No Bollywood family wears the old adage ‘Like father, like son’ more wholeheartedly and proudly than the Deols. Now awaiting with bated breath to officially welcome its third generation into Hindi cinema, the Deol clan has cast a long and seductive spell over its fans for close to sixty years. As Sunny Deol’s son Karan joins the fray, it’s business as usual for the reclusive family. But there was a time when striking it as a Bollywood hero wasn’t a family business for Deols. As most movie-goers know, it all began with Dharmendra. The 83-year-old paterfamilias was once just another tinsel-town aspirant, with stars in his eyes.
Lore has it that this Punjabi runaway (from the small town Phagwara) boarded the Frontier Mail to descend into Bombay to try his luck in films. All he had was blessings from his mother who had goaded him into applying for a Filmfare talent hunt in 1958. It is said that the dashing young man caught the attention of Guru Dutt and Bimal Roy. The young star spent his formative years under the iconic shadow of such industry titans as Bimal Roy, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Ashok Kumar, Nutan, Dilip Kumar and Balraj Sahni and quickly became the torchbearer of Bengali realism in one critically acclaimed hit after another. He was the original screen idealist and his early career, they say, was as meaningful as his later was vain – but then, all the trashy action stuff in the 1980s have their own cult charm, too. There was also his rumoured proximity to the great Meena Kumari, who seemed to have taken more than a shine to her Majhli Didi co-star. Though Dharmendra who became a star way back with Phool Aur Patthar in mid-60s and never really stopped being one across decades, all the success and fame never failed to amuse him. As he explained years later, still wearing an expression of surprise, “I never thought I’d come so far in life.” Recalling his life story on TV, he told Rajdeep Sardesai, “As a young man, I was spellbound by movie stars. Who were these beautiful fairies and handsome heartthrobs and prince charmings and where do they live? I longed to be in the same pantheon.”
One of the heartthrobs who inspired Dharmendra was Dilip Kumar. Like Kumar, Dharmendra was attractive in a conventional sort of way and went on to forge one of the most towering careers spanning decades. Even today, the Dharmendra magic refuses to die down despite the lukewarm response to Yamla Pagla Deewana Phir Se, last year’s comedy starring the three Deols – Dharmendra fooling around with sons Sunny and Bobby in tow. Playing the hard-drinking lawyer Parmar who becomes the unexpected saviour to Sunny’s upright, do-gooder Ayurveda clinic-owner in a battle against a corrupt pharmaceutical giant, Dharmendra once again proved in Yamla Pagla Deewana Phir Se that action may be his main event but he can still pack a mean punch as a comedian. Never mind that the makers toss oft-repeated references to Sholay, to Dharam’s own popular songs (“Mehbooba mehbooba”, “Raafta raafta” and the title itself) and tough man imagery, Sunny’s “Dhai kilo ka haath” and truck-and-tractor myth, the Punjabi weakness for drinking, The Godfather (“Offer me something I cannot reject,” says one character) and plenty of dumb jokes about dark skin to induce laughter. Yamla Pagla Deewana Phir Se is a Deol salute to Deol-dom.
Now to carry forward the legacy, Karan Deol is all set for a Bollywood launch with Pal Pal Dil Ke Paas whose trailer begins with the proud exhortation, ‘Every generation has a story to tell.’ Pop the champagne. Patiala peg, perhaps? As any Hindi movie buff can guess, the title of Karan’s debut is a spinoff from grandpa Deol’s timeless Kishore Kumar song from the 1973 hit Blackmail. A close-knit family, the Deols are known to groom and promote their sons in showbiz. Just as Dharmendra had launched the eldest Sunny Deol in Betaab (1983), Bobby Deol in Barsaat (1995) and nephew Abhay Deol in Socha Na Tha (2005), the Gadar star is paying back to his own son in what seems to be a family tradition. To twist a vintage watch brand’s famous slogan, “You never actually own fame. You merely look after it for the next generation.”
By contrast, the Deol women – Esha and Ahana – were forced to fend for themselves, as the family is notorious for being just a wee bit orthodox. The Deol women usually opt to stay out of the limelight. There’s also Dharmendra’s late younger brother Ajit Singh Deol (Abhay’s father) who, despite the star’s backing, couldn’t enjoy the level of success other Deols did.
To commemorate the arrival of the latest Deol in Pal Pal Dil Ke Paas, here’s tracing the arc of Bollywood’s most unassuming, sons-of-the-soil family through their own first steps into tinseltown.
From growing up in a conservative Deol clan where movies were strictly forbidden to presiding over an acting empire, Bollywood’s beloved He-Man has seen it all. One story goes that a young Dharmendra fell in love with the movies after watching Dilip Kumar’s Shaheed in 1948. With consent from his mother while keeping his school teacher dad in the dark, Dharmendra left for Bombay from native Punjab to chase his Bollywood dream. He had applied for a Filmfare talent hunt contest in 1958 and was immediately noticed by Guru Dutt and Bimal Roy. The latter promptly offered the young man a film opposite the stalwart Nutan. That was Bandini. “But Bandini was taking time to take off. Bimalda used to work slowly and take his own time to conceive a film. Meanwhile, I needed money to survive in Bombay,” the star recalled, decades later. Under the circumstances, Dharmendra was forced to take up Arjun Hingorani’s Dil Bhi Tera Hum Bhi Tere, which ultimately became his debut. However, it was Phool Aur Patthar, six years later, that propelled him to stardom. Today, Dharmendra is more of a poet than an actor. He enjoys a more-or-less retired life, posting on Instagram pictures of farming, occasional blast from the past and random but cute messages about his love for healthy and humble lifestyle (he recently posted how yoga helped curb his drinking habit) and snippets about cows, dogs and tigers. On TV appearances, you will always find him in a nostalgic and romantic mood, doling out Urdu poetry fresh from the oven. Wonder if he has any on the occasion of newcomer Karan’s debut. Dharamji, irshad?
Compared to the self-made Dharmendra, curly-haired Sunny Deol had daddy’s blessings and backing in equal measure for Betaab. But unlike Dharmendra, who had to bide his time before striking success, Deol’s 1983 debut alongside Amrita Singh instantly made him a teeny heartthrob. Maybe, RD Burman’s chartbuster music had something to do with it. In an interview with Lehren on the heels of Betaab’s success, a bashful Sunny had said, “People expect a lot from me and I do my best to live up to their level of expectations. But then, I don’t even know what they want.” And boy, he did more than live up to the expectations. Before long, Sunny’s lover-boy image that Betaab had cultivated gave way to the Ghayals, Ghataks and Gadars and all the rage, lung-exploding roaring, hand-pump hijinks, bloody blows and whistle-worthy lines like ‘Dhai kilo ka haath’ and ‘Tareekh pe tareekh’ made the hot-headed Sardar Bollywood’s action king. He was also the 90s original patriot, long before Akshay Kumar clinched the title even as the mighty outdated Jat was left to fight for relevance in a changing Bollywood. The BJP MP from Punjab’s Gurdaspur practiced a unique brand of screen populism that will strike a chord in the Modi-era India. Over the years, the Deol denizens have also grappled with criticisms of “nepotism,” a charge Sunny has often either dismissed or lost his cool when provoked. A nepotism-loaded question from News18.com last year evoked a dramatic response from Sunny. “Is it bad if I help my son?” he shot back. “Then why discuss it? So many star kids have made it, others haven’t. I didn’t become who I am today because of my father. It is because of me that I became something. It all stands on what you are.”
Another cutie with a curl from the D gang hit it big with a smashing debut. Being the youngest, Bobby Deol was launched with much fanfare in 1995 with Barsaat and he had good fun while the run lasted. As Abbas-Mustan and Suneel Darshan found themselves creatively purged, Bobby’s rinky-dink slipped out of vogue. Circa 2018, Bobby Deol 2.0 gave sensational interviews, admitting battling alcoholism and anxieties as he desperately tried to hit reset button on whatever was left of his career. “At one point, I asked myself, ‘Do I even know how to act?” he told Huffington Post, in a rare candid confession. So far, the all-new Deol is in a race to stay relevant. At 50, that’s a tough ask.
“I wasn’t looking to be a star,” Abhay Deol once said. “I just happened to love acting, I was a reluctant actor. So I was like how do I manage this without taking in the frenzy of becoming a star.” Easily the most unconventional Deol (even, radical), the dimpled indie darling was not afraid of taking chances from the beginning. He created his own unique identity and space, starting with a low-key debut in Socha Na Tha (2005) with none other than Imtiaz Ali. It’s incredible how Abhay managed to defy all expectations to follow in the footsteps of his famous uncle and cousins. “Having seen fame up close, I was not enamoured by it,” the ‘Different Deol’ told interviewers, when pestered about the ‘film family connection’ question. Notice how Dharmendra finds ways to unleash a new Deol upon us every decade. Sunny came in 1983, Bobby in 1995 and Abhay in 2005. With uncle Dharam’s blessings, Abhay set foot into Bollywood and in just a short period, made his mark as the most interesting actor straddling art and commercial space. It was Dev.D –Anurag Kashyap’s modern retelling of Devdas – that won Abhay a richly-deserved reputation as a champion of sorts for alternative cinema. In a film full of ‘emotional atyachar,’ edgy humour and heady lyricism, Kashyap and Deol used the most shopworn of tales (after all, Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s novel has been made and remade by Bollywood at least half a dozen times) to conjure up an impressive and freshly imagined work. Deol’s collaborations with the talented Dibakar Banerjee and Navdeep Singh produced compelling capers like Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and Manorama Six Feet Under. Today, Deol may be out of action but he’s still far from over.
Esha and Ahana Deol
Hema Malini and Dharmendra’s daughters have not been as ‘oye lucky, lucky oye’ as the Deol heroes. Their screen careers were short and to be honest, nothing exceptional. Elder Esha debuted with the forgettable Koi Mere Dil Se Poochhe in 2002, though for reasons best known only to them, some awards shows felt compelled to grant her the Best Debut Award. Was it a call from the all-powerful Dream Girl? Merit alone? Never shall we know. More than a decade and half later, Esha (a mother of two) is back in the news with the short film Cakewalk. Ahana Deol, on the other hand, had a career tinier (and way less sexier) than Papa D’s leather skirt in Dharam Veer. Even the lesser-known Ajit Singh Deol had more films than her. Which brings us to…
Ajit Singh Deol
Dharmendra’s late younger brother spent years under the shadow of the Sholay star. Though he produced, directed and starred in a number of films few people have heard of him outside the family and film folks. Son Abhay, who was shooting Happy Bhaag Jaayegi, reportedly spent time with the former actor as he lay dying. Ajit Singh Deol passed away in 2015. Resuming work, an emotional Abhay told The Times of India, “He would have wanted me to give my best to the film (Happy Bhaag Jaayegi). I took his ashes to scatter at a gurdwara at Anandpur Sahib on my way to Chandigarh before the shoot. It felt like I was starting all over again.”
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai)