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dharmendra

No One Writes To The Prison Doc Anymore

A Jat playing bhadralok? Could it have been that he acted so well that we didn't even notice?

No One Writes To The Prison Doc Anymore
No One Writes To The Prison Doc Anymore
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53

From Dil Bhi Tera, Hum Bhi Tere to Johnny Gaddar, Dharmendra acted in nearly two hundred and fifty films and never won a Filmfare Best Actor award despite being discovered in a Filmfare talent spotting competition. He won a consolation prize, a Lifetime Achievement award in 1997, but the magazine didn't give him one for an individual performance. This couldn't have been because he didn't star in successful films, or didn't turn in celebrated performances. Haqeeqat, Bandini, Phool aur Patthar, Satyakam, Chupke Chupke, Mera Gaon Mera Desh, Seeta aur Geeta and Sholay were outstandingly successful films, made by A-list directors and largely powered by Dharmendra's presence, but he never got the big prize. More interestingly, Dharmendra never got much credit for being an actor, when he was the most reliably good actor-hero in mainstream cinema from 1960 to 1975.

It's worth asking why. Some part of this lack of recognition had to do with the fact that Dharmendra acted in heroine-oriented films in the early part of his career. He was paired with major actresses like Nutan, Mala Sinha, Meena Kumari and Suchitra Sen who got the credit for the films they made together; Bandini, Anpadh, Phool aur Patthar and Mamta are good examples. He played the romantic foil and because he was so comfortable in his skin, so effortlessly the good-looking, honourable male lead, his audiences ended up thinking that his roles didn't require real performances. Then, in the early '70s, some of his signature performances came in multi-star films. In Chupke Chupke, while he carried the film, he shared screen time with Amitabh, Sharmila, Jaya Bhaduri and Om Prakash. Similarly his great comic turn in Sholay had to share attention with Sanjeev Kumar's eye-rolling histrionics, Bachchan's tragic end and, of course, with Amjad Khan's extraordinary debut as Gabbar Singh.

It's possible to find semi-plausible reasons, then, for Dharmendra being overlooked in the acting stakes, but these aren't good reasons. When you consider that Rajesh Khanna was celebrated for his performances in Anand and Namak Haraam, performances that are hard to watch today without giggling or cringing, when you think of the millions of movie-goers and critics who thought Sanjeev Kumar's kit bag of theatrical mannerisms made him Bombay cinema's greatest actor, when you recollect the endless variations on vigilantism that installed Bachchan in our memories as an acting Atlas, it's hard to believe that Dharmendra got so little credit for so much good work. Even Sunil Dutt, who was no one's idea of a great actor, got two Filmfare Best Actor awards in the early '60s.


Essaying his best in Satyakam

The main reason why Dharmendra wasn't given his acting due was because he was good-looking in a conventional North Indian way. He was an early pioneer of male sex appeal in a cinematic tradition where the hero generally treated his body like an optional extra. It was the women that were sprayed into tight clothes: the men could be any shape they chose and generally were. Shammi Kapoor, Rajendra Kumar, Raj Kapoor in his middle period, Dev Anand and Rajesh Khanna kept their bodies all covered up and the world was a better place for it. Dharmendra was an early adopter of the bare-torsoed moment (Phool aur Patthar) and paradoxically, his rugged, clean-cut appeal worked against him as an actor.

The reason for this is that Hindi film critics tend to see actorly ability as a compensatory talent: thus histrionic ability is granted to actors who are either unconventionally attractive (Bachchan, Naseeruddin Shah) or positively plain (Sanjeev Kumar, Om Puri). Dharmendra, light-skinned, rugged, with the perfect Colgate smile, didn't fit the mould. Though no one would have mistaken him for Shashi Kapoor (who had desperately crooked teeth), they were both received as good-looking men who got by in films on account of an easy charm. So while Shashi was cute and Dharmendra was rugged, they were rated by their physical appeal rather than their ability to act. Which is a pity because while Shashi Kapoor genuinely couldn't act at all, Dharmendra was, for a dozen years, the outstanding actor-hero in Hindi cinema.

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.

Bimal Roy had been the great master of that tradition; having acted in Bandini, it was fitting that Dharmendra joined forces with Hrishikesh Mukherjee (who had apprenticed as Bimal Roy's assistant director through the '50s) to make a series of middle-of-the-road films that wrestled with a particular dilemma: how was a man to lead an honourable life in a world made oppressive by traditional injustice and modern corruption?

The fascinating aspect of this phase of Dharmendra's career is that he became the vehicle for Bengali literary realism in Hindi cinema. Just as Guru Dutt's Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam was a Bengali film in Hindustani drag, so too were Bandini, Anupama, Manjhli Didi and Satyakam. That a strapping Jat hunk managed to play the bhadralok protagonist with such intensity and conviction is an achievement for which Dharmendra gets too little credit.


Doctor babu: With Nutan in Bimal Roy's socio-realist portraiture, Bandini ('63)

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