"I’m still known as Agent Vinod after 35 years," says Mahendra Sandhu. "Cops at traffic signals, security guys at the airport still call me Agent Vinod. For years and even now people shouted, ‘Agent Vinod’ when they spotted me."
Sandhu who has been completely disconnected from the film industry for 25 years, isn’t flattered by the attention that he’s getting by default. He strikes you as someone who doesn’t give a damn about fame any more, though Sandhu confesses that at one stage in his career when he had the world at his feet, he should have been more concerned about stardom.
Recalls Sandhu, "Agent Vinod was my 9th film. The Rajshri patriarch Tarachand Barjatya called me after seeing my work in a film called Khoon Ki Keemat. He wanted to know who I was and why I had never visited the Rajshri office like all other newcomers. But I never went out to look for roles. That was a mistake…. Anyway I met Tarachand Saab. But I didn’t like what they offered me. Then they came to me with what was being termed as a desi Bond. I had recently done a desi Clint Eastwood film, and now Bond…. Ha ha. The director was a young man Deepak Bahri. Our careers depended on the success of Agent Vinod."
By the time Agent Vinod came to Sandhu he had already packed up his bags and decided to leave Bollywood. "I was from Punjab. And just like migrants come to Mumbai from Bihar and UP I was here to try my luck in movies. Since I hadn’t made any headway I decided to go back to Punjab where I had plenty of land. Agent Vinod revived my career. We went for the best choreographer, best action director– Ajay’s father Veeru Devgan, although we couldn’t afford him—the Rajshris don’t believe in high budgets.My director Deepak and I slogged like there was no tomorrow. After shooting in the evenings we’d get drunk and wonder what we’d do if Agent Vinod flopped. I said I’d go back to my farming in Punjab. Deepak would say, ‘Mere paas to zameen bhi nahin hai. Main kya karunga."
Luckily Agent Vinod clicked. "I got a lot of offers after Agent Vinod. But I was foolish in my choices. The Rajshris had promised to make a sequel. But they didn’t. They couldn’t afford it. They made low-budget family dramas that were shot in one bungalow. Agent Vinod needed many expensive locations. If there was a sequel my Agent Vinod would’ve been a franchise. That wasn’t meant to be."
Sandhu made an erroneous image switch-over. "Instead of cashing in on my slick sleuth’s image in Agent Vinod I did dacoit films like Jwala Daku, Mujhe Vachan Do and Kaun Kitne Paani Mein…I identified with that came kind of culture…But it was a mistake. I should’ve done more Agent Vinod films."
Analyzing what went wrong with his career Sandhu observes, "See, when I came into the film industry I was welcomed with open arms. I was quite a craze. But then you know how it works. My first film Khoon Khoon didn’t work because it was a copy of Dirty Harry. And 20th Century Fox slapped a lawsuit against the producers of Khoon Khoon for copyright breach. Those days our films used to copy Hollywood arbitrarily without taking permission. The banner F. C. Mehra’s Eagle Films, was prestigious. When they narrated the script I was very excited. I was a big fan of Clint Eastwood. I was very excited to be playing Clint Eastwood. I was projected as India’s Eastwood."
Sandhu feels the project was messed up. "They didn’t get a proper director for Khoon Khoon. Mohammed Hussain who directed Khoon Khoon used to direct Dara Singh’s stunt films. I had warned the producers that the director was not suitable. But no one listened to me. Khoon Khon opened well. But it couldn’t sustain itself. My career took a nosedive…. That’s when I did Agent Vinod."
Today Sandhu is happy to be noticed by default. "Suddenly after 25 years everybody is calling me…Saif and his director Sriram Raghavan once rang me up and came over to visit me to offer me a cameo. I wasn’t keen. But I reluctantly agreed on condition that I like the role. They never reverted. Right from the beginning I’ve been very fussy and picky. I wouldn’t do negative roles, second leads. I refused to have any co-star hit me or even shout at me. I became a laughing stock in the industry. I remember I was doing a film with the mighty Raj Kumar. I was playing a cop. In a scene Raj Kumar was supposed to snatch the gun away from me. I refused to do that shot. The director argued that it was the character from whom the gun was being taken. I refused arguing, ‘Mahendra Sandhu ke haath se koi gun kaise le lega.’ Raj Kumar was offended. He left the shooting. And the film was shelved."
Looking back, Sandhu regrets losing out on his stardom. "I laugh at my own behaviour. Now I feel I was very childish. But I feel happy that I didn’t compromise with my selfrespect. I never waited outside producers’ offices, like my contemporaries did. I respected everyone and got respect back. I was known as ‘Sandhu Saab’ from the start and I continue to be addressed that way. Whatever roles I got I took. I never sought out any. I thought I was the best. I still maintain I was better than many of contemporaries. But I wasn’t manipulative, and I wasn’t diplomatic."
Sandhu says he has no friends in Bollywood. "There’re no friends in this industry. When I was a film producer I had many friends. I’d get bouquets from actresses and actors who wanted a role. When I stopped producing films, the bouquets and the calls stopped. That’s life. No regrets."
Sandhu has a happy prosperous life outside Bollywood. "I’ve friends all over the world. I’ve two daughters, one of them is married to a doctor in Mumbai. My real-estate business pays much better than my acting career. I am my own boss. Three days a week I spend in Mumbai, the rest outside. In summer I go abroad. In winter I am in Punjab. I sleep and wake up when I want to. I meet who I want to. I am far happier now than I was as an actor."
Sandhu has no intentions of watching Agent Vinod. "I haven’t seen a Hindi film in 25 years. I haven’t stepped into a theatre, and not been to a filmy party or met anyone from the industry. I believe Saif has made a reference to me in the film. I’m happy for him. He’s the new Agent Vinod. 20 years from now it may be someone else. Saif has worked hard on the film. I wish him all the best."