IT is among the easiest things in the world to interview Dharmendra. Also, among the most difficult. The effort thrills or drains you emotionally. The veteran actor, who is fighting fit at 82, gives you complete paisa vasool either way. He hijacks the interview. And takes you back to Sanahwal village in Ludhiana from where he caught the Frontier Mail in 1960 to come to Bombay to become an actor. At his age, he tends to be sentimental. His mind is 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. And with sentiments come emotions. He speaks from the heart, candidly and honestly. As I rediscovered this week.
Acting is not my profession. It is my beloved. We are in love for 60 years
I was meeting Dharamji after seven years. He’s got a big film releasing next week in Yamla Pagla Deewana Phir Se. His sons, Sunny and Bobby Deol, co-star in the film. As they did in this action comedy franchise earlier. The first YPD released in 2011. When Dharamji was 75 and had completed 50 years in Bollywood. He had told me excitedly then, “After 50, they say the reel of life gets faster. But I feel like a 75-year-old boy!” It was only the second time the Deols were acting together. In 2007, they did the sports drama Apne that was a big hit. YPD rocked the box office, too. It had action, comedy, romance, the film beginning in Canada, then traveling to Banaras and eventually making its way to Punjab, showcasing the great Indian joint family along the way. But its sequel in 2013, the hastily made YPD 2, was utter rubbish. “I knew it was bakwas even while shooting it,” Dharamji told me. “It’s amazing, the first film was a hit, but I don’t remember YPD. The second film didn’t work, it was a flop, but I will never forget YPD 2.”
Now he’s in full promotion mode for the third part. The Deols have gone all out with this one. Yesterday, they released the song Rafta Rafta from YPD Phir Se. It’s a starry remake of the original song from the action drama Kahani Kismat Ki of 1973. That had Dharamji and Rekha. For Rafta Rafta, the Deols coaxed the diva out of retirement. They also roped in Salman Khan. And in a casting coup of sorts, got Dharamji’s old co-star Shatrughan Sinha with his daughter Sonakshi to sing and dance with them. The song is already a hit on YouTube. As is YPD Phir Se’s trailer.
The Deols are confident both will bring in the masses and classes. But they are not taking chances. Now they are doing what none of them believed in before. Or were comfortable doing. Giving interviews to the press. “Promotions are like chaat. Like a starter before lunch and dinner. If we don’t serve it to guests, they won’t know what the main course will be,” Dharamji said, adding endearingly, “I just learned it’s necessary for me to blow my own trumpet!”
My interview happened in a suite at the Sun n Sand. Dharamji walked into the hotel jauntily. The media waiting in the lobby parted before him respectfully. Like the Red Sea before Moses. He was nattily dressed in a grey jacket and corduroys, a black pullover beneath, and had on a pair of tinted glasses. Though outside it was pouring. I told him I liked the trailer of YPD Phir Se. Very much. He is an old friend. And among all of Bollywood’s actors, I like him more than most. Dharamji beamed. “You have made me happy. So sweet of you. Jeete raho, khush raho,” he said, placing one large hand on my head in blessings. “This is what we are living for. I was a school teacher’s son who wanted to be an actor simply because it is human nature to want to be loved, to be liked and to be admired. No other reason. I am always excited to face the camera. I’m always running after good scripts. It was my life’s dream to be in films and I will be an actor as long as I live. But I like to make people happy. I like to see smiling faces. And people respond like you did. This is a high for me. Fame is an intoxication. An experience. It fluctuates. Goes up and comes down. But I am everybody’s darling. People greet me with open arms. And the love people have for me remains in their hearts always.”
I came to Bombay to act in film and be seen in posters. All I wanted was a flat and a Fiat car. I thought, if I don’t make it in films, I can use the Fiat and become a taxi driver
More than YPD Phir Se, Dharamji was anxious to tell me about the original song Jat Yamla Pagla Deewana from his action comedy Pratigya of 1975. Incredibly, he had ten releases that year including Sholay which was the first film in India to celebrate a silver jubilee in over 100 theatres. Dharamji remembers the dates of all his films. Now he told me, “My character in Pratigya was that of a simpleton, an innocent villager and truck driver who’s a little mad and is also a romantic. It was a revenge film but throughout the audience was laughing. The song Jat Yamla Pagla Deewana was a big hit. For the first time, without the help of a choreographer, I danced. Gopi Krishna said, ‘One, two three, four – these are the steps, Dharam.’ I asked Gopiji, ‘If I take two more steps what will happen?’ He was unhappy. But I got the gist of the song. Asked myself what was needed from my character. The rhythm was already in me. I am from Punjab. People are singing and dancing there all the time. So I did my own thing. I just got into character.”
That’s what he’s been doing all his life, Dharamji told me. “For 60 years, I have only been getting into the skin of the character. I don’t understand what is method acting. If you get a good role, a nice screenplay, a great director, then you don’t need to act. The pitch is good, the players are excellent, you don’t need to bang your head against the wall. You just walk in and score runs aaram se. Did you see me in Sholay? And then in Chupke Chupke the same year? How different I was in both films. But the directors of the 70s only wanted to see me in maara-maari films playing dishoom-dishoom roles. They categorised me. Called me ‘He Man’ and ‘Greek God’ and ‘Garam Dharam’. I told them, ‘Okay – put me in the kind of films you want.’ But nobody touched my heart and asked me what kind of films I want to make. You know, like Satyakam, Dost, Naya Zamana, Mera Gaon Mera Desh. Those were films! I just got into character for them. To me acting is just reaction. I am an emotional person. I react faster. Baaki sab drama baazi hai. Acting is not my profession. It is my beloved. We are in love for 60 years.”
The idea to make YPD in 2011 came after the Deols had done Apne in 2007. Dharamji went into flashback: “Sunny and I were in America and we went to a theatre to see the audience’s reaction to Apne. It was a touching film. I think one of the first films on sports. My character was that of a retired boxer. A champion. But a disheartened man. There were some Pakistani women in the audience. I asked them how they liked Apne. They said, ‘Very much – but you made us cry, it is such an emotional film.’ So I promised them, ‘Okay, in my next film I will make you laugh!’ That’s how we made YPD. It was a big hit. More like a true story that had punches of emotion. But we got badly hammered in the sequel. Now the third film is ready for release. I’m being given classes on how to promote YPD Phir Se. But I am very open. Why beat round the bush? I tell the media, ‘This is me, that is my film, I hope you like it.’ The rest is in the audience’s hands. I still am nervous before every release. In this industry, the big test is what will be the fate of your film. My mother used to say, ‘I pray nobody’s son becomes an actor because you live and die with every film.”
I hope for Dharamji’s sake YPD Phir Se does well at the box office. At 82, he’s still a rockstar of an actor. Age has been kind with him. And he’s moved with the times. He promoting his film. Giving print, digital and TV interviews, going on reality shows and dancing. He’s on social media in a big way too. Proudly he told me, “I am now on Instagram. I’m also tweeting. Till last year I didn’t know what Twitter was. I used to see so many actors going tik-tik-tik on their cell phones and I thought that was so boring. But social media is power in your hands. Its misuse is hurtful. I use it only to bring people closer. Humanity is bigger than anything else. To serve humanity, there’s no better platform than social media. Today fans call me from Tunisia and Nigeria. Girls tweet such lovely things to me from Morocco. I get unconditional love from Russia. This is what I became an actor for. I came to Bombay to act in film and be seen in posters. All I wanted was a flat and a Fiat car. My co-stars were driving Impalas and Chevrolets. I wanted a Fiat. I thought, if I don’t make it in films, I can use the Fiat and become a taxi driver!”