Sunday, December 06, 2015

Just be yourself: Dharmendra in Guddi, and other reflections

[Did this for Mint Lounge]

Dharmendra turns 80 on December 8. This can be hard to believe if the image in your head is of the pranksters he played in two very different types of films released forty years ago: the charade-orchestrating Professor Parimal Tripathi, confounding people in his “vaahan-chaalak” guise in Chupke Chupke, and the high-spirited rogue Veeru in Sholay – still, for my money, one of Hindi cinema’s most underappreciated lead performances (weird though it is to suggest that anything about Sholay might be underappreciated!). Or even if you’re thinking of the quiet leading man in black-and-white classics made by Bimal Roy and Asit Sen in the 1960s.

Coincidentally, a few weeks ago I helped organise a public screening of the 1971 Guddi, in which Dharmendra played himself. And around the time this column is published, I will be speaking with Jaya Bachchan at a panel discussion about women in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s cinema. One of those women – in this case, girl – was the character Bachchan (née Bhaduri) played in Guddi: the star-struck Kusum, who must be “cured” of her Dharmendra obsession, and who gets to meet her hero during a visit to Bombay’s film studios. Gamely, at the request of Kusum’s family, Dharmendra then participates in his own demythologizing, undercutting the glamour of the movie world, acquainting her with behind-the-scenes realities.

But even so, the film ends with the words “Jai Dharmendra!” – an exclamation by Kusum’s relieved uncle. The star does turn out to be the hero and saviour after all.

“Can an actor playing herself on screen escape the charge of narcissism inherent to the situation?” Maithili Rao asks in her new book Smita Patil: A Brief Incandescence. The question arises in the context of Patil’s role in Mrinal Sen’s Akaler Sandhane (1980), but it made me think about two producer-directors who played themselves onscreen: the legendary Cecil B DeMille in Sunset Boulevard (1950), and Wes Craven – best known for helming the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise – in the 1994 metafilm Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. Watch those performances: even though the scripts don’t require either DeMille or Craven to be unqualifiedly nice (for instance, DeMille has to be firm, even harsh, with the film’s delusional protagonist Norma Desmond), they never lose their beatific expressions; they play Themselves with the reverence another actor might have brought to the part of Mother Teresa.

At the other extreme is self-parody. John Malkovich ostensibly plays himself in Being John Malkovich (1999), but such is the wacky nature of this film (the plot centres on an office-building portal that sucks you straight into the actor’s mind!) that a viewer can’t take anything at face value. Instead, if you’re familiar with the Malkovich persona – the effete preciosity one saw in earlier films like Dangerous Liaisons – you’re likely to recognize the little inside jokes in scenes like the one where he stays polite when confronted by an intolerable fan who goes on about the “retarded” character he had once played.

Eventually, Malkovich enters the portal himself: even John Malkovich wants to know what it feels like to be inside John Malkovich’s head! How close is this to the possibility that the Dharmendra of Guddi indulges Kusum’s family because he wants to understand the nature of his fandom – to look at himself through someone else’s eyes?

Even when narcissism or irony are not involved, the nature of cinema is such that any actor playing “himself” is always – to some degree or the other – playing a part or a construct. This doesn’t necessarily mean being dishonest or misleading the viewer, it can simply mean emphasizing or exaggerating an aspect of your personality, to suit the film’s purpose. When Aamir Khan, who has been much in the news lately for his plain-speaking, appeared in a cameo as himself in Zoya Akhtar’s marvelous Luck by Chance (2009), the scene threw in a wink at Aamir’s real-life reputation for perfectionism (which sometimes goes hand in hand with a reputation for being a control-freak): after he has shot a scene with the aspiring actress Sona (Konkona Sen Sharma), we see Aamir looking at the rushes with the director and muttering, “See, I almost got her name wrong in that line – you can see me hesitating for a fraction of a second.”

Like I said, though, the line between reality and projection isn’t always clear. When I first watched Guddi and saw Dharmendra going “aw-shucks, I’m just a sweet little Jat boy who happened to stumble into the big bad filmi world”, I was cynical: this had to be an exercise in image-building. But I felt a little differently early one morning last summer when I got my own tiny Guddi moment. The phone rang, and it was the man himself, sounding hesitant and avuncular; the call was a courtesy response to an email I had sent him about a possible interview. Our conversation was short, but he was every bit as sweet to me as he had been to Kusum in a fictional narrative 45 years earlier. I can’t get over how bashful the voice got when I said I loved his work in Satyakam, how close it was to the movie-studio scene in Guddi where Dharmendra, embarrassed by the intensity of Kusum’s fandom, sidles away from her like a coy heroine.

[A related piece here: the Amitabh cameos. And an earlier post about Dharmendra is here]


  1. Just can't wait for Maneesh Sharma's Fan precisely for this reason. Have never ever heard of a film like that. Narcissism of another kind!

    1. Yes, sounds very interesting - though there must have been similar stories before. Also, it's the sort of narrative that can get badly mishandled.

  2. You actually had a conversation with Dharmendra over the phone? And it was he who called you up? That must feel, at least to the devoted Dharam fan in you, exciting.

    1. Yup. Have written about it in the Epilogue to the book...

  3. Actually Nayak by Ray is one such movie where uttar kumar Plays himself..later it was remade by srijit..the movie

  4. Anon: Uttam Kumar doesn't play "Uttam Kumar" in Nayak, in the sense that Dharmendra explicitly plays "Dharmendra" in Guddi - there may be similarities between Uttam K and his character, but that is another matter.

    That said, of course there are many other examples of such roles one could have provided in this piece.