Thursday, December 16, 2010

A tribute - of sorts - to Dharmendra

[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]


  1. Ohhh what a great commendable performer he is...his best role is Viru all the way....thnx for a great insight into the world of Paaji :)

  2. I loved the post. I was struck by the comment on Dharmendra being the "thinking woman's" poster boy. I recently saw Dharmendra on TV in one of the KBC episodes. It saddened me to see him trying so hard to re-live the Sholay character on screen in contrast to the quiet dignity of Amitabh Bachchan. But then again he was onscreen for the promotion of his movie Yamla Pagla Deewana and hence, maybe felt the need to be as outrageous as possible.

    I personally think that Sholay must have been one of the biggest mistakes of Dharmendra's life. Till that time, he had managed to blend in some meaningful cinema with the regular commercial movies. After Sholay it was downhill all the way.

  3. Blogdie: thanks.

    Sarada: thanks. I get your general point about the difference between the quality of his work pre- and post-Sholay, but I don't see why "commercial movies" and "meaningful cinema" should be mutually exclusive categories. And doing Sholay a mistake? No way! If he had retired after doing it, it would still have been worth it!

  4. I loved his performance in the Sriram Raghavan crime film - Johnny Gaddar. A Termite-like performance in one of the best Indian films of the past decade I think. It was a very refreshing film very much in the American noir tradition of the 40s and 50s. Manorama, Six Feet Under in contrast, was a stodgy White Elephant work, inspired by a somewhat heavy and inelegant 70s neo-noir.

    Dharmendra in JG turned in a very effective but understated performance. Seldom has a bad guy's finer characteristics been better depicted. Try contrasting it with Brando's attention grabbing hammy antics in The Godfather - a much overrated presence in an otherwise great film.

  5. As usual, a thoughtful and enjoyable post.

    Just one crib: AB did get pummeled, even at the peak of his superstardom.
    Amar Akbar Anthony - Vinod Khanna beats him senseless.
    Trishul - He has to settle for a draw with Shatrughan Sinha, who was clearly the 'bad guy' till that scene.

    But yes, even a draw with Dharmendra would have been very difficult to digest!

  6. I first discovered Dharmendra's non-kutte side when I watched Bandini in a Bimal Roy festival. He was quite awesome there as a quiet doctor.

  7. Diptakirti: yes, the Amar Akbar Anthony fight did occur to me, but if I recall right, that scene was a lighthearted one - with the genial Anthony being almost deferential towards the no-nonsense policeman (who was also a good cop). Not really a serious fight scene.

    Trishul - He has to settle for a draw with Shatrughan Sinha, who was clearly the 'bad guy' till that scene.

    You're talking about Kaala Patthar, I think? But yes, Trishul did have one of the most hilarious of fight scenes between two leading men, when AB and Shashi Kapoor got to exchange exactly the same number of punches - you get the impression it took days to edit that scene so it came out just right!

  8. One thing I couldn't find space for in this post: the Amitabh-Dharmendra chemistry, which was always so awesome. Sholay and Chupke Chupke, of course, were wonderful films that showcased it brilliantly, but in even something as crappy as Ram Balram you got the sense that they really liked working together. And that AB didn't think of Dharmendra as a rival or a threat (unlike Vinod Khanna, Shatrughan Sinha and even Shashi K) - the age difference between the two was quite substantial to begin with, and by the time AB became a superstar Dharmendra wasn't really part of the "rat race". Wish they had done just a couple more really good films together.

  9. Check out our super designer t-shirt on Basanti at

  10. A devout "Amen" to this post. I am happy to include myself in the "serious woman" fan club, and I think it is true. He played a huge variety of roles with such ease that nobody gives him due credit for his versatility.

    Plus, he is just so.very.handsome. To die for.

  11. Nice to see that someone remembers Hathyar. I saw that movie when I was fourteen. And suddenly, I realized that cinema could be much much more than the regular maar dhaad films that I loved. Btw, your link there is broken. Does that link to a review?

  12. Pawan: no, just the IMDB page. Have fixed the links now. Thanks.

  13. Interesting post, Jai. I remember being told that Dharam was the original eye candy in Phool aur paththar - apparently all the women would sigh when he did that shirtless scene. “Thinking woman’s man” – reminds me - have you seen Dillagi which he plays a Sanskrit prof ? I remember it had some charming and funny sequences. Apart from his excellent comic act, I think another facet about his early days was that he exuded an essential goodness. I don’t recall seeing Dharam play a role with a dark side – even when he played the baddie (P aur P, or Yaadon ki Baraat, it always hid a heart of gold) – and this seems to be something he has been exploring only in his old age – his role in J.G, or Apne. In that sense he reminded me a bit of Gregory Peck – whose portrayal of Mengele in Boys from Brazil was so difficult to swallow – the sheer weight of his brand promise made me feel that maybe Mengele wasn’t such a bad guy after all. I don’t think Apne did very well but I found it quite interesting – he played this angry bitter father who is caustic with one son who doesn’t live up to expectations and drives the other son practically to death to fulfil his own dream – I thought it was unusual for a hero like him to comeback with a portrayal of a father who has this monstrous side.

  14. how about the role he played in Johnny Gaddar? One of his best roles too, I think.

  15. You Should hav said more abt his humor in Chupke chupke!!!

  16. Sirji, I agree with everything you have written, except one line -
    " Well, yes, Timothy, got that, profound observation"

    Sirji, why Timothy ? Who is this Timothy ? How does Timothy, an angrez, appear in a piece on Dharmendra and Sanjeev Kumar, doyens of Hindi cinema ?

    Can't you say "Well, yes, Tarun" or say "Well, yes, Tushar", or even "Well, yes, Tara" ?

    If we don't use hindi monikers even in an article about hindi cinema, then who will ? I must confess, I am but a recent convert to this mode of thinking. I was perusing some adult fiction where this lady Indu is having an affair in her Mumbai flat with the servant boy Ishaan while her husband Indrajit is slogging away for Infosys. So Ishaan is behind Indu and Indu says "Yes fuck me Ishaan! Harder harder fuck me harder! Fuck me in the ass uh uh uh uh..."

    Somehow this prose was very off-putting and a number of readers correctly pointed out that if a hindi lady Indu is being fucked by a hindi servant boy Ishaan when her hindi husband Indrajit is slogging for an Indian firm Infosys, she will more likely say something more appropriate like "Chod mujhe Ishaan! Jorse chodo! Meri jorse gaandmaar ishaan uh uh uh!"

    This observation struck me as very profound. We must employ hindi monikers at every turn, or atleast when the context clearly calls for their usage. If we don't, who will ?

  17. Good article. Could have been better with mention of Anupama / Satyakam /Dost / & many more BW movies.

  18. Sina: I did write this long post on Satyakam, in case you're interested.

  19. lovely post.... not only because Dharmendra is my all time fav actor but simply because it is so well written. I also enjoyed readings the comments.

    I so wish he had not fallen into the trap and avoided the atrocious C grade movies. What a blemish in his otherwise such an illustrious career.

    I get very happy to see his huge fan following on various social media platforms. I used to think that I am amongst the minority, but clearly I was wrong and am so happy about it.

    I am glad to see a mention of Hathyar. You are right that it is grossly under seen movie. JP Dutta in his earlier days was such an amazing film maker. Infact I don't see a mention of Ghulami on your post or any of the comments. To me Dharmendra was very good in this JP Dutta's debut.