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Manoj Kumar: The man who stopped Dharmendra 


The writer, director, actor is often credited for launching a new wave of patriotism in Hindi cinema. But there is something else, he should be thanked for - stopping Dharmendra. 

Shriram Iyengar

Manoj Kumar and Dharmendra have been close friends for a long time. Both actors trace their roots back to rural Punjab, and share a common love for the simple culture and food of the region. Even before they became the stars they are today, Manoj Kumar and Dharmendra shared a common room. In fact, Dharmendra owes his stardom to Manoj Kumar. 

As Dharmendra has recounted in several interviews, he arrived in the city of Bombay as a struggler. With little money in his pocket, he joined the endless list of people who frequented studios trying to find an odd job in films. One of the many people he met on his tours was Manoj Kumar. Back then, Kumar was trying to be a director. Unlike Dharmendra, Kumar had always wanted to be a director. But it is never easy to get to the big chair. So, he would often hang around sets looking for odd jobs. 

Dharmendra once told a national daily, "Manno (Manoj Kumar) and Shashi Kapoor, my beloved contemporaries, were also with me in trying their luck in films. It was very difficult for us to get our breaks and I still have fond memories of three of us sitting on a bench at Filmistan Studios, waiting for our individual breaks." It is ironical that Kapoor, tracing his roots to the first family of the Hindi film industry, would find comradeship among these strugglers. However, unlike either Kapoor or Dharmendra, Manoj Kumar was a good writer. It was a skill that would help him write down masterpieces like Upkar (1967), Roti Kapada Aur Makaan (1975) and Purab Aur Paschim (1970), among others. 

The story goes that once sitting outside a producer's office, Manoj Kumar met the assistant dialogue writer. The writer was struggling to create a scene for a film. A curious Kumar could not help but suggest inputs. The director, impressed by Manoj Kumar's simple language and realistic scene, offered him the job of ghostwriting scenes. The future National Award winner was paid a princely sum of Rs11 for the job.

Meanwhile, Dharmendra's career had run into a dead end. Unlike his roommate, Dharmendra had no additional skills. He did possess the certificate from the Filmfare Acting competition he had won. Incidentally, Bimal Roy had been the judge of that competition. But when Dharmendra approached Bimal Da for a role, the veteran director asked him to wait for a while. Time was running short, and so was money. Afraid that he will not be able to make the rent for the month, the sturdy actor decided to take the train back to Punjab. It was then that the unexpected happened. 

Having bought his tickets, Dharmendra decided to leave a note to inform Manoj Kumar. Once Kumar got the note, he was furious. He rushed to the station to prevent Dharmendra from taking the train. He offered to split his 'princely' pay of Rs11, and share the rent till Dharmendra gets his big break. As Dharmendra says himself, "At one time, I grew frustrated and wanted to return by Frontier Mail. Manoj Kumar prevented me from returning, asked me to be patient and inspired me as much as he could. Till date I have never forgotten this unique gesture of Manno who later rose to heights as an actor, writer and director of substance." 

As luck would have it, Dharmendra received a call from Arjun Hingorani, who cast him in Dil Bhi Tera Hum Bhi Tere (1960). Soon, the actor was cast by Bimal Roy in films like Bandini (1963). Hrishikesh Mukherjee too chose him for Satyakam (1969). Manoj Kumar too, found himself in the lucky position of being cast as an actor, rather than a writer. His first big break arrived in Vijay Bhatt's Hariyali Aur Rasta (1962), before Woh Kaun Thi? (1964) and Gumnaam (1965) set him on the path to fame. 

Though both remain friends till date, it was Kumar who acquired greater critical acclaim with his directorial skills in films like Shaheed (1964), Upkar (1967), Purab Aur Paschim (1968) and Roti Kapada Aur Makaan (1974). A positive man, with a very optimistic view of life, Manoj Kumar never gave up on his dreams. Or his friends.