Once Dharmendra walked down Dara Singh’s lane.
The passing away of Dara Singh took the mind’s eye back to the era when the films’ posters often carried the image of the hero with the punch-line, “in and as”. With films’ names so self-explanatory as Hercules, Samson, Faulad and Jawan Mard, it was not unusual to see Dara Singh’s name being succeeded by the line, “in and as”. That was in the 1960s and the ’70, and for a brief while spilled over to the early 1980s. Even as Amitabh Bachchan ruled the box office, there was, ironically, a niche audience for Dara Singh, the pehalwan of the masses. Quietly, even a film like Guru Suleman, Chela Pehalwan raked in the riches. So, even as cinema halls in the upmarket areas of the cities played films like Don, Amar Akbar Anthony and later Coolie, Mard, etc, those in the areas preferred by the working class happily played re-runs of Daku Mangal Singh, Chambal ki Rani and Sultana Daku. Dara Singh’s films made for non-fussy entertainment, sound economics. He himself could laugh at them, but he knew his target audience, an audience that often mistook the character for the man. The films worked at the box office.
Then came a bigger surprise. Dara Singh was succeeded at the box office by, believe it or not, Dharmendra, the Satyakam man! He came in for muted criticism when he decided to walk down Dara Singh lane, tap the same audience, and yes, yield reasonably positive results. It all started in the early 1990s. Dharmendra was no longer the most popular star in Hindi cinema having yielded space to the Khan trio, and a little later to Akshay Kumar. While other contemporaries like Vinod Khanna, Jeetendra and Shatrughan Singh receded into their backyards, except an occasional hurrah or two, Dharmendra took the route least expected: playing to the gallery. And the gallery, in this case, was filled with daily wage earners, the labourers from small towns who lived in shanties in metropolises, the old-timers who still felt that a hero was supposed to be all brawn, chocolate boys had their space in nursery! Action, not romance, is what distinguished the men from the boys. Even as Dharmendra’s films came at regular intervals from 1995 to mid-2000, the media, not for a micro second ready to look beyond the multiplexes, did not even spare a glance! A handful of old fans of Dharmendra called him stupid to act in films that travelled from B to C grade, from B-towns to C-towns and beyond. It was only later they realised that the He-Man was actually being clever, indeed smart. He kept the kitchen fire burning, and in touch with his loyal audience base! The films stemmed from sound economics: made on a limited budget in a limited time span with shooting schedules of just around a month, and no expenditure on publicity, they catered to a niche audience. Again, this was the segment of audience who always rooted for an action hero. Once it was Dara, it was Dharmendra’s turn a little later.
True, but what, where are these films? Well, many of them were directed by Kanti Shah, a filmmaker who for a long time specialised in making two-three films at the same time with no bound script, no individual music score and the like! Dharmendra made either a special appearance or occasionally played the hero too. There was just one thumb rule: it had to be action flick with our hero taking to arms! Whether he was a dacoit or a cop was immaterial!
Thus, even as you and I were busy applauding Shah Rukh, Salman and Aamir, Dharmendra’s filmography was growing by the week. In came films like Gundagardi, Loha, Khule-Aaam, Mafia, Sultan, Bhai Thakur, TADA, Munnibai, Reshma aur Sultan, Jagir, Policewala Gunda, Kaali ki Saugandh, Ek aur Jung, Daku Bhairav Singh and Akhri Dacait, etc! In some his heroine was Sapna, in others Satnam Kaur. In some his co-stars included Raza Murad and Shakti Kapoor, in others Hemant Birje, Anil Nagrath and Kiran Kumar! The common factor was business. Made at a shoe-string budget, at times ridiculously low sum of Rs.40 lakh, they always recovered their money, and made a lot of it over and above the cost! They all came in unannounced, no satellite promos, no special talk shows by artistes, not even those gigantic hoardings one used to see at the traffic intersections in the years past.
The technique was tried by Mithun Chakravorty too with desirable results. And lesser so by Jackie Shroff. Jackie did not have the popularity to enjoy a lasting success. But only Dharmendra could consistently appeal to the frontbenchers, flaunt his chiselled torso, scream like the world was hard of hearing, gallop on a horse and shoot enemies like swatting a fly. Yet remain anonymous. The faceless multitudes, often unlettered, almost always, financially enfeebled, queued in at cinema halls with admission rate of Rs.10, clapped when Dharmendra sang or killed! He reflected their dreams and desires. He was the ‘in an as’ Sultan. The high-brow, the media with an ear — and space — for Page 3 do’s, did not even notice. Dharmendra could not care less. There was always Satyakam for them!