Happy 82nd birthday Dharam Paaji!

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I was to interview Dharmendra for today, his 82nd birthday. I haven’t met him in years. But sometimes, driven by nostalgia perhaps, he calls me for a long, rambling chat. It’s difficult to get him off the phone then. I don’t mind. I have much respect and deep affection for this Jat who took the Frontier Mail from Ludhiana and came to Bombay at the age of 22 to become an actor. “I was a school teacher’s son who wanted to be an actor simply because it is human nature to want to be loved, liked and admired,” Dharamji once told me.

“I just wanted a Fiat car, a flat, and to be seen in film posters. Today, fans call me from Tunisia and Nigeria!” I asked why, when his co-stars in the 1960s were driving foreign Impalas and Chevrolets, did he choose to buy a desi Fiat. Dharamji replied with an embarrassed laugh, “I thought if I don’t make it in films I could at least become a taxi driver.”

I don’t enjoy birthdays without my parents, I pray to them to help me be a good person...

The interview which was to take place this week, didn’t. Shashi Kapoor died on Monday. And Dharamji, like several old contemporaries of that last great Kapoor actor, went into depression. He sent word that he was in no frame of mind to give an interview. A couple of weeks later, perhaps.

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There’s going to be no birthday celebration too. Not that Dharamji celebrates the day. Birthdays depress him. Not because he’s growing older, but because he misses his mother terribly on this day.

I want more from my sons. I want to hug them, but stop myself, I don’t know why. There is an awkwardness between us

When he turned 75 and completed 50 years in Bollywood, I joined Dharamji for breakfast at his Juhu residence on his birthday. Struggling to control his emotions, he said with a break in his voice, “What to celebrate my birthday when the person who gave birth to me is not here.” From his pocket, Dharamji then nostalgically produced a tattered and faded letter. It was the last one from his father.

He kisses it every morning and reverently touches the letter to his forehead. “I’m very sentimental,” he told me, tears unabashedly rolling down his cheeks, “I don’t enjoy birthdays without my parents, I pray to them to help me be a good person, to give me the strength to make others happy. I like seeing smiling faces.”

Breakfast was stuffed parathas with butter churned on his farm in Lonavala. And tall glasses of rich, frothy lassi. At the table were his sons, Sunny and Bobby Deol, both grown men with growing sons of their own. Dharamji was extra sentimental that morning. His mind was like a whirring camera, all the time focused on some image, now in the present, then in flashback, from bright and vivid colours to dull sepia tone. He spoke from the heart, “I still feel like a newcomer because I’m always excited to face the camera. It was my life’s dream to be in films and I will be an actor as long as I live. I’ve been called He-Man and Greek God, but now, I’ve moved on from that.” I didn’t believe him, of course, because Dharamji at 75 still gave the impression that he was in competition with Salman Khan, Hrithik Roshan and John Abraham for Bollywood Hunk of The Year.

I was the biggest boozer in Bollywood. But one day, on a flight to LA, I said enough was enough!

I remember sending one of my pretty reporters to interview him on an earlier birthday. She unwisely asked him about his fitness routine. Dharamji told her,  “I don’t understand this craze for six-pack abs, big biceps and chests, I was known for my thighs, remember me wearing a skirt in Dharamveer?” And then he roguishly got my lady reporter to measure his thighs. With her hands!

At 82, age continues to be kind with Dharamji. He’s still a rock-star. He exercises daily, does yoga, maintains a strict diet, and stays off alcohol. He told me over the lassi, “I was the biggest boozer in Bollywood. But one day, on a flight to LA, I said enough was enough. If I could survive the long flight without a drink, I could stay without touching booze later on in life.” Of all Bollywood’s macho men of yesteryear, he looks the least likely candidate for the octogenarian’s club. He is fighting fit and raring to go at all times.

I just wanted a Fiat car, a flat, and to be seen in film posters

After breakfast, in his study I asked Dharamji what he wanted most in the world on his birthday. Hesitatingly he said, “I want more from my sons. And I want to give more. I want to hug them, but stop myself, I don’t know why. There is an awkwardness between us. As a boy, I feared my father. He was a disciplinarian. So I was naturally close to my mother. My father’s love for my sisters was unconditional and special. But he always stopped short of me. Yet today I miss him more than anybody else.”

His eyes were awash with unshed tears. Then he said, “When Feroz Khan passed away, I learned from his son Fardeen that you should tell your father you love him before it is too late. I didn’t do that.” He was crying suddenly. I could see the raw heartache of a strong man unashamed to show his tears. Sunny and Bobby Deol weren’t around. They had quietly withdrawn, taking their unexpressed affection with them.

Impulsively, I got up and hugged Dharamji. Surprised, he kissed my forehead like a father would. And then thumped me hard on the back with a hand so big he nearly knocked me down. There were tears in my eyes, too.

[caption id="attachment_21651" align="aligncenter" width="2788"] Mark Manuel with Dharamendra in 2010[/caption]

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