At 79, the Iron Man of Bollywood will soon add ‘octogenarian’ to his credit. But apart from a slight limp, Dharmendra makes you question the ageing process. Ambling in to interact with the media before the release of his forthcoming comedy Second Hand Husband , Dharmendra wins you over with his shy smile and affable manner. Ask him about what keeps him busy these days, and he says, “I am a Jat. Jats love their land and their farms. I spend most of my time in my farmhouse at Lonavla these days. Organic farming is our focus and we grow rice. I also have some buffaloes there.”
With daughter Ahana giving birth to a son recently, he is a grandfather yet again. “We haven’t decided on a name yet,” he says. However, he shrugs off questions about his grandchildren and on Karan Deol’s forthcoming debut. “The memories of your children and their children growing up sustain you.”
The Deol family has always maintained a low profile. Some feel they have missed out on branding their cinematic successes. He says, “In our times, this used to be an industry, but today, it’s an open marketplace. Everyone appears to be on sale. What can I say! Acting was my first love, but my first love has become a full-fledged business today.”
With their banner Vijayta Films witnessing ups and downs in the past decade, Dharmendra admits that making films isn’t easy. “We lost money with Apne . Then we made profits with the first Yamla Pagla Deewana, but the second one made us cry again. We haven’t decided on what’s next. Come to think of it, Apne was a film based on sports. Shah Rukh told me that you should have just promoted and marketed it some more and the film would have worked. Now this publicity mechanism is not something we understand very well. How often can we possibly praise our own work? It’s for audiences to say that to us.”
Despite his action hero avatar, the veteran actor is glad to see films getting closer to reality today. “Audiences today are discerning. Films look at day-to-day realities and everyday struggles, which is a good trend for the long term. In the process, if emotions are raw and moments of ugliness enter the narrative, people accept that too. It happened during our time too. Anupama (1966) was about a father who can’t come to terms with his wife’s death during childbirth. In Naya Zamana (1971) I played a struggling writer. Then there was Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi , a Guru Dutt production, where I played a journalist. I have been lucky to get quality roles and I took them as they came.”
More often than not, Dharmendra’s performance-oriented roles were overshadowed by his dashing good looks. Ask about the current fixation on chiselled bodies and six-pack abs, and he says, “I am a farmer’s son and have laboured on our farms while growing up. I used to play kabaddi and hockey, and used to jump off banyan trees as a kid. I have always eaten fresh simple food, like I used to back home in our village. Since we didn’t have a fridge, a glass of milk was the first morning meal. These days, everything has become quite artificial; even fight scenes. The ground shakes and people end up doing somersaults once the hero lands a punch. People seem to like that. Salman, who is very sweet, once asked me about my thighs — what I did to build them. I told him, ‘Well, nothing really.’”
When the topic shifts to the classics that he and Amitabh Bachchan acted in like Sholay (1975) and Chupke Chupke (1975), he reminisces, “Hrishi da would write a good story, a good screenplay and good dialogues. Amit and I would just breeze through these parts, and people would give us so much credit for great performances.”
As never-ending questions keep coming his way, ‘Garam Dharam’ begins to lose steam. He says he hurt his rotator cuff muscle when he missed a step while entering a vanity van. Low haemoglobin compounded the problem. Assuring the media that ‘all this affection and love keeps me young’, he seems restive; it’s time to leave behind the traffic, noise and brouhaha of Bollywood and head back to the simple comforts of family and farmland.