Amitabh Bachchan is Shahenshah… Shah Rukh Khan is Badshah… And Dharmendra is He-Man or Garam Dharam. But while Bachchan and SRK accepted these adages, Dharamji doesn’t care for his."I prefer Darling D," he’d once sighed. "This He-Man tag I’ve been saddled with because of my physique is unfair. Sure I did action films like Dharam-Veer, but I was also simultaneously playing a joru ka ghulam (hen-pecked husband) in Naukar Biwi Ka. Yes, I’m remembered for a Loha, Hukumat and Sholay but I’ve also scored with comedies, romances and dramas."
On Thursday, December 8, Dharamji turns 76 and keeping his wish in mind, I’d like to serenade his 51-year innings in Bollywood with four ‘different’ movies that offered him a chance to break out of the action hero mould and score with heart-warming smiles rather than hard-hitting punches. Interestingly, our favourite director, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, directed all of them.
Let me start in 1966 with the beautiful, black-and-white Anupama. I have to thank Doordarshan for introducing me and so many others to this film when entertainment was limited to weekend viewings in front of the TV. Anupama was Sharmila Tagore’s movie but I also saw it for the Punjab da puttar in the unusual role of an impoverished dreamer-poet whose love gives a motherless girl, her spirit dented by an indifferent father, the confidence to find herself. That struck a chord…
It had some poignant melodies, Ya Dil Ki Suno… and Kuchh Dil Ne Kaha… Dharamji who is a shayar (poet) himself recalled picturising the latter in the hills of Mahabaleshwar: "It was a 5 am shoot and tiresome to wake up at daybreak. But when I see the film today, I can see the dappled light of dawn, feel Hrishida’s sensitive touch and admire the natural, earthy charm. Anupama is close to my heart." It’s close to mine too!
Cut to 1969 and Satyakam. Hrishida insisted it was Dharamji career-best performance. I have to admit that he was as convincing as a dhoti-clad, modern-day, principled Harishchandra as he was as a chariot-riding Greek God Dharam in Dharam Veer. And what humanised Satyapriya was that despite marrying a girl who had been raped and giving a name to her illegitimate son, he doesn’t accept her as his wife in the true sense. This little blot on his otherwise spotless character makes him a man rather than a superman, as does the cancer that brings his fight against corruption to an abrupt end.
It doesn’t take much for the tears to flow and in the case of Satyakam, my tears flowed unchecked till Dharamji’s reminisces brought a tremulous smile to my lips: "There was one shot I wasn’t happy with even though dada had okayed it in one take. I hesitatingly asked him for a retake. We took six takes… Then, dada turned and told his assistant to print the first one. I was aghast and took the assistant aside, telling him to take the sixth take and pass it off as the first. Dada overheard me and reassured me with a smile that he’d take the best shot. He went with the first and after seeing the film, I had to admit that it was the best one."
Having met Hrishida a couple of times, feeling intimidated on occasions by the quiet, soft-spoken filmmaker, I didn’t disbelieve the ’70s superstar when he confessed that he’d been cut out of an antara (verse) when they were filming the Chupke Chupke song, Sa Re Ga Ma Pa… for reporting late on the sets. Hrishida had even threatened to keep him out of the climax but eventually let him put in an appearance at the end.
In the years since, I’ve been wowed by several of Bollywood’s leading men but even at 70-plus Dharamji continues to be my hero. In his presence, I still feel like a tongue-tied Guddi. When I told him this once, he smiled and admitted that after Guddi released in ’71, many schoolgirls would troop up to him with a held out palms or dupattas for an autograph. I would have too had I met him when in school. By the time I did, I was a grown-up, star-weary journo. But one smile and I turn to marshmallow. Awwww. Darling D!