The Sundance Kid

Sonrise Dharmendra flanked by sons Bobby (left) and Sunny (right)
Sonrise Dharmendra flanked by sons Bobby (left) and Sunny (right) Photo: AFP

AS A nosey reporter for Star & Style, it was difficult for Bharti S Pradhan to track a Tamil priest in the bylanes of Chennai during the scorching summer of 1980. All she knew was his name, Srinivas Acharai, and that he had solemnised a marriage which, if word got out, would make the front page of every newspaper in the country. Pradhan eventually met Acharai and got the details of the secret wedding he had solemnised in Mumbai of one Dilawar Khan with Hema Malini. Pradhan knew she had the nation’s biggest scoop — Khan was none other than Dharmendra, Bollywood’s action hero whose clean-cut looks and rugged appeal had made him the cynosure of a million adoring eyes.

There were, of course, others who said that the actual marriage had taken place — in a Muslim way — on June 21, 1979, and was, deliberately, not publicised for fear that Prakash Kaur, Dharmendra’s first wife, who had already refused him a divorce, would grow more depressed at the fate of her 25-year-old marriage. Later, in a conversation with a friend, Kaur laughed off her life’s biggest crisis by saying, “You should see Jugnu to understand his dual personality.”

The story made Pradhan a star overnight. Emotions ran high in Bollywood. “How could he?” some wondered aloud. But all the world loves a lover and Garam Dharam’s obvious passion for his beauteous southern Dream Girl, not surprisingly, made him even more popular.

“I met him almost a year later and he wondered how I had got wind of the wedding,” says Pradhan. What she did not tell Dharmendra was that Star & Style would have had an even bigger scoop complete with pictures if only their cameraman, BK Sanil, had not returned to the couple a film roll that had mistakenly been delivered to him. “Those were pictures of the Dharmendra- Hema wedding, but Sanil returned the roll after printing the negatives,” says Pradhan.

Dharmendra’s younger son, Bobby, laughs when he hears the story. “He was Bollywood’s most loved actor and could get away with anything. Extend your hand and you would get a hug; extend your arm and you would be in the living room for a drink,” he says. In hindsight, he feels it is that great affection that Dharmendra inspired that allowed Bollywood to accept the much-talked-about second marriage so easily. Besides, Dharmendra was blessed with the kind of looks that made it impossible for mere mortals to despise him. Barely a few years before his second marriage, he had been voted one of the world’s most handsome men. It wasn’t until 1997 that another Hindi film star — Salman Khan — managed to win that accolade.

The success of any mega movie star depends on how irresistible he is to both sexes. In Dharmendra’s case, both men and women fell for his goofy manliness. “Women and my dad are inseparable,” says Bobby, who knows about the muchpublicised split between Meena Kumari and her husband Kamal Amrohi in 1964 and the actress’ subsequent linkage with Dharmendra. The pair sparkled in Kaajal (1965), where her purely fraternal feelings for him are misunderstood, and in the superhit Phool Aur Patthar (1966), where she plays a weeping widow seeking his protection.

But it wasn’t until 1997 that Dharmendra really got his due in the Hindi film industry when he won a Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award. As he accepted the honour from Dilip Kumar and his wife Saira Banu, he grew emotional about how he had never received a single Filmfare award in the ‘Best Actor’ category despite having worked in over a hundred popular movies and despite having been discovered in a Filmfare talent spotting competition. Dilip Kumar, always the epitome of quiet sophistication, quickly consoled him: “Never mind, whenever I get to meet with God Almighty I will set before Him my only complaint: Why did you not make me as handsome as Dharmendra?” The audience of industry insiders enveloped the star in a burst of happy, accepting laughter. It was a spontaneous acknowledgement of Dharmendra’s good looks and acting prowess — those qualities that have helped him shine in more than 250 films, beginning with Dil Bhi Tera, Hum Bhi Tere in 1960 right up to Johnny Gaddar (2007).

Prakash Kaur later laughed off her life’s biggest crisis and told a friend: ‘You should see Jugnu to understand Dharmendra’s dual personality’

The deadly quartet Amitabh Bachchan, Dharmendra, Sanjeev Kumar and Amjad Khan on the sets of Sholay (above)
The deadly quartet Amitabh Bachchan, Dharmendra, Sanjeev Kumar and Amjad Khan on the sets of Sholay (above)

It’s hard to believe it today but for a long time, the actor-hero who pushed box-office sales with his memorable performances in Haqeeqat, Bandini, Phool aur Patthar, Satyakam, Jugnu, Raja Jani, Chupke Chupke, Mera Gaon Mera Desh, Seeta aur Geeta and Sholay, didn’t get his due. Gulzar wonders why the actor often let his heroines — Meena Kumari, Nutan, Mala Sinha and Suchitra Sen — walk away with the glory while he was content to play the romantic foil. Perhaps his paradoxically rugged yet clean-cut appearance and his million-dollar Colgate smile detracted from his talent. “For me, he is the ultimate Devdas because only he remained stuck in adolescence, even as the two women — Paro and Chandramukhi — grew out of their youth. That’s a part of his persona,” says the celebrated lyricist of Indian cinema’s ideal lover boy.

Dharmendra’s love and drinking escapades are legendary. The world agrees. Writer and television anchor Anupama Chopra has chronicled it in her bestseller, The Making of Sholay. She recounts how, during the shooting schedule at Ramnagaram, a hamlet on the outskirts of Bangalore that doubled up as the village in Ramesh Sippy’s 1975 blockbuster, he would offer cash to lightboys to mess the shots so he could hold onto Hema Malini a little longer. “The boys were thrilled and earned, on an average, a cool Rs 1,500 each at the end of the shooting. Once drunk, Dharmendra even got up from his hotel in Bangalore at midnight and walked alone to the village and slept on a rock. He could carry both — love and liquor,” laughs Chopra.

‘He is the ultimate Devdas because only he was stuck in adolescence even as Paro and Chandramukhi grew out of their youth,’ says Gulzar

But his life wasn’t always about these two motifs. During the serious 1960s and the swinging 1970s, Dharmendra often transmuted the angry machismo of an Amitabh Bachchan, the hill-station profligacy of a Shammi Kapoor and Rajesh Khanna’s narcissism to devastating effect at the box-office. In short, he carried every film loaded onto his broad shoulders. All this while raising laughs by throwing in a kuttey (dogs), delivered with the correct comic Jat intonation, during the most taut fight scenes. Not surprisingly, kuttey remains the most popular mock invective across north India.

WHILE his image had been tempered by musicals and high-voltage drama in the 1960s, he victoriously wielded style with sinew with films like Mera Gaon Mera Desh(1971) and Jugnu (1973),” says Bollywood chronicler Dinesh Raheja. Today, he remains the ultimate performer in front of the camera while continuing to be messy outside the magic halo of the studio arch lights. That’s not surprising, considering he has never been a man cut out for speeches and ribbon-cutting ordeals. “He was a darling of the heroines,” quips Saira Banu, who remembers the actor’s talent for putting his foot in his mouth. Laughs veteran actor Waheeda Rehman: “He was a complete actor who left his mark in each of his films. Politics is not his cup of tea. No wonder he did farming and avoided Parliament.”

But that’s Dharmendra. The world acknowledged how he unhesitatingly carried the mantle of concern and social realism in his many roles as a respectable professional: he’s the upright engineer in Satyakam and Aadmi aur Insaan, a barrister in Mamta, a jail doctor in Bandini, an honest cop in Mera Gaon Mera Desh and a loving brother in Yadon Ki Baraat. Even his morally-serious lover boys in Raja Jaani, Jugnu, Dream Girl, Charas, and, above all, Sholay, had honesty streaked with a robust sex appeal that blended well with the country’s cinematic traditions.

“Otherwise, who would be the ideal vehicle for Bengal’s literary realism in Hindi cinema?” asks filmmaker Samar Khan, in what appears to be an obvious reference to Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s landmark Satyakam, the 1969 movie where Dharmendra plays an honest civil engineer who troubles many with his decisions, the boldest being to marry a woman raped and impregnated by a debauched prince. Commentators compared his on-screen ideals of anticolonial nationalism with Indira Gandhi’s splitting of the Congress to create an era of post-Nehruvian socialism. That the year was 1969 was merely coincidental. Dharmendra himself thought the best scene in Satyakam was the one where he, the illegitimate son, takes on his father, Ashok Kumar, who berates him. “Dharmendra had no dialogues. He just listened to Kumar and laughed away his worries,” says Gulzar, adding that, in many ways, Satyakam was the necessary prelude to Prakash Mehra’s Zanjeer (1973), which pushed Amitabh Bachchan to the forefront. Incidentally, that script was first shown to Dharmendra who rejected it because he was too busy.

‘He was a complete actor who left his mark in each of his films. Politics is not his cup of tea. No wonder he avoided Parliament,’ laughs Waheeda Rehman

THE year of Zanjeer also saw the birth of parallel cinema with the release of Shyam Benegal’s Ankur and MS Sathyu’s Garam Hawa. It was also the year of love, reflected in Raj Kapoor’s evergreen Bobby. But what turned the tide against Dharmendra was the changing nature of Hindi cinema. The popularity of the scripts of Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar, better suited to Bachchan’s rebellious persona, changed the course of the silver screen for the next two decades. Despite riding an alltime high with Sholayand Chupke Chupke (both released in 1975), Dharmendra was the unfortunate casualty of this change.

But there was some respite. Raheja says the toxic testosterone cocktails that were the flavour of the 1980s helped prolong some careers. “It elongated the career of three 40-plus holdovers from the 1970s: Dharmendra, Vinod Khanna and Shatrughan Sinha,” says Raheja, adding that the revival of the Jat hero fighting feudal Thakur oppression helped push Dharmendra’s career a little in movies like Ghulami, Yateem, Batwara and Kshatriya. But it was an era that drew quickly to a close.

Fans who have missed the old Dharam magic are once again in for a treat. At the sunset of his career, he will team up with his sons, Sunny and Bobby for Cheers — Celebrate Life, a movie that fittingly celebrates his 50 years as an actor. “Actually, we are trying to celebrate my dad’s 50 years in the industry with the film,” says Sunny.

Yes, the idealistic Satyapriya of Satyakam is all set for the next exciting makeover of his life.

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