Saturday, August 05, 2023

Garam to naram: how Dharmendra went from energetic he-man to vulnerable grandpa (and how do fans cope?)

(in my latest Economic Times column, thoughts on watching a favourite actor, now in his late eighties, in Rocky aur Rani ki Prem Kahaani)

Though I don’t spend much time gaping at celebrity social-media pages, one of my favourite discoveries during the early months of Covid-19 was Dharmendra’s Instagram account. In his mid-eighties, he was having a splendid lockdown, mostly stationed on his farm, tending to plants and animals, putting up videos of himself driving tractors, introducing us to new-born calves, talking about “ant castles” and such. And responding to fans – as he still does – with a “Love you, dear”, best read in a Veeru-atop-the-water-tank voice (the tremulous one of an octogenarian, though). In his prime he was one of the most desirable men in our cinema, but the personality revealed in these short videos was that of a son of the soil (in the most authentic sense of that cliched term) returning to his roots after decades in the glamour world. And still very much an entertainer.

Dharmendra in boisterous mood (and with the right director, as in Sholay and Chupke Chupke – or in the right scene, e.g. the climactic fight-cum-song in the otherwise unremarkable Teesri Aankh) is one of my favourite things in Hindi film (though I can certainly appreciate his more subdued roles in films like Satyakam, discussed in hushed terms whenever his deeper legacy is discussed). It was with some ambivalence, therefore, that I watched him play the almost-catatonic grandfather Kanwal in Rocky aur Rani ki Prem Kahani.

On the whole I enjoyed Karan Johar’s film a lot, even the over-cooked final bits with redemptive arcs for too many characters. There was plenty to relish, including the nudge-wink at the nepotism debate – this being a story about two young people who come into each other’s orbits, meeting and falling in love, only because their grandparents had done the same thing decades earlier; and who now play out an updated version of what the oldies did in their time, often to the same classic Hindi-movie songs. (It becomes even more meta when you consider that in real life just a few weeks ago Dharmendra’s grandson married Bimal Roy’s great-granddaughter.)

Dharam’s Kanwal briefly comes alive in an early scene (almost guaranteed to draw applause and whistles… along with snatches of uncomfortable laughter, perhaps, from younger viewers), but for most of the film the actor has little to do. Watching him was a reminder of the last time I met an affable grand-uncle, at a (big fat Punjabi) wedding reception. I had taken many long walks with this man in my adolescence, listening to him talk about everything from history to science – and now, in his dementia-afflicted nineties, he sat there smiling vacantly, dimly registering things one moment and fading away the next.

The actors one grew up with are family too, in a different sense, and watching them age makes us recalibrate our ideas about them and our own personal histories. On one hand, I wished Dharmendra had a juicier role in the new film. But on the other, the worried fan in me didn’t want to see him pushed into doing things that he is not up to at this age, possibly drawing mirth or condescension from the audience (the red-eyed Dharam of the kuttay-kaminey phase has already been a soft target for “sophisticated” viewers for too long). Or endangering his health with an over-strenuous part. Which is a way of saying, look how strange the fan-star relationship is, and how it shifts with time and circumstance: here I am being protective of someone who was once a larger than life, wish-fulfilling, macho man of my childhood. (Veeru was always Sholay's alpha hero for me, even though the other fellow shared my name and was played by the biggest superstar I knew.)

One can appreciate that casting Dharmendra in Rocky aur Rani ki Prem Kahaani was an affectionate gesture (while also being a coup, a legendary figure used as a totem or for sentimental value). Besides, given the bullying authoritativeness of the Jaya Bachchan character (Kanwal’s wife), I knew I would rather see a quiet, barely functional grandfather sitting in a wheelchair than another iteration of the booming Johar patriarch. But it is still troubling to see a much-loved actor, who you know is in his late eighties and in fragile health, play a role that’s close to his reality. It was especially so to watch Kanwal’s final appearance, which felt almost as much like a valediction for a performer as a diegetic goodbye to a character.

I hope I’m wrong, and that Dharmendra has another couple of meaty parts left in him: maybe someone should take a cue from those Instagram videos, where he gets to be himself, chatty and focused, in his comfort zone, and a magnetic screen presence at the same time.

P.S. Watching this film, and Ranveer’s uncontrollable-force-of-nature performance, I kept wondering if the 1975 version of Dharmendra would have kept pace with him energy-wise. (I like to think so, though that’s a purely hypothetical, unworkable-time-continuum argument, like imagining Borg vs Nadal on clay or Laver vs Djokovic on grass). I also wondered what Ranveer and Alia would be like when they are in their eighties or nineties, if they make it there – and always assuming the planet is still somewhat functional when that distant time arrives.

(One of a few earlier posts about Dharmendra is here. And here is one about Satyakam, one of his favourite films. And another post about watching actors being, and "playing", old)

1 comment:

  1. He is doing Sriram Raghavan’s ikkis