One of India’s most popular and versatile actors, Dharmendra was born inPunjabon December 8, 1935, and spent most of his childhood in Sahnewal village. His father, Kewal Kishan Singh Deol, was a school headmaster.
After completing his college education, Dharmendra won the ‘New Talent’ contest conducted by Filmfare magazine and, like many other star-struck youngsters of his generation, arrived inBombay (now Mumbai) to try his luck in the Hindi film industry. He got his first break in the 1960 film ‘Dil Bhi Tera Hum Bhi Tere’, directed by Arjun Hingorani and starring Balraj Sahni and Kum Kum. This was followed by several films such as ‘Soorat Aur Seerat’, ‘Bandini’ and ‘Anpadh’ in which he played the romantic hero opposite popular actresses of that time. In the Bimal Roy-directed ‘Bandini’, which was both a critical and commercial success, Kalyani (Nutan), a female prisoner, is torn between two men — Devendra (Dharmendra), the prison doctor, and Bikash (Ashok Kumar).
Dharmendra played supporting roles in films like ‘Aaye Milan Ki Bela’ and ‘Haqeeqat’. The biggest hit of 1966, ‘Phool Aur Patthar’, in which he played the lead role, established him as a star. “Essaying the role of an underworld hireling [in ‘Phool Aur Patthar’], Dharmendra blended machismo with marshmallow tenderness and won a major female following. When he peeled off his shirt in the film, a he-man was born,” Dinesh Raheja wrote in rediff.com.
Putting the kind of roles Dharmendra did in the first decade of his career into context, the writer and critic Mukul Kesavan wrote in Outlook magazine in May 2008: “In the ’60s, Dharmendra represented moral seriousness in Hindi cinema; in film after film, the characters he played tried to reconcile the conflicting demands of love, advancement and integrity. He specialised in playing the respectable professional. He was a jail doctor in ‘Bandini’, a barrister in ‘Mamta’, an engineer in ‘Satyakam’ and ‘Aadmi aur Insaan’. In the mid-to late ’60s, a time when Hindi cinema was marked by the hill-station hedonism of Shammi Kapoor, Dharmendra swam against the tide by carrying forward an older tradition of social realism and concern.”
Kesavan calls Dharmendra’s portrayal of an idealistic civil engineer in the 1969 landmark Hrishikesh Mukherjee-directed film ‘Satyakam’ “arguably the most affecting and powerful performance by a male actor in that decade”. Dharmendra played himself in the 1971 comedy ‘Guddi’, which did reasonably well at the box office. Directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee and written by Gulzar, the film starred Jaya Bachchan as Guddi and Utpal Dutt. ‘Guddi’ again proved that Dharmendra could adapt himself to all kinds of roles.
‘Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971) reinforced Dharmendra’s image of an action hero.
Dharmendra and Hema Malini, who would become his wife, played a couple in several films including ‘Seeta Aur Geeta’, ‘Naya Zamana’, ‘Jugnu’, and the iconic ‘Sholay’.
In Sholay, a retired police officer Thakur Baldev Singh (played by Sanjeev Kumar) employs two petty thieves, Veeru (Dharmendra) and Jai (Amitabh Bachchan), to capture the dreaded bandit Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan). The bond of friendship between Dharmendra and Bachchan is among the many highlights of the film, one of the biggest hits in Indian cinema history.
As Raheja puts it: “The rollicking romance between the boisterous tangewali…Basanti (Hema Malini), and the flirtatious crook, Veeru…made the screen crackle with infectious humour. And Dharmendra’s partner-in-crime, the wry Amitabh Bachchan, provided the perfect foil to his furiously funny antics — including the immortal ‘maasi in jail’ drunken gig atop a water tank.”
After 1975, Dharmendra acted in several action films such as ‘Dharam Veer’, ‘Charas’, ‘Ghazab’ and ‘Rajput’. In his long career consisting of some 300 films, he also starred in several Punjabi films such as ‘Do Sher’ (1974), ‘Dukh Bhanjan Tera Naam’ (1974), and ‘Putt Jattan De’ (1982). According to Kesavan, it is “one of the many ironies of his career that he did his worst work when he reverted to his roots and began playing the Jat hero, fighting feudal Thakur oppression in films like ‘Ghulami’, ‘Yateem’, ‘Batwara’ and ‘Kshatriya’”.
In 1997, when Dharmendra received the Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award, the legendary Dilip Kumar quipped: “Whenever I get to meet with God Almighty I will set before Him my only complaint — why did you not make me as handsome as Dharmendra?” When asked why he didn’t get any Best Actor award in his career, Dharmendra later said: “For me, the greatest award is the love and support of my fans, which I always get. I don’t want to comment on why I did not get an award. But I think I deserved it for ‘Phool aur Patthar’, ‘Satyakam’, ‘Chupke Chupke’, ‘Pratigya’, ‘Sholay’ and ‘Naya Zamana’ among several others.”
Explaining his approach to acting he told The Tribune in 2002: “When the script suggested a complete and powerful role, one did not have to make effort to be natural. Acting is required only when the role is not strong enough.”
He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2012.
Chronicling Dharmendra’s 55 years in the film industry, Rachit Gupta wrote in Filmfare in July 2013: “Today he’s known as the most handsome man to have walked the soils of showbiz inIndia. Back in the ’70s Dharmendra was considered one of the best looking men in the world…But Dharmendra’s real feat is more impressive than his looks. He’s survived showbiz and he’s survived superstars…[and] despite not carrying favours from the media or the critics, Dharmendra became the industry’s favourite leading man.”
Hinting at perhaps the secret behind his evergreen popularity, Dharmendra said in an interview in 2013: “I don’t want to be inside people’s brain…I live in people’s heart, a place from where no one can throw me out.”
Also on this day:
1720 — Nanasaheb Peshwa, prominent Maratha ruler, was born
1875 — Tej Bahadur Sapru, leader of the pro-British Raj Liberal party, was born
1900 — Uday Shankar, dancer and choreographer, was born
1927 — Parkash Singh Badal, chief minister of Punjab and leader of Shiromani Akali Dal, was born
1944 — Sharmila Tagore, Indian film actress, was born
2004 — C.S. Rao, south Indian filmmaker, passed away