Welcome back to the Deol family! Not as much interest as I expected, but maybe that is just because I started in olden times? I will have to see if interest increases as I move forward in time.
Usual Disclaimer: I have no special knowledge, I don’t know these people in real life, but this is how it appears to me based on commonly available sources.
In the last section, I focused on Dharmendra the man, his love stories with Dilip Kumar, Meena Kumari, and Hema Malini. But that is ignoring the other important part of his identity, Dharmendra The Film Star.
Dharmendra is one of those actors who was cursed with a long career. For a little while in the late 60s/early 70s, he was Big, really really big. But then he kept acting. And as time went on, he became small. Now, it is hard to find that moment of bigness buried in his decades long career, it is easy to think of him as only the aging silly action hero of the later era.
Similarly lost is the very early Dharmendra, the poignant natural actor whose raw energy and risky scripts got him noticed. He truly is the origin of the Deol family, not just Sunny’s fun action films, but also Bobby’s sensitive young romances and Abhay’s off-beat art films. Dharmendra, in his day, did them all.
When Dharmendra started, what he had going for him was his shocking healthy youthfulness. In the 60s, social dramas were still king in Hindi cinema. Dharmendra was slotted in as the second lead, the poignantly young man who serves as the sad example of the tragedies of our time. His first break was playing a young street performer turned boxer friend of the noble older criminal hero Balraj Sahni. His next film was a love triangle, again he played the noble poor boy, again the real hero was an older actor Abhi Bhattacharya who got all the juicy scenes as the tragic head of the rich family who befriends and employs Dharmendra.
Dharmendra in those early films was purely a body. He was there to be eye candy, to be physical, to represent the troubled abused youth of the nation. And the “hero” saved him, the wise intellectual older man who could take his pain away. It was an issue of a transition period, the same period Hindi film is going through today. The heroes of these films were older actors, dignified and respected in the industry. There were few young actors who had the similar gravitas and name recognition. So the aging star was used as the lead, and a hot young thing (Dharmendra) was brought in to build audience excitement. Even to serve as a surrogate in the romantic scenes, it is Dharmendra and a young woman who flirt and dance together, while the hero appears for the scenes of noble sacrifice and wisdom.
We still have the films with the younger supporting male lead taking on the weight of the beefcake and dancing (Dilwale, Dishoom, Main Hoon Na, Dus, etc. etc.), but the hero is still the Hero with the main storyline and big emotional scenes and so on. Today, more often the hot young thing is the heroine and the hero romances her anyway, despite the age difference. That’s normal, the man is the spirit and intellect, the woman is just the body and the sex object. Watching these earlier films, Dharmendra feels strangely feminized, there only for us to see the scars and sins of the world written on his body, in a way that is traditionally feminine.
With Dharmendra playing the “feminine” role, many of his early films allowed the heroine to play the “hero” part, the active one who grows and changes instead of simply passively enduring. His big break through role was in Phool Aur Patthar, opposite an aging but still brilliant Meena Kumari. The script is heavily weighted towards Meena, with Dharmendra there as a love interest that inspires her journey. But, in the grand tradition of love interests, Dharmendra also provided a very nice skin show which drove the audience into the theaters.
Meena played a widow, abandoned by her family during an epidemic. Dharmendra was a thief, sent to break into their house while it was empty. He found her dying and stayed to care for her, eventually taking her back to his room in a slum. He saved her from her rapey brother-in-law, was changed by her purity, and so on and so forth. Meena learned to look beneath the surface and was happier with him in a slum than in her mansion. In the end, Meena has a dramatic court room speech about how society turned him into a thief and yet their is no punishment for her evil relatives who did much worse to her.
That’s all ploty-plot, that’s fine, but what people came for was the beefcake. Early in the film, Meena is sleeping in Dharmendra’s bed in the slum. He returns home drunk in the middle of the night. He unbuttons his shirt and then slowly leans over her in the bed while she gets all nervous and excited. And then he changes course and simply pulls the blanket more firmly over her before going outside to sleep. And all the women in the audience have erotic heart attacks.
At least in that movie there was an awareness of Dharmendra’s Dharmendraness and it was used carefully. His 7th movie, Bandini, is an all time classic that is marred (for me) by the foolish casting of Dharmendra. The lead of the film is Nutan, who plays a female convict. We see her story in flashback, she fell in love with a sensitive and brave freedom fighter Ashok Kumar (who was in his 40s at the time of the film and looked it). But she learned he married someone else and her heart broke. Years later, she ended up serving as a nurse to his complaining invalid wife, and Ashok revealed to her that he only married this woman for the dowry which he put towards the revolution, he married for India, and now he hates her. Nutan in a moment of madness poisons her patient. She is now in jail, a changed woman, mature and silent and dignified and accepting of her guilt. The new handsome young jail doctor, Dharmendra, is drawn to her. He offers her a marriage of respect and understanding and love after her sentence is up. But as she is traveling to join him, she sees Ashok, now dying and weak, and her first passionate love for him rises up and she stays with him instead of going to Dharmendra.
It’s supposed to be a woman’s picture, we have a female lead who goes through all of these emotional upsets. But the love triangle just does not fit. Dharmendra was cast as the disposable second male lead because he was far less famous and popular than Ashok Kumar at the time. However, for the story to believably be one of sacrificial love that the audience can respect, we have to believe that Nutan is drawn like a moth to Ashok from start to finish and can easily dispose of Dharmendra. Dharmendra, at age 28 in his 7th movie, had far more chemistry with 27 year old Nutan giving the performance of her career, than did tired 42 year old Ashok Kumar. The casting reveals a strange kind of blindness to the needs of the female audience, a lack of awareness that just as an actress can have a powerful sexual presence onscreen that drives the film, so can the actor.
As the decade of the 60s wore by, Dharmendra became more and more appreciated as the tall and handsome strong man in the relationship dramas. He still tended not to have films built around him alone, he picked strong scripts with strong co-actors. He did not move into directing or producing, as did the other actors of his generation. He didn’t develop a popular film genre around him, like Shammi Kapoor. He was Dharmendra, if you put him in your film, he would make it better. And there were an increasing number of people who understood that, both among filmmakers and in the audience.
Most of these 60s films weren’t exactly classics, and Dharmendra’s role had to be adjusted to fit the needs of the plot rather than his stardom. For an example, here is the plot description from wikipedia of Aya Sawan Jhoom Ke, his last film of the 60s:
Wealthy Jaishankar meets and falls in love with Aarti, successfully woos her and agrees to meet with her dad to discuss their marriage. On the way there he ironically runs over him, killing him instantly. Guilt-ridden, he attempts to make amends to look after Aarti, her brother, Pappu, and sister, Mala, but conceals the fact that he was responsible for their father’s death. Things get worse after Aarti not only discovers the truth but also witnesses him getting intimate with a cabaret dancer, Rita. Then Jaishankar is first disowned by his father after the family finds out that he had sired a son from Rita, and then subsequently arrested by the Police for killing Rita. However, it turns out that he is saving his friend Rajesh who has just married Aarti’s sister Mala and was being blackmailed by Rita for money. In the end, it is revealed that Rita’s real husband shot her for cheating other people and her greed for money.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aya_Sawan_Jhoom_Ke
The 60s was all about Dharmendra as the youth of India ground down under the crushing misery of fate, society, prejudice, whatever is the issue of that particular film. The 70s slowly started to turn that around, Dharmendra the troubled youth began to fight back. More and more films saw him in a triumphant final action sequence in which the villain is vanquished and the heroine rescued, very different from the complex endings with many tears and speeches of his earlier films.
Dharmendra also took his crown as the idol of the youth with Guddi, Jaya Bhaduri Bachchan’s first movie. She plays a teenage girl who refuses to consider an engagement to the boy next door because she is in love with Dharmendra. Dharmendra, playing himself, agrees to meet with her and follows the advice of her family in how to gently dissuade her from loving him. It’s a plot that only works if we can believe that Jaya would be willing to wait forever and give up all other loves for the sake of Dharmendra. And we do!
Seeta Aur Geeta was Dharmendra’s most successful film of the early 70s, and one that shows how his new 70s identity integrates what he was already known for in the 60s. It’s a double role for Hema Malini as separated twins, Dharmendra is merely one of her suitors. He is given comedy and action to play, and a big cheerful ending, the 70s touches. But he also has one touching drunk scene that calls back to Phool Aur Patthar, and happily takes second place to a female lead, the 60s touches.
Something about Dharmendra’s big body and physical strength lends itself to being put opposite an even stronger female personality. Perhaps it is the unexpectedness of a man with all the physical power turning into a weak little kitten in front of a strong woman? But it was certainly a note that was returned to over and over again as the 70s wore on. Dharmendra was the action star, and the comic, while the heroine was brave and strong and he trialed after her. He was visibly aging onscreen during this era, more and more relying on toupees and girdles. His body was less likely to be on display, but he still had the confidence and grace of a strong man, his action sequences became the highlight of his films.
When Sholay was initially planned, Dharmendra was thought of as the bigger star. He had already starred in an earlier version of the story, Mere Goan Mere Desh, playing a single convict brought to work on a remote farm, falls in love with the farmer’s daughter, fights the local bandit, finally finds his love kidnapped by the bandit. The “suicide” scene, the many songs, even the final fight scene, are structured around Dharmendra’s talent and to strengthen his character in the film. It’s a tribute to Amitabh’s stardom that he is still the center of Sholay despite having more of the “hero’s friend tragic” role in the script. That wasn’t the end of Dharmendra though. While other actors floundered and struggled as Amitabh rose to power, Dharmendra had already dug out a safe stable place for himself, learned to move with the times as needed and bring his audience with him.
By the late 70s, Dharmendra had gone from the sensitive young damaged soul playing second fiddle to an older male lead or a heroine, to the powerful action star who ate older male leads for breakfast and threw heroines on the back of his horse as he rode off into the sunset. Although the sensitive soul still made the occasional appearance, for instance playing a poetry professor in Dillagi who tries to romance the stern chemistry professor Hema Malani. It wasn’t so much that Dharmendra the artist had changed as that the times had changed, these smaller social dramas no longer found an audience and his performances in them were missed and are forgotten now. Instead, it is his fun action roles that were hits at the time and gained more and more audiences over the years.
If the 60s was the decade of humble good work in good films, and the 70s was the decade of balancing between small good films and big action entertainers, the 80s is where Dharmendra began to lose all sense of taste and discernment in his films. He started the decade with a bang with the major adventure/disaster film The Burning Train, and ended it with Shazaade, a potboiler of rape and revenge in which he plays a double role, at age 54. And romances an actress 22 years younger than him. An actress who, in real life, was coincidentally dating his son.
Today, the Khans act far younger than their age and opposite inappropriate heroines. But at least their is the legitimate argument that no younger stars can equal their popularity, forcing them to continue working in inappropriate roles. But in the 80s, Dharmendra was not the most popular actor around. He was popular, but he was one of many. There would be no greater loss to the industry if he had taken a step back and moved into smaller roles, ones that fit his age and dignity. Or at least allowed a younger co-star to take over the action scenes, brought in someone to be the “body” as he was in his youth.
And now Dharmendra is paying the price. When his name is mentioned or his face appears, the audience cannot bridge the wall of the 80s action films to reach and remember the sensitive young woman’s man of the 60s. His stardom has become not just bigger than himself, but bigger than his previous stardom, the talents and films that made him a star to begin with are left behind and only the sad leftover failures of the end of his career are left to remind us of them. Beefcake gone bad.