In a village in Punjab, the son of a school headmaster chances upon an advertisement for a talent contest. The ad is in Filmfare magazine and it says directors like Bimal Roy and Guru Dutt are looking for new faces, and that the winner of this talent contest will get to work with some of Hindi cinema’s most famous directors. The young man gets his photo taken and sends it to Filmfare. He wins the new talent award and so moves to Mumbai, but the promised film doesn’t get made. He eventually manages to make his debut and starts finding work as an actor, but his big break comes years later — after he catches the eye of one the most famous heroines of the time. Almost overnight, he becomes Hindi cinema’s He-Man, wins awards and goes on to become a legendary star. Hearts break along the way, conventions are flouted and 60-odd years later, he’s putting up photos of himself as a shirtless young man, with the caption, “Jab hum jawaan they……style dikhaya karte they (When I was young, I was stylish)”.
It’s a wonder that Dharmendra’s life hasn’t been turned into a film because it is truly the stuff of Bollywood dreams.
Since the actor made his debut with Arjun Hingorani's Dil Bhi Tera Hum Bhi Tere (1960), Dharmendra has been in more than 300 films. In 2023, we’ll see him in Karan Johar’s Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani (imagine: Ranveer Singh and Dharmendra in the same frame!). On the occasion of his birthday, we’re looking back at the Padma Bhushan winner’s illustrious career and picking 10 of his best performances.
Directed by Bimal Roy, Bandini is a love triangle between Deven, jail doctor (Dharmendra); Kalyani, an inmate (Nutan); and her freedom fighter husband, Bikash (Ashok Kumar). Dharmendra — whom Roy called “Dharmendu” — was the least well-known of the leading cast at the time. While Nutan is very much the star of this film, the young Dharmendra holds his own. Ultimately, Bikash gets the ‘girl’, but the man who makes your pulse flutter is Deven. Here’s a man who says, “Mujhe tumhare beetey dinon se nahi, tumhare aaj se matlab (I don’t care about your past, I’m only interested in what you are in the present)”, and who accepts being rejected with grace.
This was Dharmendra’s breakout film and the one that earned him the tag of being Hindi cinema’s “He-Man” because of his physique, but more on that later. Directed by O.P. Ralhan, the film established the pairing of Dharmendra and Meena Kumari, who took on the upcoming actor as her protégé. There were rumours of the two of them being romantically involved, but Dharmendra has maintained that he was just her fan. In Phool Aur Patthar, Dharmendra plays a criminal named Shaka who becomes the knight in shining armour for Shanti (Kumari), who is a destitute widow abused by her in-laws. One of the highlights of the film was a scene in which Shaka rips off his shirt ostensibly because he’s drunk, but mostly because Ralhan evidently wanted to send audiences into a tizzy at the sight of Dharmendra’s muscular torso. In a later scene, the actor wears a shirt torn strategically to let us get a glimpse of his pectorals. Phool Aur Patthar was one of the biggest hits that year. Dharmendra and Meena Kumari would be seen in four more films after this one.
Directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Anupama is about a complicated father-daughter relationship. The film’s protagonist, Uma (Sharmila Tagore) wishes to marry Ashok (Dharmendra), whom her father (Tarun Bose) dislikes because the younger man seems irresponsible. Ashok is a writer, teacher and idealist. If it’s a choice between his ideals and his salary, Ashok picks his ideals. Uma falls in love with Ashok, but her father’s disapproval is an obstacle in their relationship. Once again, in Anupama, Dharmendra plays a hero who respects women and their opinions. He says at one point, "Main nahin chahta uske baap ki tarah apne khayalat, apne asool, uspe thop doon. Ek insaan ki aazadi utni hi keemti hai jitni ek desh ki (I don't want to force my views on her like her father. A person's freedom is as important as a country's.)"
By this time, Dharmendra was a huge star and Mukherjee played on the actor’s celebrity status by casting Dharmendra as himself in Guddi. The film’s titular character is a young girl, played by Jaya Bhaduri (later Bachchan), who is obsessed with Dharmendra. This is an early example of Bollywood turning the lens on itself and examining the impact of its fame. Dharmendra plays a star who does his best to show Guddi the difference between the real world and the make-believe of films. Written by Gulzar, Guddi also had cameos by Pran, Rajesh Khanna, Mala Sinha and others.
Not only is he named Parimal — one of the most unsexy Indian names ever — the moment when the wonder of Dharmendra is unveiled to the heroine (a luminous Sharmila Tagore) in Chupke Chupke, the actor is wearing a monkey cap. And yet, you go a little weak at the knees when that monkey cap goes off, and Dharmendra directs his crinkly-eyed smile to the camera. Mukherjee’s madcap comedy had Bollywood’s finest in its cast, including Tagore, Bhaduri, Amitabh Bachchan, Om Prakash, Keshto Mukherjee and Asrani. Dharmendra played a professor who first pretends to be a chowkidar and then a shuddh-Hindi-speaking driver named Pyare Mohan Allahabadi. Nothing makes sense, the lead couples look gorgeous and everything is hilarious. Almost 50 years later, Chupke Chupke remains one of the best feel-good films in Hindi cinema.
Widely regarded as one the greatest and most influential Indian films of all time, Sholay was directed by Ramesh Sippy, produced by his father G. P. Sippy, and written by the legendary screenwriting duo of Salim–Javed. Dharmendra plays Veeru, the half of the Jai-Veeru duo that survives Gabbar’s malice. On-screen, he has an amazing bromance with Amitabh Bachchan. Off-screen, he was brewing a somewhat scandalous romance with co-star Hema Malini (Dharmendra was married with kids and would later convert to Islam in order to marry Malini). There are stories of Dharmendra paying light boys to ruin shots during their scenes, so that there would be many retakes. The good news is that the film is better conceived than these rumoured attempts at wooing. Sholay set the American Western in an Indian landscape with a story that has some of the most well-written portrayals of Indian masculinity in commercial Hindi cinema. Dharmendra didn’t let himself be overshadowed by Bachchan, Sanjeev Kumar and Amjad Khan. His Veeru remains one of Bollywood’s most beloved rascals.
In 1977, director Manmohan Desai had three other films centred around the trope of being separated at birth. Of these four films, Dharmendra was in two of them — Chacha Bhatija and Dharam Veer (the other two were Parvarish and Amar Akbar Anthony, and both had Bachchan as one of the leads). Set in a mythical kingdom, Dharmendra plays Dharam and Jeetendra plays Veer, twin brothers who grow up separately but become best friends without knowing the other is a twin. The film begins with a falcon swooping things out of a royal court, progresses to a prancing Pran, and then there’s Dharmendra’s intro shot: The actor is wielding a hammer while wearing a little black (leather) dress. Move over, Thor. Dharam Veer is kitschy, ridiculous, melodramatic and, like most of Desai’s films, rollicking fun.
Basu Chatterjee’s romantic comedy is based on Bimal Kar’s Kalidas O Chemistry and showed Dharmendra in a very different avatar. He plays Swarn Kamal, a bespectacled Sanskrit professor in a girls’ college, and he is hell-bent on wooing Phoolrenu (Hema Malini), the strict Chemistry teacher who takes great pleasure in pranking Swarn Kamal. Chatterjee milks the contrast between the meek and non-confrontational Swarn Kamal and Dharmendra’s action-hero reputation for humour. Plus, the lead pair have some crackling chemistry. They’d get married in 1980.
Ravi Chopra’s action thriller was a remake of the 1975 Japanese thriller, The Bullet Train. It’s two and a half hours of disaster as the fastest train in India hurtles across the country, navigating its way past everything from a bomb blast to collapsing marriages and unfinished rail tracks. The star cast included Dharmendra, Vinod Khanna, Jeetendra, Danny Denzongpa and Vinod Mehra. Alongside them are Hema Malini, Neetu Singh (now Kapoor) and Parveen Babi. Dharmendra plays a man who becomes a heartbroken wanderer after he’s dumped by Malini. The two of them meet years later when they’re both travelling on that hapless train. The film’s many twists, stunts and tangents earned it the sobriquet of “The Turning Brain”. Of course, Dharmendra is one of the men who ends up saving the day and the climax has him, Khanna and Jeetendra wearing all-silver ensembles that are a sight to behold.
Dedicated to director Vijay Anand and writer James Hadley Chase, Sriram Raghavan’s Johnny Gaddaar is full of hat-tips to Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Scarface (1983), Sin City (2005), The Killing (1956), Parwana (1971) and a host of other films. Dharmendra plays Sheshadri, one of the five men who runs a gambling club. It’s a small role, but one that is memorable both because of the writing and Dharmendra’s performance. Keep an ear out for the use of the song ‘Mera Gora Rang Le Le’ from Bandini.