Watching the trailers for Yamla Pagla Deewana II - the Deol family film, which releases this week - I was assailed by nostalgia and headed YouTube-wards to watch the song sequence from which the film gets its name: "Main Jat Yamla Pagla Deewana" from the 1975 movie Pratigya. As a friend, a fellow Dharmendra fan, observed during a recent conversation, this is one of the most carefree, exuberant songs in Hindi-movie history. "All the director had to do was put a liquor bottle in paaji's hand, give him a large open space to goof around in, along with a jeep and a few other props, and tell him to invent whatever dance moves he felt comfortable doing. And the result was magic."
Perhaps it was also a minor carry-over from Dharmendra's superb, boisterous performance as Veeru in Sholay, made a few months earlier. But watching the song, I was struck by something else - it is remarkable how unselfconscious a screen personality Dharmendra was. In most of his best work (and some of his worst work, but we'll come to that), you get the sense of a man surprisingly bereft of ego, with little trace of the narcissism and self-absorption that has always been a prime quality of our leading men.
For decades, Hindi-movie heroes of all stripes have carefully nurtured their screen images. The personas might vary from Dev Anand's sanguine urbaneness to Dilip Kumar's studied bouts with tragedy, but most of them (even the ones we think of as "understated") come with self-conscious tics, suggesting that the star-actor knows exactly what effect he is having on the audience, and is determined to milk it. Hence Raj Kapoor's martyred smiles as awara or Joker deals with life's injustices, or Rajesh Khanna's romantic head-bobbing, or young Manoj Kumar's painfully evident belief that his handsomeness was too much for any camera to bear, hence his face had to be in side-profile or covered by his hand.
Dharmendra had mannerisms too, of course, but one rarely feels that he had pre-conceptions about what he should be doing on screen - from the beginning of his career, he seemed willing to subjugate himself to the film. And this, needless to say, is a double-edged sword. Working under such men as Bimal Roy and Hrishikesh Mukherjee in the 1960s, it could mean small but powerful character parts in movies of integrity. But in the context of the direction his career took in the bad 1980s (the kuttay-kameenay years), it could mean a lack of discernment, sleep-walking his way through assembly-line multi-starrers with endless variations on the badlaa themes.
In the mid-1980s, I remember Rishi Kapoor getting praise for being self-effacing enough to play secondary roles in woman-centric films like Prem Rog and Sargam. Well, Dharmendra was in a similar mould two decades earlier, a solid foot-soldier to strong heroines such as Nutan, Meena Kumari and Sharmila Tagore in films like Bandini, Majhli Didi, Anupama (or even a tiny but haunting cameo in the Waheeda Rehman-starrer Khamoshi). During this time, he was among our most likable romantic leads. He then developed into one of our best physical comedians and a convincing action hero, but the qualities that worked so well in films like Sholay and even the surreal Dharam Veer later made way for unthinking repetition. Later still, well into his sixties, he continued doing B-grade action films, made specifically for hinterland audiences.
It is a pity that such films may have marred the legacy of one of our most under-appreciated actors, but then it is never too late for redemption. With the Yamla Pagla Deewana films containing many allusions to scenes from his old movies, there are signs that Dharmendra may belatedly have developed a sense of self-importance, a meta-sense of his own filmic past. The man who so bashfully played himself in Guddi -as a movie-star who is just a normal person - may finally, at the age of 78, be facing up to his legacy. And it is a legacy that deserves to be rediscovered.
Jai Arjun Singh is a Delhi-based writer