“I think I am still a newcomer. I still have so much to learn.” If these words were uttered by your average Bollywood superstar, they’d seem, at best, as a perfunctory attempt at modesty. But when someone like Dharmendra says something like this, as he did in a recent interview to Guardian 20, you don’t question the authenticity of the sentiment. Everything he says carries weight, and his statements are delivered with an air of authority and genuineness that one can only associate with true veterans.
Having now reached the age of 81, Dharmendra, or Dharam Paaji as he is endearingly called by fans and well-wishers, can claim the uncommon distinction of being the real golden-jubilee star in Bollywood. His films have entertained audiences for more than 50 years now. But that doesn’t mean he is getting ready to hang up his spikes anytime soon. As he says, “I still have so much to learn. And I believe one can achieve something only by learning. If I think that I have learned a lot and come a long way, I will lose the enthusiasm.”
Thanks to his unflagging enthusiasm for cinema, the past few years have turned out to be particularly productive for Dharmendra. He has done a range of roles, experimented with characters and scripts. Indeed, this recent phase has seen the actor reinvent himself almost entirely, the better to keep up with the changing tone of contemporary cinema.
We caught up with the actor on his recent visit to the national capital for the promotion of his first international short film, Dream Catcher, which is about modern technology and human relationships, and is directed by Santoshh Shivamm. For an actor who is not to be seen on social media, no Facebook or Twitter for him, playing the role of a tech-savvy man in Dream Catcher must have been quite some challenge?
“I decided to do this film because the idea of the film is such that it would create a bigger impact,” Dharmendra says. “The biggest advantage of technology is that the public can do things very quickly. But it also has its disadvantages and it is now being misused. Innocent souls, children are going away from parents. If not used in a positive way, technology can spoil our culture and tradition. So in this short film, I will be conveying the same thing.”
“I used to do my own dance steps. And the worst part was, I could not do the same step again. I used to tell the director bluntly that I don’t understand the meaning of dance. I used to catch the rhythm. I did my own thing and the dance steps became famous.”
Everyone needs some source of motivation. For Dharmendra, the drive comes from his belief that one must always abide by a rigourous work ethic. He says: “Work is worship for me. I live on a farm but I keep thinking about cinema. I get people to narrate scripts to me there because I want to touch the hearts of people. People love me more for my insaniyat [humanity] than anything else. And I have not cultivated it; it is something which comes from within.” Equally important is his wish to be loved by his audiences. “If you study human psychology, you will realise that everyone likes to be loved and admired,” he adds.
Dharmendra has been living in Mumbai for over five decades now, but is still emotionally attached to his village Sahnewal, in Ludhiana, Punjab. “My roots are still in Sahnewal. Whenever I get distracted, I remember the aura of my village and the fresh air of it that stops me from doing something which would tarnish my name,” he says.
His identity and roots are important to Dharmendra. And such values have kept him grounded all these years. This is so unlike today’s actors and actresses, many of whom are desperately seeking to make their mark in Hollywood.
“Bahar toh aap pata nahi kab fade ho jayenge [there’s no telling when you might fade out in film industries abroad],” he says. “And they are particular about so many things. Our industry doesn’t bother about so many things. Here, your career is also quite unpredictable but when it comes to Hollywood, it is totally unpredictable. Here, you can still go and meet directors and producers or can go for a low-budget films for instance. But there you don’t have that flexibility. They work in a certain way. And our industry is known internationally, and they know about our work.”
Known for his humility, the actor greatly appreciates the same quality in others, and takes a philosophical view of success and failure. “I think every human being should be humble,” he says. “Kal ke nakamyabi ke darr se main aaj ki kamyabi mana nahi paya [scared of tomorrow’s failure, one forgets to celebrates today’s success]. Tomorrow, this popularity may go. The day I start saying that I have achieved everything in life, I would cease to exist. I want to see myself working hard and finishing a number of projects. And I am excited to learn new things in the process. I believe in having a healthy body and agile mind.”
B-town’s original He-Man, Dharmendra is also famous for being an “action hero”. Talking about how action sequences have changed in contemporary films, he says, “Today, different technologies have come up, which help in performing better action scenes. Also, today’s generation can never replicate what we used to do. I used to do my own stunts. I am happy that techniques have been changed as our action scenes were not that much technically protected or safe. I remember the issue of safety in action scenes started with Sholay. I jumped from 18-feet up high without wearing any protective gear. I never took the help of duplicates to perform my action scenes. I had that passion to do it myself and I still want to do it.”
Besides the stunts, he is also celebrated for his epic dance steps, mainly in the song “Main Jat Yamla Pagla Deewana”, from Pratigya (1975). He recalls, “I used to do my own dance steps. And the worst part was, I could not do the same step again. I used to tell the director bluntly that I don’t understand the meaning of dance. I used to catch the rhythm. I did my own thing and the dance steps became famous.”
The actor has fond memories with many of the biggest yesteryear stars, who were his contemporaries. Recently, his co-star Vinod Khanna passed away. Remembering him, Dharmendra says, “Vinod was like a younger brother to me. We were together in Mera Gaon Mera Desh. He worked so well that he overshadowed me. He was a great actor and great human being. Everyone goes through ups and downs. He also went through that phase. He wore a sadhu’s attire and left the industry. When he came back, we again worked together. We were the only two actors in the industry who would perform their own stunts. Both of us refused to take doubles. We used to fight really hard.”
Like Raj Kapoor, Dharmendra also wanted his legacy to continue in films, so that his family, too, would one day be seen as the “first family” of Indian cinema. “Whenever I used to watch Raj Kapoor’s films I always used to think that theirs was the first family of Hindi films. I was highly impressed by Prithviraj Kapoor in the film Sikandar. Like his muscular thighs were highlighted in that period film, I also showed mine in Dharam Veer [laughs]. Next, his son Raj Kapoor was launched, followed by Shammi and Shashi. So I also dreamed that one day I would launch my sons on screen. But you cannot force anyone to become an actor. We can only be a medium but destiny is written by God. My fan following went to Sunny and now my and Sunny’s popularity would reach Karan [Dharmendra’s grandson]. The film’s name is Pal Pal Dil Ke Paas; it was the title of a song sung by Kishore da for my film Blackmail, which remains popular today.”
Lastly, when asked about his biopic, the actor said that there will be no film based on his life. “I will never give permission to any filmmaker to make a movie tracing my life’s journey because my life is not worth it. However, I will keep on telling parts of my story through several other ways. I won’t even write a biography. People forget films easily. People should remember you despite the lack of any biography or biopic.”