Dharmendra Deol – Sensitive and Rock solid.
In Citizen Kane, Orson Welles, playing the deeply flawed yet gifted title role, in a moment of honest introspection says to his lifelong friend, “You know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.” This line can be paraphrased to define Dharmendra’s career as well, “Had he not been so devastatingly good looking, he would have been recognized for the truly great actor he is.”
His handsomeness has proved a handicap and resulted in his talent often being underestimated. Had he played the ‘Anand’ or ‘Deewaar’ roles, he just would not have got all the bouquets Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh got because his looks distract the audience when he is playing a serious role. With ordinary or less-than-ordinary looking stars, the audience tends to concentrate on their acting. With Dharmendra, people tend to look at him, not his performance.
When Dharmendra (Born – 08-Nov-1935) came on the scene, our films were ruled by the triumvirate of Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor. Sunil Dutt and Shammi Kapoor did gain a hold but never got into the same class as the Big Three. It was Dharmendra who slowly but surely toppled the trio because he had it in him to play equally well the serious roles of Dilip (Bandini, Majhli Didi, Devar, Anupama), the singing playboy hero of Dev (Jugnu, Naya Zamana) and the comedy of Raj (Sholay, Dillagi, Chupke Chupke).
He had an edge over all three in that he was more handsome than all of them put together. In fact Dharmendra’s biggest asset was and is and will be his exceptionally virile good looks. Pretty boys have been a dime a dozen but somehow they have often had a streak of effeminacy in them. There have been tough he-men but they projected a brutish image. It is Dharam who is a special amalgam of the macho handsome boy in just the right proportions to make him stand out. In fact he is our only hero who possesses the typical all-American clean-cut look.
Whether he dons a dhoti as in ‘Majhli Didi’ or kurta pyjama and spectacles as in ‘Dillagi’ or jeans, cords and jackets in ‘Yaadon Ki Baaraat’, he looks adorable. Can you imagine Dev in a dhoti or Raj Kapoor in a toga? “Clothes make the man” holds true for all our heroes except Dharmendra – he made the clothes.
As a peasant kid back in Phagwara, he would play truant and go to see films. For years, he sat on the railway bridge waiting for the rumble of the Frontier Mail. As it neared, he would start his chant, ‘Please train, take me to Bombay’. When he read an advertisement for the United Producers Filmfare Talent Contest, he knew the time was nigh. He applied, got called and was declared the winner.
He recalled, “Bimal Roy, one of the members of the United Producers said he was going to give me a break. I was to be under his wings. He fixed a salary which of course I was never given, but he put me up in a 5-star hotel and for a month I enjoyed a luxurious life. I used to get the best of food and clothing but no work.”
“Soon I began to feel like a ‘bakra’ being fattened for Eid. My Eid never came. One day Bimal Roy called me and pressed into my hand a train ticket back to Punjab and asked me to go back and wait. I did not go back. You see, l and am still a creature of tremendous guts. I waited.”
Producer Arjun Hingorani (for whom Dharmendra did nine films) lent him some money and opened an account at a coffee shop at Grant Road with instructions to the owner that he be served with the minimum daily food. Starting with “Dil Bhi Tera Hum Bhi Tere” co-starring another newcomer Kumkum and graduating to films like ‘Shola aur Shabnam’ ‘Shaadi’ and ‘Begaana’, Dharmendra became a favorite of nearly all his leading ladies. As Meena Kumari said, “The first time I saw him, his masum bhola chehra made me fall for him.”
In the very first years of his career, the actor was pitted against formidable actresses like Nutan and Meena Kumari with no great directors to guide him in this elusive business of acting. If Dharmendra gradually expanded on screen, it was by his gentle underplaying, his intense physical presence and a quality of refinement that went into his emoting.
In Bimal Roy’s Bandini, Dharmendra created his own space. Any actor has to be good to hold his own against Nutan, but Dharmendra stood up to the challenge not only in ‘Bandini’ but in ‘Soorat Aur Seerat’ and ‘Dil Ne Phir Yaad Kiya’.
It was Dharmendra’s pairing with Meena Kumari in ‘Purnima’, singing ‘Humsafar mere humsafar’ which drove him forward.
If it was with Nutan that Dharmendra’s sensitivity blossomed, it was with Meena Kumari that his lover boy image came through. From ‘Purnima’ to ‘Phool Aur Patthar’, a spate of Dharam-Meena starrers proved immensely popular. Mala Sinha then co-starred with him in ‘Anpadh’ where he exhibited real dramatic talent.
An astonishing move from him was going from hero to outright villainy in J Om Prakash’s “Aayee Milan Ki Bela”. It was this film, his first in color, where he was noticed by the ladies. Wrote a well-known female critic, “Looking at that beautiful specimen of manhood Dharmendra, it’s difficult to understand why Saira Banu rejects him for Rajendra Kumar. In future, villains should not be so handsome.” Dharmendra received such good reviews that in subsequent productions of J. Om Prakash like ‘Aayee Din Bahar Ke’, he was the hero.
Most heroes of those days were no fitter than a spongy cheesecake but no one cared. Then he ripped off his shirt in Phool aur Patthar (’66) and Bambaiya directors finally acknowledged the need to cater to female sexuality. With rippling muscles like sheaves of wheat in his native Punjab and a warm smile barely concealing his inner shyness, Dharam answered to everyone’s description of a nice guy.
The film inflamed the box office as well. As the ruffian, Shaka, Dharam modulated raw physicality with a touching humanity and won stardom. The “Phool Aur Patthar” publicity stills with him leaning bare-chested over a sleeping Meena and the role itself, of the good hearted modern day city Robin Hood played perfectly, took Dharmendra to the pinnacle of popularity.
Dharmendra has undoubtedly been at his best with Hrishikesh Mukherji. Starting with ‘Anupama’ where he played a poet to Sharmila Tagore’s eloquently mute girl, to the Sarat Chandra character of the small town clerk with his domestic trials and tribulations in ‘Majhli Didi’ and playing himself in ‘Guddi’, Dharmendra was nurtured by Hrishida, leading ultimately to the artistic triumph of “Satyakam”. Story of a committed idealist who perseveres with his philosophy of total truth even at the cost of ruination, his emotional interpretation of the role, shorn of melodrama, was a pleasant revelation. In the famous death scene, where his estranged father helplessly berates him, Dharam had to smile with his eyes (‘My most difficult scene’). Pulling it off with unalloyed finesse, he stupefied the skeptics.
Dharmendra is one leading man who has been in many heroine oriented films and yet never lost his position as a top draw. With Nutan, Mala Sinha, Meena Kumari, the incomparable Sharmila Tagore in ‘Devar’ and ‘Anupama’ and even Suchitra Sen in ‘Mamta’, he was there and noticed. A lesser personality would have just got deflated and sunk. He never worried about being the leading man in a heroine-oriented film and it’s difficult to imagine any other top actor accepting such roles.
No other actor has faced such stiff competition as Dharmendra – there were Manoj Kumar, Shashi Kapoor, Feroz Khan, Sanjay Khan in his salad days. The gyrating young Jeetendra couIdn’t displace him. And then came Rajesh Khanna who toppled practically everyone else but Dharmendra stood his ground. When Rajesh slipped and Amitabh rose Dharmendra held his own.
From typically lotus-eyed heroines, Dharmendra went on to jazzy Rekha with that song ‘Rafta rafta dekho aankh meri Iadi hai’ in ‘Kahani Kismat Ki’ instantly proving his qualification for mod roles. Babita and Leena Chandavarkar paired favourably with him. In “Yaadon Ki Baaraat“, he had the guts to take on the character role of Vijay Arora’s elder brother with no romantic interest of his own—it should have been cinematic suicide for a romantic star but Dharmendra came out unscathed and acceptable as a fighting hero. He co-starred first with Hema Malini in “Sharafat”, the pair becoming almost as popular as the Raj Kapoor-Nargis team with 30 films but surprisingly not a single of the Dharmendra-Hema starrers made the critics exactly rave.
As age started catching up, Dharmendra saw the need to get a new image. Embracing the ‘Garam Dharam’ action ‘He Man’ persona in the 1970’s (Jugnu, Sholay, Pratigya), he portrayed the pistol packing strong man holding down the lid on boiling indignation. No one ever said, ‘Kutte kamine, main tera khoon pee jaaonga’ with as much conviction (discounting Count Dracula). His unadulterated joy at performing comedy with the ease of a Cary Grant, tucked within his action roles, revealed his earthy humour (Chupke Chupke is a classic).
He accordingly buckled the swash in ‘Dharam Veer’ Togged up in a toga, he displayed a lot of beefcake, jumping off mountains and hop skipping ravines. Jeetendra, all in velvet and gold braid came off a second best. It was followed by ‘Azaad’, a carbon copy of Hollywood’s ‘Zorro’. ‘Sholay’ was his first movie which was not a comedy and yet had comic overtones.
Late eighties on-wards, his choice of roles became somewhat questionable but he made a much awaited gradual comeback with Johnny Gadar and Apne. Fifty four years in films and one never gets tired of looking at him.
Shyam Benegal has never directed Dharam and probably, their paths will never cross but he said of the actor, “He has a very sensitive face, an asset in portraying complex psychological situations. Dharmendra remains a greatly under-rated actor of our films.”