Dharmendra is the ultimate tough guy. Some call him the He-Man. If he were in Hollywood 1960s, he would easily find a place in a Spaghetti Western as a swaggering, gun-toting bounty hunter. The closest he came to the dishy cowboy was in Sholay, wasn’t it? That’s why it’s surprising to know that this son of the soil from Sahnewal (Punjab) actually began his career in a series of women-oriented cinema starting from 1962. Who would believe that this symbol of male machismo let Nutan, Mala Sinha and Meena Kumari (he was rumoured to be in a passionate relationship with her) take the front seat while he himself was content being in the background. Bimal Roy and Hrishikesh Mukherjee spotted the soft and sensitive side in Dharmendra and sought to put it to test in their cinema. The tag of action star came much later.
In the literary hands of Roy and Mukherjee who tried projecting a Bhadralok sensibility onto the Punjabi heartthrob, Dharmendra comes across as a well-behaved and earnest performer – a far cry from the “kutte-kameenay”-spouting hero. In later years, an out-of-step Dharmendra slaved away in disastrous B-movies (now having their own fanatic cult following though) much like Mithun Chakraborty but thanks to the memory of godawful campy classics that float on the Net by the names of Dacait and Munnibai the new generation persistently regarded Dharmendra as a God of ham. But it was not always like that.
“If we were to make a list of the 100 best Hindi films, we’ll find a lot of Dharmendra in them,” director Sriram Raghavan noted in a piece on Dharmendra for a website. A life-long fan, Raghavan gave the semi-retired star a brilliant late career comeback in the 2007 noir Johnny Gaddaar. On the dashing star’s 82nd birthday today, we look at the many extraordinary roles and performances that Dharmendra brought alive with his son of the soil sincerity combined with an impish charm and tough-boy sex appeal. Here are five essential Dharmendra performances, a mix of vintage, madcap and memorable.
Dharmendra plays a young and unusually handsome prison doctor, brimming with optimism and a desire for honourable consciousness, who falls in love with the prisoner played by the spartan-esque Nutan. Look at an early scene in which Dharmendra, clearly mesmerised by Nutan’s simplicity and grace, tells him he finds her beautiful. She subtly reminds him that he has forgotten the thermometer in the old patient’s mouth. “How long is she going to lay there with her mouth shut,” she points at the old woman Dharmendra has been tending to, before hustling out blushing. It’s such a subtle declaration of love, handled with poise and a gentle sense of humour. Even the titanic presence of Nutan and Ashok Kumar does not diminish the up and coming Dharmendra.
After being discovered by Bimal Roy, it was but natural that Hrishikesh Mukherjee – Roy’s most famous protégé, besides Gulzar – would take Dharmendra under his wing. Anupama features Dharmendra as a school teacher. “Have you stopped writing poetry? You look like a pehelwan,” Arun (Deven Verma) taunts his friend Ashok (Dharmendra). In real life, something quite the opposite has taken place. At 82, Dharmendra has stopped being a pehelwan and is actually a closet Urdu poet. In some ways, Arun and Ashok could well have been Dr Parimal Tripathi, Prashant Srivastav or Professor Sukumar of Chupke Chupke in another lifetime.
Dharmendra’s Satyapriya, a civil engineer with uncompromising ideals, is the star’s most nuanced performance, yet. Several critics have called this extraordinary film as Mukherjee’s very best. Satyapriya is brought up on the strict ideals of his Gandhian grandfather (Ashok Kumar). He marries a woman (Sharmila Tagore) carrying another man’s child against his grandfather’s wishes but is himself unable to accept her fully. The film places Satyapriya in many such moral dilemmas which reflect the complex nature of truth and idealism. It’s easy to tout idealism but difficult to practice it.
Chupke Chupke (1975)
Compared to the serious-minded Satyakam, Chupke Chupke is a laugh riot. But who can say it’s not serious enough? Dharmendra is Dr Parimal Tripathi, the film’s mainstay. Fed up of fiancée Sulekha’s (Sharmila Tagore) adoring praises for the “genius jijaji” (Om Prakash) who, it seems, is perfection incarnate, Dr Tripathi decides to play a harmless practical joke on the old man to expose his feet of clay. Disguising as a chaste Hindi-speaking driver, he enters Om Prakash’s household and mounts what is possibly the most intelligent comedy of errors in Hindi cinema.
Who does Sholay belong to? Director Ramesh Sippy? Salim-Javed? Amitabh Bachchan’s laconic Jai who dies in the arms of his best friend after the coin-flipping? The evil Gabbar Singh? The truth is Sholay belongs to Sholay. But the most endearing and screwball performance comes from the goofy-eyed Dharmendra – his drunken exploits atop the water tank, his impersonation of God from behind the temple to conspire Basanti into falling for him and their subsequent whirlwind romance, the songs of male love with Jai and the ultimate revenge with Gabbar.
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai)