Suparna Sharma

June 7, 2013

Ask Dharmendra about how he’s coping without alcohol and he quotes a sher:
“Pe ke daru khud se door ho gaye the, Chchod ke daru apne paas aa gaye hain.”
And adds, in his quintessential style, “Chchod ke daru main Dharmendra ho jata hoon. Nahin toh Dharmendraaaa ho jata hoon.”

How do you cope when you are born in an epoch of transition from silent to sound, live through and dominate an era of sepia idealism and technicolour fights and then find yourself landing upright, fully conscious and functional, in a blindingly chaotic age? You do what Dharmendra does.
You learn the rules of this new world. But it’s not easy being Dharmendra. Because Dharmendra, the man made of Sahnewal’s mitti, weeps for the bygone. That’s a tradition he picked up from his people. In Punjab, whenever the living get together, they mourn the dead and gone.
Dharmendra scans the crowd that’s applauding, cheering when he makes his public appearances — these days to promote his home production Yamla Pagla Deewana-2 — for familiar faces. There are none. “Dev saab kahan hain, Dilip saab bahar nahin aa rahe, Raj ji bhi chale gaye,” he says with apparent dysphoria, and then adds, “But we have to walk with changing times. And that’s what we are doing — Jaton ki tarah promotion bhi karo, yaar.”
He’s making appearances on TV shows, giving interviews and attending many promotional events and for this he’s picked up appropriate companions — his children, their peers, and their lingo, if not their ethos. He refers to his film as “YPD-2”, and he’s got headline quotes ready — “Pehle show business hota thaab show-off business ho gaya hai.”

Stars are strange creatures — as strange and complicated and nice as you and me. But unlike most of us, they are also achievers in a glass bowl, surrounded by fawning fans and ingratiating men and women who’ve figured that the route to a star’s heart and favours is by stepping on others. Run down others, praise the one in front. Most stars, I imagine, see through this but like it as an ambient sound; Dharmendra makes his discomfort known.
When I went to meet Dharmendra, courtesy a seasoned film journalist, the journalist’s wife was already there. She was standing in his Juhu bungalow’s sprawling but impersonal living room with a large pot of red roses. She was lovely — warm and soft-spoken — and she was a fan. His fan. For her Dharmendra is god. And for Dharmendra she is special. He treats her like a young family member — with hugs, and hand resting on her head, blessing her repeatedly. He’s overwhelmed to be loved so much. And grateful.
Dharmendra gets a lot of love and affection. “Itna pyaar banta hai maine, that is why more people love me as a human being. Maine yehi boya haiaur mujhe yehi mil raha hai — Dilip saab se le kar aaj ke sab bachche, they love me, genuinely.”
He’s also been careful, he says, not to hurt anyone — “If I know that this person won’t like something, I won’t speak that. I’ll keep you there (he raises his hand above his head). Haan, aapne vahan nahin rehna toh aap ki marzi. Then I can’t help it,” and clinches his point, as he likes to, with a sher:
Parwah karke dekh, pyaar aa hi jayega,
Dushman bhi ban ke yaar aa hi jayega

Dharmendra writes a daily diary, in Urdu. He begins each year with the same line: “Mujhse koi galti ho jaye toh mujhe sambhal lena.” Through the year most entries are brief synopsis of his daily routine, but on some mornings he writes a brief note to God: “Har taraf se khushiyon bhari khabrein aayen”.
Surviving in the film industry for 52 years is a feat, physical and emotional, and Dharmendra puts it down to three things — keeping fit, with pranayam, cycling and some dips; eating less, drinking “apni gaye-bhainson ka doodh”; and, finally, the essential ingredient — “neki”, goodness. That, he says, “is the biggest feedback to the body.”
Dharmendra’s brother lives with him. “Hum log ek sathe chale the… To be an actor was an impossible thing. Toh jo khushi Usne (God) de haius khusi ko bante chaloEk saath chalo.”
The Deols do move together a lot. The story of YPD-2, for example, has been written by Sunny Deol’s wife, and Dharmendra has spiced it up with some extempore dialogue. He is confident that people will like the film. Shot in England in one go, over three-four months, YPD-2, he says, has “a double dose of comedy, action”.
Dharmendra, as in the prequel, plays a chalu character who says stuff like “Main teri jagah hota toh ab tak iske paaon bhari ho gaye hote” to Bobby Deol’s character, who in turn calls him “kamina”.
This name-calling is allowed only on screen. In real life, the Deols guard their honour and self-respect with those famed fists — dhai kilo ka haath, pone kilo ka haath.
“Anyone who says anything that is a slight — on my self-respect — I can crush that person. Even today I will crush. My self-respect is my strength — usko banaye rakhne ke liye hi mujh-mein namrata aayi hai. Self-respect nahin toh what is there? Aapke crorepati, arabpati hone ka kya fayeda agar aapki self-respect nahin hai? Toh what the hell you are? Nothing!”
There’s a story doing the rounds about why Dharmendra dropped the director of YPD-1, Samir Karnik, for the sequel. Dharmendra doesn’t like questions about this and gives a benign explanation. But i’’s not difficult to guess what might have happened, given that Karnik is known to suffer from foot in mouth disease.

In an article on Dharmendra in a newsmagazine, Mukul Kesavan wrote: “In the ’60s, Dharmendra represented moral seriousness in Hindi cinema… Satyakam is the necessary prelude to Zanjeer (1973), just as Dharmendra prefigures Amitabh. The great baton change in Indian cinema is not between Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh (Rajesh Khanna is a brief detour into the box-office potential of male whimsy and self-pity), it’s between Dharmendra and Bachchan, between the self-sacrificing idealist who dies in the cause of a fairer, better world, and the disillusioned vigilante who visits vengeance on an irredeemably corrupt one.”
For a man who lists his five best films as PratigyaSatyakamChupe ChupkeApne and Sholay — of which three sit confidently in everyone’s list of India’s 100 best films — it’s not easy going out to look for exciting roles.
“Generation badalti hai — aaj ke stars Shah Rukh, Aamir, Salman hainHum us bracket main nahin aa sakte… What I want to do, I won’t get that role outside. Bahar ki pictures mein they’ll make me baapchacha. I don’t want to play chacha-tau. I want roles that people notice, roles that are pivotal.”
Dharmendra has gone from the cinema of Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Bimal Roy to Manmohan Desai and J.P. Dutta, and is now picking directors who can make light comedies that run in cinema halls for longer than a week and keep his production house going. In YPD-2, we’ll get an aged version of Sholay’s Veeru — virile, warmhearted and naughty. But somewhere inside Dharmendra I hope there’s still that actor who played Prof. Parimal Tripathi, Captain Bahadur Singh and Doctor Devendra, and someday soon, I hope, we’ll get to see an aging Satyapriya trying to make sense of today’s world, for himself and for us.