Friday, June 07, 2013

The pros and cons of being a movie-star with very little ego

After watching the trailer for Yamla Pagla Deewana 2 – the Deol family film, which releases this week – I headed YouTube-wards to watch the song sequence from which the film gets its name: “Main Jat Yamla Pagla Deewana” from the 1975 film Pratigya. As a friend, a fellow Dharmendra fan, noted during a recent conversation, this is one of the most exuberant Hindi-movie scenes ever. “All the director had to do was put a liquor bottle in paaji’s hand, give him a large open space to goof around in, along with a jeep and a few other props, and tell him to invent whatever dance moves - or things that resembled dance moves - he felt comfortable doing. And the result was magic.”

Perhaps it can also be seen as an outtake from Dharmendra’s superb, boisterous performance as Veeru in Sholay, made a few months earlier. But watching the song, I was also reminded that for most of his lengthy career, Dharmendra had a remarkably unselfconscious screen presence. In much of his best work (and some of his worst work, but we’ll come to that), you get the sense of a man surprisingly bereft of ego; there is little trace of the self-absorption that has always been a prime quality of our leading men.

For decades, Hindi-movie heroes of all stripes have carefully nurtured their screen images. The personas might vary from Dev Anand’s upbeat urbaneness to Dilip Kumar’s studied bouts with tragedy, but most of them (even the ones we think of as “understated”) come with tics suggesting that the star-actor knows exactly what effect he is having on the audience, and is determined to milk it. Hence Raj Kapoor’s martyred smiles as his awara or Joker deals with life’s injustices, or Rajesh Khanna’s romantic head-bobbing, or the young Manoj Kumar’s painfully evident knowledge that his handsomeness was too much for any Eastman Color processor to bear, hence his face had to be in side-profile or covered by his hand.

Dharmendra had mannerisms too, of course, but one rarely feels that he had pre-conceptions about what he should be doing on screen – from the beginning of his career, he seemed willing to do almost anything he was asked, to subjugate himself to the film. And this willingness to be putty in someone else's hands is a double-edged sword for a movie star. Working under such men as Bimal Roy, Chetan Anand and Hrishikesh Mukherjee in the 1960s, it could mean small but powerful character parts in movies of integrity. In slight but inoffensive thrillers like Saazish, it might entail
"fighting and climbing rope ladders in his chaddies" (as Memsaab Story puts it in this post). But in the context of the direction his career took in the bad, bad 1980s (the “kuttay-kameenay” years), it became lack of discernment in role choices, complete disregard for personal dignity and sleep-walking his way through assembly-line multi-starrers with endless variations on the izzat and badlaa themes.

In the mid-1980s, I remember Rishi Kapoor getting praise for his self-effacement in playing secondary roles in woman-centric films like Prem Rog and Tawaif. Dharmendra was in a similar mould two decades earlier, a solid foot-soldier to strong heroines such as Nutan, Meena Kumari and Sharmila Tagore in such films as Bandini, Majhli Didi, Anupama (or even a tiny but important cameo in the Waheeda Rehman-starrer Khamoshi). During this time, he was among our most likable romantic leads and even, depending on the film, something of a sex symbol. He then developed into a marvelous physical comedian and a convincing action hero (both qualities converging in the train-attack sequence in Sholay), but what worked so well in some of the early films soon made way for unthinking repetition. Well into his sixties, he continued doing C-grade action films made specifically for audiences outside the urban centres. (Just the other day, I saw him in this thing called Sultaan on TV, looking old and haggard but mechanically participating in badly choreographed fight scenes.)

It is a pity that such films may have marred the legacy of this underappreciated performer, but it is never too late for redemption. With the Yamla Pagla Deewana films containing many allusions to dialogues and scenes from his old movies, there are signs that Dharmendra may belatedly have developed a sense of self-importance, a meta-sense of his own filmic past. The man who so bashfully played "himself" in Guddi – as a star who is, aw-shucks, just a regular guy – may now, at age 78, be facing up to his legacy. And regardless of the quality of the YPD ego-projects, it is a legacy that deserves to be rediscovered.

[An earlier post on Dharmendra here]


  1. Jai, i was doing the exact same thing abt 30mins ago .. watching "mein jat yamla pagla dewaana" orignal song on youtube :-)

    And you are so correct, that Dharamendra when good was always so natural. I mean you watch this song where he's so exuberant, climbing poles and his jeep .. and so damn handsome. No other actor can do this.

  2. Your Dharam love shines through. :) Am not going to venture into YPD2, but part 1 made me weep for a guy I loved in Bandini, Anupama, Satyakam, Guddi, Sholay and Chupke Chupke. Fortunately I avoided the kutte-kameene phase for most part, but it was too much to see this affable guy parody himself so horribly. Perhaps he's doing it for his sons. Or senility has struck in a bad way...

  3. 1975... has to have a VVS significance in Hindi cinema. Maybe you should do a post on it?

    Coming back to the topic, I see a great admiration here... I had too, growing up, when as a 8 year old kid, even in 1978 ( when AB started to dominate ), I would beg my parents to take me to Paaji's movies.
    I think he was an unassuming actor, and the impression I got is that he knew his limitations.

    And yes, *any* Dharam movie of 80's (on TV) is always better than an 80's movie of Rajesh/Jeetu/Mithun ( even Amitabh to an extent).
    ---- Thus spoke Alcoholic

  4. I may sound silly here. But I find Bogart to be generally bereft of a screen ego. Remarkable because he is probably the biggest talking picture movie star ever. Watch him in movies like Beat the Devil, Barefoot Contessa and marvel at his absolute lack of airs and total comfort exuded in front of the camera. Unusual in such a major star.

    Among Indian actors I find a lot of them are remarkably natural and unselfconscious early on in their careers before they become big stars. Rajendra Kumar for instance is someone regarded as a somewhat self-absorbed actor. But watch him in his relatively low budget efforts like Gharana, Aas ka Panchhi and Zindagi and you realize what a fine actor he could be when he wasn't trying too hard to put on the "sacrificing hero" act.

  5. the young Manoj Kumar’s painfully evident knowledge that his handsomeness was too much for any Eastman Color processor to bear

    Amusing. I could relate to this having watched 3-4 of his films lately. I saw two of his very early efforts - Phoolon ki Sej and Dr Vidya - in both films Manoj Kumar plays a very very evil and immoral man but his own screen ego is such that he is simply not conscious of the evil in him throughout! Also Manoj Kumar on the screen exudes not just his own ego and lack of self awareness but is in many ways a symbolic representation of the Indian male - conceited, immoral, self-righteous, oversexed and blissfully lacking a moral compass.

  6. I remember reading an article about how Ameen Sayani introduced the heroes in a Filmfare awards function - Amitabh was "Naujawano kay hero " , Rajesh Khanna was "Schooli laRkiyon kay hero" - and Dharmendra was .."Heroino kay hero" :)

  7. I still don't get why Manoj Kumar is so loathed by the present movie audience. I wasn't enamoured by him at any time, but am fine with watching him in a film I enjoy such as Woh Kaun Thi. And he was very handsome-a 6-ft photogenic hero is a rarity even in the vain world of Bwood.
    As for Dharam, I enjoyed him in certain films but I don't share your enthusiasm for him. But then, I don't have any excess zeal for Amitabh either-and I seem to be in the barely-noticable minority. Nice post!

  8. "symbolic representation of the Indian male - conceited, immoral, self-righteous, oversexed and blissfully lacking a moral compass"

    whoever wrote this has no idea of the average Indian male, and has made a very shallow point. Want to read about him? Read "The Ugliness of the Indian Male and other propositions" by Mukul Kesavan.

  9. I still don't get why Manoj Kumar is so loathed by the present movie audience

    One doesn't hate him. One finds him very interesting because he is so very typical of the Indian male. One doesn't get as much insight into how Indian male minds work by watching say an AB or a Dharmendra.

    But with this man you realize he is just your regular Indian guy (warts and all). He represents all that is right and wrong with Indian culture. No wonder he was called Mr.Bharat.

    He is as much a cultural archetype of the Indian male as Jimmy Stewart is of the pre-WWII American male or George Sanders was of the upper class British male.

  10. whoever wrote this has no idea of the average Indian male, and has made a very shallow point

    No offence meant. By Indian male, I meant an authentic male product of Indian culture and society. Now the males who probably read this blog are a far cry from Manoj Kumar because they are from a different culture - Public school culture - the culture of Eton and Harrow, DPS and KV, which is not the veritable Indian culture that Manoj Kumar represents.

    Apologize for the latitude in my generalization in the line you quoted. I probably over-simplified the Indian male a wee bit to make a point.

  11. Don't have the time yet to reply to comments in detail, but quickly: Shrikanth, I agree about Bogart (and also agree that it seems a strange, counter-intuitive observation to make). I think Hawks in particular used him wonderfully well, and one of the great, energising things about mid-1940s Hollywood was the way Bogart let himself be the foil to the insolent, much younger Bacall in To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep.

    Coincidentally I just finished reading David Thomson's monograph on Bogart, part of the Great Stars series, and there are some sharp observations there about his screen personality.

  12. In terms of being ego-less on screen, I think Shashi Kapoor is also an interesting case...