HEARTSPEAKby Khalid Mohamed July 22 2022, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 11 mins, 48 secs
All you wanted to know about Dharmendra. Khalid Mohamed rekindles an interview with him, dil se.
When he isn’t at his Juhi-Parle bungalow, from all accounts he spends most of his time at his Khandala-Lonavala farmhouse. On occasion, he hangs out with the janta there comprising his loyal fans at the nearby dhabas and tea-stalls, regaling them with sher shayari. Once in a bluish moon, he has fetched up in Sriram Raghavan’s Johnny Gaddar (2007), his metal-strong performance leaving a lasting impact.
Of late, he’s been appearing on TV reality shows, once with Kirron Kher and twice over with Asha Parekh, rekinding nostaligia about the good old times and movies that were.
Wearing immaculate dark suits and a tie for the shows, Dharmendra, once nicknamed Garam Dharam, at 86 performs his trademark trait, of flirting with the yesteryear heroines, even serenading them with the duets, which were a rage, before the assembled TV studio audience. He admits he can’t dance. Yet he isn’t beyond breaking into an impromptu boogie. Currently, he has resumed acting, thanks to a casting coup with Jaya Bachchan and Shabana Azmi in Karan Johar’s Rocky aur Rani ki Prem Kahani, in the company of Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt. And reports are that he has hit the gym, at his home, with a vengeance to get back into shape.
For over two decades now, or more, Dharmendra has developed a penchant for poetry and has been writing couplets and verses in fiercely guarded notebooks. He has rejected lucrative offers from publishers for his autobiography, stating firmly that he has been authoring one himself - in Urdu! When it’s ready he may self-publish it. In fact, at an event, he had ribbed Salman Khan, “The two of us can never write honest biographies, can we?”
By chance on an airflight, when I asked Hema Malini about his recalcitrance vis-à-vis his book, she laughed, “You know how he is. Yes, he has this fascination for Urdu poetry but I have been telling him to get a writer to pen his autobiography. Will you do it?”
“Thank you Hemaji,” I responded. “But I think it’s best if Dharam sir does it himself. I’ve heard some of his poems. It will be a different kind of biography for sure. Moreover, I’m too much of a fan of his to be objective.”
“Think about it,” Hemaji smiled, and we left it at that.
To be honest I would like to think that my connection with Dharmendra, justly remembered as the hero of astonishingly good looks and a personality, which suggested a soft heart behind a tough exterior, is deep-rooted. There was a time when I was a boy in knickers who, come rain or shine, couldn't hustle for a ticket to a "house full" show of Jeevan Mrityu or Aaya Saawan Jhoom Ke at Mumbai’s Alankar cinema. As it happened, I couldn’t afford the black market rate for a ticket, and had to wait for a lean weekday to watch the movies.
I couldn't ever develop biceps like those of the hero of scores of money spinners but I did take to wearing knee-length kurtas after seeing him as the earnest young man who serenades Sharmila Tagore at a gathering by the piano in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s memorable Anupama.
Impulsively, when I was a mint-fresh reporter at The Times of India, I had contacted Dharmendra at his make-up room (no vanity vans then) at the Natraj Studio where he was shooting for the period opus, Ramanand Sagar’s Baghavat (1982). Miraculously, the actor was on line, asking, “Who are you? I’ve never heard of you in the Times and I know a lot of staffers there.”
“Er, I’m sort of new here sir. May I come over and meet you?” The pause was deafening and then the bemused response, “Bache, it’s raining heavily. How will you make it from town? If you can, come over, I’ll be here till late evening.”
Looking like a soaked rat, I did make it to Natraj and gaped, I was speechless. He called for a towel, a fresh shirt from the dressing department and made me feel ten feet tall. “Will you have some brandy or you could get ill,” he wanted to know. I settled for tea and mumbled, “Wanted to say, sir, that I just wanted to see you. I used to get drenched like this while trying to get tickets for your movies.” Thousands must’ve gone through the same rain dance. Yet he smiled, “Sach? Do you like your Dharam bhai so much?”
His face turned soft, and he asked the obvious, “So, you want an interview for your paper? Go ahead, main yahin hoon. There’s been a delay in the shoot.” After that evening, what followed was a series of interviews at regular intervals. And circa 1997, when I went over to his Juhu-Vile Parle house to request him to accept the Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award, he had exclaimed, “What! Filmfare has never given me an award, not even for Satyakam. Imagine I’m 61 with no Filmfare Award to my name. Are you sure, have you checked with your bosses?”
I had. He was visibly pleased, being a discovery of the Filmfare-United Producers’ Talent Contest, and smiled, “I’m sure tu mazaaq kar raha hai.” I wasn’t. A pause again and he agreed to the request, on the condition that his idol Dilip Kumar should present it to him. Done.
Just like that Dharmendra had become my idol, perhaps, for his consistent rapport. The child in me had continued to store him in the recesses of my heart and I daresay, mind. But that's another story… maybe a socio-psychological one about the impact of cinema on impressionable spectators.
For this week, I’d like to reconstruct a conversation I had with him way back in 2007.
His home production, Apne, featuring him with sons Sunny, Bobby Deol, Katrina Kaif and Shilpa Shetty, had just been released. He was in the US, and was calling from a clear landline but kept inquiring to make sure, “Hello, hello dear… can you hear me?” Our conversation went like this:
Yes sir, I can hear you. How's it going? What's the response to Apne overseas?
London and Canada were fantastic. It's almost as if I'm reconnecting with the audience after ages.
Will your production banner, Vijayta Films, get active again?
Now that I've got the incentive to work hard, very hard again, things at Vijayta (the Deol film production banner) will start happening soon. Filmein banani padengi. What else do we know anyway?
I've just returned from the Naaz cinema in San Francisco. Everyone seemed to be moved and they applauded as soon as Apne ended. In Mumbai, I believe the collections are picking up. Getting positive feedback is as if someone has breathed new life into me. My mother used to say, "Son, don't give up till you've touched the sky". I have a long way to go yet... two-three films are being planned.
Anil (Sharma) will be directing Masters with Sunny, Bobby and me again. It's about three con men… bilkul phitoos. Then there's a script for Sunny and me about two crooks whose dhanda is to fall in love again and again. We're also thinking of a Seven Year Itch kind of movie… you've seen it?
But in this case, I would get a 50-year-itch.
By the way, What were you doing in Anurag Basu’s Life in a Metro.. getting so close to Nafisa Ali?
Nafisa, I must tell you, would start laughing during our romantic scenes and joke, “Oh Dharamji where were you all my life?” I would laugh too, absolutely flattered, then as soon as the camera was switched on we had to keep a straight face. Our track in the story was sensitive and so real, it had a certain feeling of pathos. And Anurag Basu had the guts to show that love can never perish, despite the passage of time and age. If Clint Eastwood could show this with Meryl Streep in The Bridges of Madison County, why can’t we? Why dear, didn’t you like the film?
No, no, I didn’t say that. Life in a Metro… was unusual, had terrific music and photography. To be honest, I appreciated it on seeing it, especially the second time. But I certainly did not like your Kis Kiski Kismat with Mallika Sherawat.
Why are you reminding me of that? I was just missing the camera… so kar diya. Bhool jao usko please.
It’s believed that Bobby is your laadla, and you’re stricter with Sunny.
No, no, nothing like that. Both of them are equally precious. I love so many outsiders who aren’t even related to me remotely, so you can imagine how much I love my sons and my grandsons.
On another note, what did you think about the constant criticism of your performance as the BJP Bikaner MP (from 2005-2009)?
Even you're asking me this? See, I was personally requested to contest elections by Atal Behari Vajpayeeji. Do I really have to prove the things that I have done for Bikaner? Maybe I'll just have to publish a book with photographs as proof of the work I've done there.
I'm not hungry for manipulated wah wahs. I’ve never believed in thrusting myself, saying I've done this and that. Or that I have climbed so many mountains for you. If I'd wanted to do that, I would never have allowed anyone to grab any headlines away from me. I want to be in the dils of the people, not in the headlines. Frankly I hated being in politics. I'd rather be an insaan than a devta.
Would you go with the notion that age is a state of mind?
Yeh notion kya hai, pata nahin. Ha, but I still feel 37 maybe, mentally and physically. It seems just like yesterday that I came here as a struggler. Bauji, my father, wanted me to become a professor but once I saw Shaheed, I wanted to be like Dilip Kumar. I was captivated by Suraiya, Meena Kumari and Madhubala. I wanted to be in this world of apsaras.
Since you were classically good-looking, many girls must have chased you?
(Shyly) Nahin, I would chase them, marta tha main un pe. There was a girl who’d drive past every day on a tonga in my hometown Phagwara, we’d exchange little love notes. I didn’t have the himmat to talk to her. By the time I could, she was married and settled in Hyderabad.
Your transition from black-and-white hits is well-chronicled. But tell me, how did you adapt to the film industry?
I thought it would be like a club with actors playing badminton and everyone showering affection on one another. So, I was shocked. Sweet things are said only in front of your face and that too, only when you’re successful. Today, I’d like to think everyone loves me. They do actually but I don’t depend on anyone. I don’t want to get hurt emotionally anymore.
It’s believed that you were often not paid by your producers.
That’s because I’m a third class businessman. Our Vijayta Films produced successes like Betaab, Barsaat and Ghayal but we never got an overflow from the distributors. Instead of arguing and getting into legal cases, I just let it go.
What exactly are your plans to revive the Vijayta banner big time?
I’ve started going to the office. We suffered losses in crores because of the films Dillagi, Bhagat Singh and Socha Na Tha. Sunny takes after his father I guess. He was enthusiastic, his generosity was misused.
What would you say about the careers of Bobby and Sunny?
Dono emotional bache hain. They shouldn’t be shrewd but should at least understand the meaning of the word. Shrewd hona hi padta hai to survive.
Why did you take on some B and C-grade projects around the mid-’90s?
Darling, don’t remind me of that. I needed the money. I don’t even remember the films’ names or their directors’.
Will we ever see the Dharmendra-Hema Malini magic again?
(Blushing) There can’t ever be a beautiful woman, beautiful actress and beautiful human being as her. It’s my badkismati that we haven’t had the kismat to act together since Aatank (1996). We have done 42 films together. Perhaps we will act together some day, inshallah
Will you ever stop being swayed by your emotions?
It’s too late for that. I’ve been such an emotional fool that I’ve even blown other people’s trumpets. I’ve been emotional enough to keep my first car, a Fiat... because of the fear that if I have nothing some day, I can convert it into a taxi!
And would you ever contest for the elections again?
(Pulls at his ear lobes) Kaan pakde, kabhi nahin, never.
In retrospect, Anil Sharma’s Masters didn’t happen. But a film on the same lines, Yamla Pagla Deewana, did. Plus two sequels. As for that 50-year-old itch, no show on that, not yet at least.
And so I’d like to think of Dharmendra, as the gentle toughie today chilling out at his farmhouse, composing sonnets about the days that were.