[Originally did a version of this for my Yahoo! film column, but the columns are on a hiatus because of some design changes, so I decided to pull this one back]
Dharmendra turned 75 this month. (So did Woody Allen, by the way, but that’s no surprise; he’s been 75 for decades.) Pause for a bit and let that sink in. Think of the exuberant Veeru in Sholay, the idealistic Satyakam, the hunk who took off his shirt in Phool aur Patthar, the matinee idol who calmly deflected a schoolgirl’s adoration in Guddi. How could any of these people be a septuagenarian? It defies belief.
But now flip a decade or two forward to the bad, bad 1980s, where a fifty-plus actor played the red-eyed revenge-seeker in a series of assembly-line potboilers, growling “Kutte, kaminey” every now and again, and generally marking himself out for caricature. It isn’t so difficult to imagine that old hamster passing gracelessly into his retirement years, is it? The Dharmendra of movies like Insaaf Kaun Karega (in which he tickled a lethargic tiger during an unconvincing fight scene in the villain’s den) and Watan ke Rakhwale is a universe removed from the melancholy young man showing guests around a ramshackle film set in Guddi, recalling that some of Bimal Roy’s greatest movies had been shot here, and look at the state the place is in now.
Even a casual glance reveals that Dharmendra’s many-phased career spanned some of the most memorable high points of mainstream Hindi cinema as well as some of its most embarrassing excesses. From the 1980s onwards, he made career choices that eventually turned him into the butt of SMS jokes. (Question: Why are Indian dogs so thin? Answer: Dharmendra has drunk up all their blood.) But at his best, and in the hands of directors who knew how to channel his strengths, he was one of Bollywood’s finest physical comedians, as well as one of its most soulful romantic heroes.
As a child, I didn’t care about any of that; I thought of him purely as a man of action. Watching Amitabh Bachchan’s death scene in Sholay, I was mesmerised by how Jai’s entire head seemed to fit into Veeru’s huge palm. It’s my first Dharmendra memory.
Those giant hands also helped me develop one of my earliest movie-related theses. If you’ve seen the two-hero films of the 1970s and 80s, you’ll know it was mandatory for the leads to exchange fisticuffs at some early point in the film – after which their misunderstandings are sorted out and they team up against the bad guys. The idea was to give the audience the thrill of watching two heroes beating each other up, and of course most such fights ended in an honourable draw (star egos being at stake). But Amitabh and Dharmendra never fought in any of the films they did together (the mediocre Ram Balram, in which they played brothers on opposite sides of the law, would have been an obvious candidate), and as a child who liked to analyse these things I decided that the reason was that Dharmendra was so obviously a he-man (much more so than Amitabh’s other male co-stars like Vinod Khanna and Shashi Kapoor) that even a lazy scriptwriter couldn’t get away with a scenario where he came off second best in a fight with the lanky AB. And AB was, of course, the Superstar – he couldn’t get beaten up. So it was best to keep their characters on amicable terms throughout.
In any case, I had a one-dimensional perspective on garam Dharam until my mother gave me an unexpected insight. In the late 1960s, she told me, her school was overrun by giggly, giddy-headed girls who wrote letters in blood to the Rajesh Khannas and the Jeetendras, but Dharmendra was the serious woman’s crush; the sensitive, gentlemanly hero who appealed to the mature schoolgirl. Hearing this, Jaya Bhaduri’s obsession in Guddi suddenly made sense. Try imagining that film with the callow young Rajesh Khanna as the girl’s idol!
Later, watching Sholay again in my teens, I came to the uneasy conclusion that I preferred Dharmendra’s Veeru to Amitabh’s Jai. This was sacrilegious on more than one front: AB was my favourite actor and he played an author-backed role, the quiet, understated guy who sacrifices himself for the larger cause and wins the audience’s sympathy. Besides, I shared my name with his character. Why would anyone prefer a boisterous, buffoonish hero who prances about with Hema Malini? But the more I watched Sholay, the more I felt that Dharmendra’s performance was the beating heart of the film, giving it a positive energy that offset its gloomier elements (Gabbar’s relentless evil, the Thakur’s morbid waiting about for revenge, the doomed relationship between the widow and the harmonica-playing Jai). The temple scene where Veeru plays God, the classic “suicide” scene atop the water tank, even the scene where he lasciviously tries to teach Basanti to shoot down mangoes ... these are superb examples of physical comedy. He’s the clown prince and the hero rolled into one, and he balances the two parts flawlessly.
None of this is to suggest that Dharmendra was a consistently good performer (least of all in dramatic roles), but there’s no question that even in the blemished later stages of his career he was capable of doing interesting things when encouraged. I think in particular of his role in J P Dutta’s intelligently written (and sadly under-seen) gangland movie Hathyar (1989). As a middle-aged don guilt-stricken about his relationship with a disapproving younger brother, he shows signs of what could have been if better scripts had come his way. It’s – dare one say it – a subtle performance that shows a genuine feel for the character’s internal conflict, his yearning for an earlier time and his knowledge that one can never return to innocence.
Strangely, this aspect of the Hathyar role reminds me of Dharmendra playing “himself” in Guddi, especially the scene where he says that despite having become a popular actor he’s still a young village boy at heart. With any other actor, that line would seem disingenuous and self-serving, but when paaji says it, you believe him. To my mind these two performances, 20 years apart and in very different types of roles, sum up the appeal of this very transparent – but also, in his own way, enigmatic – actor.
[Guddi pic courtesy this post on MemsaabStory]