One of Indian cinema’s most beloved stars Dharmendra celebrates his 81st birthday on December 8. It’s a quiet birthday with only close family members around him. “I’ve never liked shor sharaaba. I don’t attend parties and don’t throw any. I am a simple man with simple needs. What keeps me going is not fame, fortune or success but the love of the people. I’ve no hesitation in saying I am loved by one and all. That is my greatest achievement and the only birthday gift every year,” says the affable actor, so natural on screen and in person, you are liable to miss his iconic status in life.
“I don’t know about legendary,” he laughed uncomfortably. “When I came to Bombay—that’s what the city was called back then—I only had my dreams. I was an untutored villager, with no idea of acting. I wasn’t even aware I was good looking until I began receiving movie offers for my good looks. I’ll always be thankful to filmmakers like Arjun Hingorani and O P Ralhan who saw something in me. Now when I look back I consider myself so fortunate to have worked with the best filmmakers and the most beautiful heroine in the film industry. For a boy from the village in Punjab it was a dream come true.”
Among the directors that Dharmendra worked with, he singles out Bimal Roy, Dulal Guha, Asit Sen and Hrishikesh Mukherjee as his gurus. “With Bimalda I got to work in one of his finest films Bandini where my co-star was Nutan. We did a few films together. But Bandini is our high point. If, as you say, I was a natural performer with no mannerisms or stylizing, it was because I learnt from masters like Bimalda and Hrishida to not ‘ACT’ in front of the camera, just react.”
With Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Dharmendra was an absolute favourite and part of some of his best works including the classic Satyakam. In fact at one point of time in the 1970s Dharmendra was shooting for two films directed by Mukherjee on two floors of the same studio.
Laughs Dharmendra, “Yes, I remember that. We were shooting for Chupke Chupke and Chaitali. I’d do a shot with Sharmila Tagore for one, change my clothes and rush for another shot with Sairaji for the other film. Hrishida was very fond of me. Satyakam was a favourite for both of us. Its theme of corruption in our society remains more relevant today than ever before. I think the reason why Satyakam is such a favourite with everyone is the hero’s idealism. No matter what the pressures my character wouldn’t compromise on his principles.”
Dharmendra’s own favourite scene is from Satyakam. “My character, who is suffering from cancer, has lost his ability to talk. I had to convey Satyapriya’s anguish wordlessly, through my eyes only. At some point, my spiritual guru, portrayed by Dadamoni (Ashok Kumar) walks into my room and says “Now I can berate you to my heart’s content without any retaliation from you”. The words are bitter but they convey his love for me. I had to express I understood what my guru was saying, and that it was out of sheer love he was admonishing me. Next, my wife, essayed by Sharmila Tagore, who has been a silent witness to my uncompromising life, walks into the room with incriminating papers for me to sign that could relieve my family of poverty in the event of my death. For the sake of my wife and son, I agree, for the first and last time in my life, to sign the papers. But before I can actually do it, Sharmila snatches the papers out of my hand and tears them up. My character had to convey his deep undying love and gratitude for the woman who has stood by his side, through thick and thin, helping him uphold his lofty ideals. It was a very tough scene to do. I thank Hrishida for the faith he reposed in me. When I look back at the scene, I wonder how I managed it! And I believe Hrishida later said no other actor could have played Satyapriya in Satyakam. In a day and age when compromise is key I feel playing an uncompromising character like Satyapriya was a privilege. I’m glad I sailed through it. I sincerely think Satyakam should be screened at the school level. It shows honesty can never become outdated.”
In his heydays Dharmendra often dubbed ‘Garam Dharam’ was known to be an incorrigible ladie’s man. He laughs shyly, “By God’s grace I was liked by all my co-stars male and female. I remember all my heroines with much fondness as I am sure they remember me: Meena Kumari—with whom I did several films including the big blockbuster Phool Aur Patthar where I became the first Hindi film hero to take off my shirt, Sharmila Tagore—with whom I share my birthday, Asha Parekh—who was a buddy, Mumtaz– with whom I just did a few films, Mala Sinha, Waheeda Rehman, Zeenat Aman, and of course Hema. They were all lovely co-stars. God bless them.”
Now Dharmendra looks forward to a spending time with his grandchildren. By God’s grace, they are well settled in life with lovely children. I was too busy running from studio to studio when my children were growing up. I want to spend as much time as possible with my grandchildren.”
The enduring superstar who started his career in 1960 with Dil Bhi Tera Him Bhi Tere has cut down on his work in recent years. He loves his time of semi-retirement. “I may not be doing that many films any more. But the love of my people remains undiminished. I was a born the he-man of Hindi cinema. I will die the he-man.”