Fifty years ago, in 1959, a young man of around 24 from Phagwara, Punjab arrived in Mumbai to act in the movies. He had been spotted at a Filmfare talent hunt and offered a role in a film Dil Bhi Tera, Hum Bhi Tere. His fee was to be Rs 51, plus breakfast.
It’s been 50 years since. Dharmendra is now 74, and still making movies, for better remuneration. Shooting for his latest film, Cheers, has been postponed due to elections, says the man who won the Bikaner Lok Sabha seat on a BJP ticket in 2004.
This time, he’s been out of the poll fray. He’s more excited about Cheers where he stars along with son, Bobby Deol, nephew, Abhay Deol, Nafisa Ali and Mugdha Godse. “The story is about a father and son’s (played by me and Bobby) journey on a two wheeler, with comic as well as emotional touches. There are many dramatic sequences between the two of us. Nafisa Ali has a brief but important character in the film opposite me,” he says. He was very impressed watching Nafisa in her maiden film, Junoon, and enjoyed a good work rapport with her whilst shooting for Life In A Metro, says Dharmendra.
Sangit Sivan, who directed Ek, is also directing Cheers. Does Dharmendra still have confidence in him after Ek flopped badly? Dharmendra replies, “I don’t lose confidence in anyone if just one film of his does not perform well. Sangit has worked really hard with the script of Cheers and I am sure, he will come out with flying colours.”
Dharmendra has also given a great performance in Jahnu Barua’s to be released, Har Pal. He clarifies, “I really don’t understand, why there is such a delay in releasing Har Pal. I play the role of Preity Zinta’s father in the film and Shiney Ahuja is the male protagonist.”
The Bollywood strong man has endured the passage of time far better than his contemporaries, Manoj Kumar and Shashi Kapoor. “How time flies. We all started our careers together and it just seems like yesterday. The three of struggled very hard and overcame humiliation to get where we are today,” says the actor. “Manoj, or Manno as I call him, is a brilliant, director and actor. Shashi Kapoor is a powerful performer, who has produced memorable films like Junoon and 36 Chowringhee Lane.”
He’s had several roles that are part of Bollywood lore. He was the sensitive poet Ashok in Anupama and the golden-hearted crook Veeru in Sholay. Yet, his own favourite film is Mamta.
The biggest challenge ever for Dharmendra was to face Dilip Kumar in his only Bengali film, Paari, which was directed by Jagannath Chatterjee in 1963. “What a powerful story, Paari had. The film was shot in the Andaman prison, which had opened for shooting for the first time,” he says. “Sadly, my dialogues had to be dubbed but I thought that I really got the scope to perform without being overshadowed by the mighty Dilip Kumar, who played the role of a jailor in the film.”
Some of the best actresses Dharmendra has even worked with, he says, have been Suchitra Sen, Meena Kumari and Nutan. About his second wife, Hema Malini, with whom he fell in love on the sets of Sholay, he says, “Hema has matured greatly as an actress. It’s still not too late for the two of us to act together if we’re offered a good script.”