Article Hindi

Dilip Dhawan, the quiet everyday Indian in the 1980s

Though he mostly played supporting roles, Dilip Dhawan's path into the film industry was forged through portrayals of vulnerability, strength and a quiet persistence.

Shriram Iyengar

The Dhawan surname is now best known to be preceded by Varun, or David for older millennials. Yet, that surname was associated across India in the mid-1980s with the name Dilip.

Unrelated to the other two, though he is often assumed to be, Dilip Dhawan was one among the many graduates of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune. At a time when Indian society was still progressive, and cinema spoke for the poor and the underprivileged, Dilip Dhawan became the face of a young India seeking a new path.

A simple search on the internet will tell you that Dilip Dhawan is no more. The actor died of a heart attack on 15 February 2000. By then, his career was on the downslide, lingering in the mediocrity that hit many others of his generation. With films typecasting him in the role of elder brother or brother-in-law (Hum Saath-Saath Hain, 1999), it was only to be expected.

It is sometimes hard to understand the world of the 1980s. It feels like a facade that has long since disappeared and can only be brought back by nostalgia. While Dilip Dhawan was not an actor of tremendous calibre, two famous works define his career. Incidentally, both involved the filmmaker Saeed Akhtar Mirza.

Dilip Dhawan was first cast in Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan (1978) as the bourgeois loner fighting a conflict between himself and the world he inhabits. In a re-look at the film, Dhawan comes across as a consummate performer. His quiet, thoughtful manner suits the character and makes it more earnest, and vulnerable. It is the vulnerability of a man fighting quietly even as he loses to an oppressive system of thought.

In an interview with Zee TV, director Saeed Akhtar Mirza said, “I could see a loneliness in [Dilip Dhawan]. A loneliness you could feel. He was a man who could be sitting in a crowd, and yet he would be alone with his thoughts.”

Mirza mentioned that it was Dhawan’s work at the FTII that drew him to the actor. It was not the last time the two would collaborate. The director cast him again in Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyoon Aata Hai (1980) as the rakish, rowdy Dominic Pinto. Again, Dhawan delivered. He is filled with angst as the younger brother who rebels against society and embodies the anger that is nascent in Naseeruddin Shah's Albert through the first half of the film. 

In both instances, the actor was pitted against some powerful performers. While in Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan, he faced off with Dr Shriram Lagoo, Om Puri, Rohini Hattangadi and a very young Satish Shah, in Albert Pinto... he was cast with a powerhouse, Naseeruddin Shah.

The rebellious streak also shows up in his next major work, Nukkad (1986). Directed by Saeed Mirza and Kundan Shah, the television serial went on to become one of the most popular ensemble series on the only network across India then, Doordarshan.

Telling the story of a group of residents of a neighbourhood in Mumbai, Nukkad captured the ethos and life of a million residents in every city across India. Dhawan played the stable, level-headed mechanic, Guru, who keeps the ragtag bunch of beggars, drunkards, tea-stall owners and unemployed liars in line as the neighbourhood copes with the changing times.

The series was one of the biggest hits of its time, marking the rise of new-age television. Its street-smart humour, humanist ideas, and very socialist view of society is a far cry from the uber-rich, glamorous teleserials on air today.

In his simplicity, Dhawan’s Guru was a part of India. Vulnerable, broken and conscious of his shortcomings, but smart enough to use them to his advantage. He was one of the three central protagonists of the series. 

In 2016, Pawan Malhotra, who played Hari in the series, said in an interview, “I remember after the 13 episodes, when we were attending a function, the girls went crazy! Of course, everybody was popular, but Dilip Dhawan [who played Guru], Sameer Khakkar [who played Khopdi] and I were mobbed the most.”

Yet, the fame would not last. While he was a good actor, Dhawan was lost in the crowd of superior performers who emerged from the FTII in the same period. He neither fit in among stars like Anil Kapoor, Mithun Chakraborty and Jackie Shroff nor among powerhouse performers like Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil.

After Nukkad, Dhawan saw something of a revival in his career, but mostly playing supporting characters in films like Izzatdaar (1990), Shiva (1990), Swarg (1990), Henna (1991), Virasat (1997) and Hum Saath-Saath Hain (1999).

There is, perhaps, a reason why Dilip Dhawan ought to be remembered more for his roles of intense vulnerability in Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyoon Aata Hai, Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan, or Nukkad. A generous man, he was known to help out colleagues.

In Om Puri: Unlikely Hero, Nandita Puri writes about the time when Dilip Dhawan gifted the Ardh Satya (1983) star with a silver suit, 'which Om never wore’.

In another instance, director Raman Kumar recalled in 2018 how Dhawan backed his film Saath Saath (1982) when the National Film Development Corporation demanded surety of Rs10,000. “So I went to Dilip Dhawan, who was the only one in my circle of friends who could lend that much amount. So he became the co-producer,” Raman Kumar said in the interview.  

Dhawan’s last acting role was in the forgettable Raja Ko Rani Se Pyar Ho Gaya (2000), a film that sank without a trace. Soon after completing his work in the film, he died of a heart attack. Two decades later, it seems like wishful thinking remembering an actor who captured the vulnerability and existentialism that defined India in the 1980s.