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Birthday special: Why Dharmendra the actor needs to be appreciated more


Loud, brash, comic, and impeccably handsome, Dharmendra remains one of the favourite stars of Hindi cinema. His popularity from young stars to old veterans is constant, but there is something that the industry has not recognised in the genial Punjabi gentleman — his acting talent. As he turns a grand old 81 today, we look at the reason why Dharmendra should be praised for his acting, more than his stardom. 

Shriram Iyengar

In Sriram Raghavan's Johnny Gaddaar (2007), playing the worldly wise con artist on his last legs, Dharmendra delivers the line that defined the neo-noir cult classic "It is not the age, it's the mileage." If there is anyone that can throw a cliched line on screen, and still look charming, it is Dharmendra. With his roman nose, and sculpted face, Dharmendra continues to remain one of the great enigmas of Indian cinema.

Born in Ludhiana, Punjab, Dharmendra arrived in 1950s Bombay after winning the Filmfare magazine's talent hunt competition back home. It is one of the great ironies of Indian cinema that an acting talent has never been rated for his acting, but his action. The internet has reduced a once brilliant talent to a series of memes revolving around the stale verbosity of revelling in the bloodlust of canines. But Dharmendra has survived superstars, generational shifts, and the rise of Amitabh Bachchan to cement his place in Hindi cinema. More 'talented' actors have failed in the quest. 

Although he lacks awards, the actor did turn in some fine performances over the years. The generation today might find it difficult to identify the Dharmendra of Haqeeqat (1964), Bandini (1963), Phool Aur Patthar (1966), Satyakam (1969), Chupke Chupke (1975), with the one they recognise in Seeta Aur Geeta (1972), Sholay (1975), Yaadon Ki Baraat (1973), and eventually Loha (1987). There is a strange dichotomy between Dharmendra, the early actor, and Dharmendra, the action star. Despite his ease at bashing villains wearing a toga, and reciting a ghazal dressed in simple whites, the contrast in his performances is proof of his versatility. 

In a 2008 Outlook article, historian Mukul Kesavan explains that the transfer of power did not take place between Rajesh Khanna and Bachchan, but between Dharmendra and Bachchan. It was Dharmendra who was the star who straddled the transient space between Khanna's fall and Bachchan's rise. 
Dharmendra with Nutan in Bandini (1963)

Dharmendra's arrival in the 60s coincided with the rise of a new generation of 'stars'. The aura of Raj Kapoor-Dev Anand-Dilip Kumar had begun to subside, while Rajendra Kumar, Manoj Kumar, and Shammi Kapoor were on the rise. While others tried to fit themselves into the mould of these superstars, Dharmendra remained, steadfastly, an actor. It is not for no reason that Hrishikesh Mukherjee, a connoisseur of the idealistic 'Bhadralok', cultivated the gentle young man as a personal favourite. Incidentally, Dharmendra has a love for ghazals and the Urdu language, a sign of the poetic within the so-called 'action man' image. 

As the idealistic journalist in Satyakam, the kind doctor in Bandini, or the friendly, romantic soldier in Haqeeqat, Dharmendra brought a poetic elegance to his performances. Soft spoken, eloquent and idealistic, his heroes were people willing to sacrifice their lives for the highest causes. It is almost symbolic that it was Dharmendra who took on the other idealist, Guru Dutt's role in Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi (1966), after the latter's demise.  

A capable actor, he was reduced to playing over-the-top action heroes in his career

Another stark contrast from his later roles was the submissive gentleness of his characters. Known for his over the top gimmicks later, the actor's early roles are masterclasses in controlled expression, and careful dialogue delivery. In addition, most of the actor's early roles were in support of strong female characters. Nutan (Bandini, Dil Ne Phir Yaad Kiya), Mala Sinha (Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi), Meena Kumari (Purnima, Phool Aur Patthar, Majhli Didi), and Saira Banu (Ayee Milan Ki Bela) were some of the leading ladies he acted alongside during this time. These were actresses at the peak of their powers, and known for their screen presence. Yet, amongst them the young handsome Punjabi managed to deliver performances that continue to be hallmarked. Even after he had attained star status, he could churn out an effortless, subtle, yet impactful performance like in Guddi (1971). 

Strangely, this dichotomy of personalities presents itself repeatedly through the actor's career. The year of his best work, Satyam (1969), saw the rise of a new superstar, Khanna in Aradhana (1969). Voted one of the 7 most handsome men in the world in the 70s, it is a miracle he did not pip Khanna as the 'King of Romance'. Sadly, the handsome Jat was neither considered a heartbreaker (though he had the gossip mills running nonstop), nor the disillusioned angry young man. Like the rustic who keeps on with the struggles of his life, despite its unwillingness to comply to him, Dharmendra balanced himself on the twin engines of commerce and art. In a recent interview before the film Yamla Pagla Deewana (2011), he said, "Acting is not a profession for me, it's my mehbooba (girlfriend). When she used to get angry and keep me away from her, I used to woo her back and vice versa." Nowhere is this relationship with his craft more evident than in the year 1975 when he delivered a masterclass in comic timing in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Chupke Chupke, while also acting as an over the top good-hearted con in the epic Sholay. 
As the Botany professor in Chupke Chupke(1975)

Even though he continues to play the big-hearted Punjabi old man with effortless ease in the twilight of his career, Dharmendra retains some of that subtle brilliance for acting. Though he is as loud and unabashed in films like Yamla Pagla Deewana, his performances in films like Life..In A Metro (2007), Johnny Gaddaar (2007), and Apne (2007) remind you why Mukherjee and Bimal Roy sought out this underrated talent as the 'actor' to play their favourite characters.