Vinod Khanna being awarded the 49th Dadasaheb Phalke award, albeit posthumously. He was to me and my buddies while growing up at Karol Bagh in the seventies the most menacing dacoit Jabbar Singh, the inspiring lecturer Pramod Sharma and the stern and yet affable inspector Amar all rolled into one!
Late Vinod Khanna (1946-2017) was an enigma. There have been very few like him who started as a detestable villain and ended up as one of the most successful heroes, with a track record which could have upstaged the hit machine called Amitabh Bacchan in the 70s, had he not become a gardener as Swami Vinod Bharti in Rajneeshpuram, Oregon, USA. Vinod Khanna’s menacing act as Jabbar Singh still has the same recall value as Gabbar or Mogambo and in pantheon of Bollywood villains, Jabbar Singh ranks in the A-list along with luminaries like Lion (Kalicharan), Sir Juda (Karz), Shakaal (Shaan) and Dr. Dang (Karma) as one of the few unforgettable scoundrels who have gone on to become even more iconic than their heroic counterparts in the same movies
Sholay and Mera Gaon Mera Desh shared the very basic DNA strand in common. The unwilling vigilante heroes or hero who goes on his journey thanks to a crippled mentor- Havildar Major Jaswant Singh with one arm in Mera Gaon Mera Desh and Thakur Baldev Singh, a retired police inspector without any arms in Sholay. The villain in both films is a dacoit with similar names, the decisive coin toss and showdown at noon.
These striking similarities have led many to assert and believe that Sholay was a remake of Raj Khosla’s Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971) and also borrowed heavily from Narinder Bedi’s Khotay Sikkay (1974). Interestingly, even Khosla and Bedi had lifted the story from Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954). Sippy did not buy the remake rights from any of the three movies, he even lifted the title of his movie from the film Shole (1953) starring Ashok Kumar and Bina Rai.
Vinod Khanna did 40 films from 1968-74, the films in which he was cast as a hero, second lead or supporting actor did lukewarm business. As a villain however his films were super-hits- Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971), Aan Milo Sajana (1970), Rakhwala (1971), Anokhi Ada (1973) and Pathar Aur Payal (1974) to name a few.
Raj Khosla went to Ajmer, and sat with the crowd between the third and the first class in Rajasthan’s oldest cinema theatre Majestic Talkies in Ajmer. A heady Khosla after hearing cinegoers’ comments about Mera Gaon Mera Desh, who did not recognize Khosla, later said that he had never had an experience like this in his life. Amazingly Ramesh Sippy also visited Ajmer and saw Sholay in Majestic Talkies, he was introduced to a fan who had seen the film 62 times till then! Ramesh Sippy overwhelmed by this fan sponsored the screening for free till the time it was screened in the theatre.
Asha Parekh began 1971 with two super hits – Mera Gaon Mera Desh, and Caravan which were the second and sixth biggest hits of the year. These were back to back hits from her mega hits Aan milo sajna and Kati Patang in 1970.Raj Khosla first helmed Asha Parekh in mega hitDo Badan (1966), whereas their second outing was a luke warm Chirag (1969). Their next two films together were blockbusters- Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971) and Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki (1978). In fact her powerhouse title-role in Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki (1978) was going to be her last histrionic and commercial hurrah before she was relegated to largely-insignificant mother or bhabhi roles except Kaalia (1981) that again made people sit up and notice her.
Asha was embroiled in major controversies with her female co-stars in her two super hits helmed by Raj Khosla. It was Simi Garewal who first alleged that Asha tried to trim her part down in Do Badan (1969), but it was Simi who bagged the Filmfare Award as Best Supporting Actress. During the making of mega hit, Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971), late Laxmi Chayya claimed that Asha parekh had tried cut her part, despite the fact that Laxmi Chayya got twice the number of songs than Asha did in the film. Laxmi Chhaya as the moll with vengeance in her heart got to sing more songs than the leading lady, including Aaya aaya atariya pe, Apni prem kahaniyaan and Maar diya jaye, which is one of the tautest situational numbers in the history of Bollywood.
In Mera Gaon Mera Desh, Dharmendra the macho man was upstaged by the passion and intensity of Vinod Khanna who in one of the action packed scenes literally bled to infuse realism into the role! Dharmendra beats him with the belt in their showdown and the young actor never flinched for a minute. Dharmendra met him in the evening and saw injury marks on his back but when he asked Vinod Khanna about them he shrugged them of as occupational hazard! Asha Parekh remembered late Vinod Khanna as her friend who always met with a smile on his face. He was a macho man but also someone with whom one could converse on a variety of topics.
Vinod Khanna would come on the sets of Mera Gaon Mera Desh in a small stylish yellow car and as third assistant it was Mahesh Bhatt’s job to usher the actor to his make-up room. Both were boys from English schools, although Vinod Khanna was uptown Malabar Hill and Mahesh Bhatt was middle class Shivaji Park. The first shot of Vinod Khanna was of him riding into the village with his fellow henchmen. He was to dismount the horse menacingly, kick open the door of the house of the village headman and draw his gun out. The shot had Raj Khosla turn around to his crew and utter what would be prophetic words, ‘This boy is going to be a star. He will set the nation ablaze!’
Mera Gaon Mera Desh was filmed in verdant locales of Udaipur district replete with the natural lakes, the luxuriant fields, the green hills and the colourful villages. Vinod Khanna was so etched in public memory as the deadly dacoit Jabbar Singh Mera Gaon Mera Desh, that Khosla mounted Kachhe Dhaage (1973) with Khanna as the anti-hero on a white steed locking horns with Kabir Bedi on a black stallion shooting again in Udaipur! Vinod Khanna and Raj Khosla again returned to Udaipur for a third time in Main tulsi tere aangan ki (1978).
Vinod Khanna was the Chairman of the prestigious FTII twice from 2001-2002 for three months and then for three years from 2002-2005. He was elected as four times from the Gurdaspur in Punjab between 1998–2009 and 2014–2017. In July 2002, Khanna became the minister for Culture and Tourism and six months later, he the minister of state for external affairs. After losing his seat in 2009 while campaigning in 2014 there was always a demand for the dialogue from Mera Gaon Mera Desh where Jabbar Singh snarls-‘Jabbar Singh ne do baatein seekhi hain, ek, mauke ka fayda uthaana, do, dushmano ka nash karna (Jabbar Singh has learnt two things in life. One, to take advantage of the situation, and two, to destroy all enemies).
Pran in Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai (1960), Dilip Kumar in Ganga Jamuna (1961), Sunil Dutt in Mujhe Jeene Do (1963), Amjad Khan in Sholay (1975), Seema Biswas in Bandit Queen (1994) and Irfan Khan in Pan Singh Tomar (2012) are some of the most memorable portrayals of the dacoit on Hindi film industry. Vinod Khanna was barely five movies old and this film was released in the same year that sent his stock soaring with Gulzar’s Mere Apne.Vinod Khanna was villain to Dharmendra in this film but it made Khanna a marquee star with a twirled-up moustache, cleft chin like Kirk Douglas, donning white dhoti and black shirt, his own lawgiver a double-barrel slung on his shoulders, profanity never leaving his lips; few have portrayed the dacoit on screen as faultlessly and majestically as Vinod Khanna did in MGMD. The film became the second hit of the 1971 and 18th biggest hit of the decade.