The 1970s were my boyhood years in Hindi cinema. I’d grown up idolising Dilipsaab (Dilip Kumar), Rajsaab (Raj Kapoor) and Devsaab (Dev Anand). It had been my dream to see them in person, talk to them and touch them. Suddenly, I too, was a part of their world. Unbelievable! I wonder if today’s stars are so wide-eyed about their heroes!
Salman (Khan), Shah Rukh (Khan) and Akshay (Kumar) have always been respectfully affectionate to me, and I love them as much as Sunny and Bobby. They are health conscious boys. It pleases me to see them take such good care of their bodies. Even my Esha comes back glowing from regular workouts. For the Deols, the gym has always been our temple.My sons are fighters. There were times when Sunny’s back was so bad that he had to drag himself along the floor to the bathroom. But he continued doing stunts.
Recently, I was shooting in Goa for Tell Me Oh Khuda (2010) and Esha was hanging upside down over the sea. A shiver danced down my spine but she was fearless. I’ve done similar stunts, genes don’t change. Daughters are so much like their fathers.
I see myself in my children. When I’m acting with my kids, I have to consciously keep a check on my emotions. Apne (2007) was about family ties and a father’s ambitions. Yamla Pagla Deewana (2010) which we are now filming, is a comedy that will have you rolling on the floor and then make you sit up with an emotional punch.
We’ve borrowed the film’s title from a chartbuster in Pratiggya (1975). Even after three decades, youngsters still play the song. Hema (Malini) was a darling who became my darling. I can’t sing… Nor can I dance. My choreographers let me do my own steps and surprisingly, it worked.
Hema and I must have done 25 films together, 18 of which were jubilee hits. I remember chasing after her to the tunes of Tera peecha na choodunga soniye... in Jugnu. The film ran for 50 weeks!
When in college, I’d see two films a day. I’d queue up for tickets, my heart in my mouth after the first gong sounded, wondering if I’d get in. I’d sit in the stalls, watch 18 reels without blinking and munch samosas in the interval.
Today, we walk into malls, sip milkshakes, enter a multiplex screen and sink into a cushy recliner. ‘Mazza nahin aata hai’ (It’s no fun)! To enjoy a film, you need to sit on the edge of the chair. That’s why I’ve stopped going to the movies but I caught Ghajini (2008). Aamir (Khan) is a fine actor. I’ve seen some of Shah Rukh’s movies. But I miss the good old days…
Dharmendra relives his golden years in the movies
I remember reporting for a 7 am shoot of Bandini (1963) no later than 6.30 am. The only other person besides me on the sets would be the sweeper. At 7.30 am sharp, Nutan would walk in. We never packed up before 11 pm. No one could even think of leaving early. Bimalda (director Bimal Roy) commanded so much respect!
That was in the 1960s. By the ’70s, I was doing double and triple shifts and even though Hrishida (director Hrishikesh Mukherjee) was like an elder brother, there were times when I’d be late for the shooting of Chupke Chupke (1975).
Dada was a disciplinarian and punished me for my tardiness by cutting me out of an antara (verse) completely when Amitabh (Bachchan) and I were picturising Sa re ga ma pa…
Another time, he threatened to keep me out of the climax. I was told, “Aye Dharam idhar aa (Dharam, come here), go to the toilet.” By the time I came out, a part of the scene had been canned. Fortunately, he let me make an appearance before the end.
I’ve done some of my most beautiful films with Dada. Satyakam (1969) was one of my best performances perhaps because I didn’t need to act — the character (Satyapriya ‘Sath’ Acharya) was so much like me. Anupama (1966) was also memorable for the achingly poignant ‘Kya dil ne kaha…’ It was tiresome waking up at daybreak to shoot for the song, but today, when I see it, I can appreciate the dappled light of dawn even in black-and-white.
And then, in the ’70s, there was Guddi (1971). The idea was to expose our superficial heroes but to our surprise, the film made me an even bigger hero. After the film’s release, schoolgirls trooped up to me for autographs. Even Jaya (Bhaduri) admitted she had been a fan when in school in Bhopal. In two chotis (plaits) she still looked like a schoolgirl to me.
I took off my shirt for the first time in Phool Aur Patthar (1966). The film starring Meena Kumari celebrated a diamond jubilee. I went bare bodied in Dharam-Veer (1977) too. The opening shot of me driving a chariot made such an impact that it gave me the He-Man tag.
Pack a Punch
I have to thank my parents who blessed me with a great physique. Sometimes the strong characters I played overshadowed the softer ones like Maanav in Dost (1974), because a punch is always more effective than a quiet word. But Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971) and Naya Zamana (1971) released within a week of each other and even though Ajit and Anoop were diametrically different characters, both films were hits!
The He-Man image got me lots of action films like Jugnu (1973), Sholay (1975), Kartavyya (1979), Krodhi (1981) and Loha (1987). Loha was unforgettable for one particular scene where I hit a man on the head and he sinks halfway into the sand.
When action director Veeru Devgan explained what he wanted, I was hesitant. “Yaar, it’s going to look odd, how can one punch from me sink a man?” I argued. Veeru was insistent. “Do it for me paaji,” he urged, convinced that I’d carry it off. I finally gave in to his requests and did the scene, even though I found it absurd.
That wasn’t the end of it. Veeru then wanted me to show off my biceps. I was even more embarrassed but he insisted that it would go down well with the audience. After the film released, he accompanied me to a theatre so we could watch the reactions live. When the scene came on, I was surprised by the thunderous applause that greeted my thumping blow. And the clapping doubled when I flexed my muscles.
The classic action flick of ’70s was undoubtedly Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay. We never expected it to become the phenomenon it has. In fact, it opened to scathing reviews with critics dismissing it off as “sound and fury signifying nothing”. But after a lukewarm first week, collections picked up and the film went on to become a blockbuster. The beauty of Sholay was that every character was memorable, whether it was Keshto Mukherjee, Jagdeep or Birbal.
Over the years, there have been a lot of stories about how I wanted to play the role of Thakur, enacted by Sanjeev Kumar. That’s hogwash. Veeru is such a boisterous, flamboyant character. Why would I want to play anyone else? It was a role written for me. And I had Hema as my Basanti too!
Salim Khan and Javed Aktar’s dialogues have become legendary. Lines like “Aarey o Samba, kitney aadmi the…” are quoted even today. I improvised on some. of them. For instance, in the scene where I’m tottering on top of the tower, threatening to commit suicide unless Basanti’s aunt agrees to our match, I deliberately added a ji to the mausi (aunt) to pile on the maska’.
Fans are forever
In our time, life ebbed gently. The tempo is frenetic now. It’s the fast food culture. Eat, enjoy and forget. “Spit it out fast and get lost.” Movies now have a shorter shelf life but the love of fans is forever.
Just last year, I was in New York and a Muslim gentleman, his wife besides him, stretched out his hands as if he wanted to embrace me. I walked forward and took his hands in mine. And tears of joy rolled down his cheeks.
Moments like these are special. I keep reminding the youngsters not to take this love for granted or let it go to their heads. It’s precious and in showbiz we get lots of it.