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Dinesh Raheja

The first time the beauteous Hema Malini set sights on Dharmendra at the premeire of a K Abbas film, she was awed by his handsome looks.

Saira Banu thought he had Italian good looks.

Govinda and his wife wanted their child to be as eye-pleasing as him.

Famous songs picturised on Dharmendra
Song Film Singer
 Ya dil ki suno  Anupama  Hemant Kumar
 Aaya hai mujhe  phir yaad  Devar  Mukesh
 Chalkaye jaam  Mere Humdum  Mere Dost  Mohammed Rafi
 Kuch kehta hai  yeh sawan  Mera Gaon Mera  Desh  Mohammed Rafi-Lata  Mangeshkar
 Aaj mausam bada  Loafer  Mohammed Rafi
 Pal pal dil ke paas  Blackmail  Kishore Kumar
 Rafta rafta dekho  aankh  Kahani Kismat Ki  Kishore Kumar
 Gaadi bula rahi hai  Dost  Kishore Kumar
 Main Jat yamla  Pratiggya  Mohammed Rafi
 Yeh dosti  Sholay  Manna Dey-Kishore  Kumar

But Dharmendra was more than just a fine-looking man who was, for three whole decades (the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s), the symbol of sinewy masculinity in Hindi films.

What is significant is that Dharmendra had the rare ability to combine his Samsonesque physique with a vulnerable smile, rueful good humour and a transparent sensitivity (we caught a glimpse of the depth of the latter in films like Anupama, Satyakam and Naya Zamana but, unfortunately, he did not exploit it to the hilt). Also, in romantic scenes, he was endearingly and palpably more bashful than the heroines at times. He recalls going red in the ears the first time he shot with Meena Kumari for Phool Aur Patthar.

Dharmendra was fascinated with films from the beginning. He would travel miles from his village in Phagwara, Punjab, to frequent the cinema that was showing a Suraiya film. As a youth, though he took up a job with an American drilling company, his heart was not in his work.

He participated in the Filmfare-United Producers contest for newcomers and caught a train to Bombay. After a screen test, a director suggested he would be better off playing hockey. But producer Arjun Hingorani had faith in Dharmendra and signed him for Dil Bhi Tera Hum Bhi Tere [1960] for a paltry sum of Rs 51 and a daily breakfast of tea and toast at a local restaurant.

The film flopped. But Dharmendra slowly inched his way up the ladder of success. In the early sixties, he had little choice but to sign up for heroine-dominated films like Bandini (starring Nutan), Anpadh (Mala Sinha) and Main Bhi Ladki Hoon (Meena Kumari). But the young actor made his presence felt with his straight arrow sincerity.

At this stage, Darmendra even agreed to play the grey-shaded second lead in Ayee Milan Ki Bela (1964), starring reigning superstar Rajendra Kumar and beauty queen Saira Banu.

Roles in ensemble fares like Haqeequat, Kajal and Mamta followed. But, by now, Dharmendra was a busy star doing several movies, including many with the legendary Meena Kumari who had evinced an interest in Dharmendra's career and did a spate of films with him. Their starrer, Phool Aur Patthar (1966), was a golden jubilee hit. Essaying the role of an underworld hireling, Dharmendra blended machismo with marshmallow tenderness and won a major female following. When he peeled off his shirt in the film, a he-man was born.

At around the same time, Hrishikesh Mukherjee preferred to explore the sensitive side of Dharmendra's personality. In his Anupama [1966], Dharmendra essayed the role of the poor but self-respecting writer who inspires the repressed Anupama (Sharmila Tagore) to assert herself. Dharmendra was so restrained and near-natural in this film.

The star asserted his commercial dependabilty in the sixties with hits like Shikar and the Bond-like caper Aankhen.

High on success, Dharmendra decided to produce a sensitive film like Satyakam [1969] with Hrishikesh Mukherjee at the helm. He played a straight-backed man who lived and died for truth. Despite what is unarguably one of the best performances ever by Dharmendra, with able support from Sharmila Tagore, the film was a commercial failure.

Perhaps prompted by this flop and the arrival of a new phenomenon called Rajesh Khanna, Dharmendra plunged into pure entertainers like the revenge drama Jeevan Mrityu [1970] and the dacoit saga Mera Gaon Mera Desh [1971]. To his credit, he was one of the few heroes who was able to keep his head above the water despite the Rajesh Khanna tidal wave.

Moreover, Dharmendra's career seemed to have discovered a magical elixir -- Hema Malini. Dharmendra's romantic pairing with Meena Kumari had fizzled out much earlier, after disappointing films like Chandan Ka Palna and Baharon Ki Manzil. Though Asha Parekh and Sharmila Tagore had made a successful pair with him, Hema Malini's association with Dharmendra provided the much-needed gunpowder to the Jat's star power.

The Dharam-Hema pair resulted in seven straight successes -- Sharafat, Tum Haseen Main Jawan, Naya Zamana, Raja Rani, Seeta Aur Geeta, Jugnu and Dost. Rumours of their off-screen love affair fuelled their on-screen draw.

Dharmendra's Landmark Films
Year Film Actress
1964 Haqeequat Priya Rajvansh
1966 Phool Aur Patthar Meena Kumari
1966 Anupama Sharmila Tagore
1968 Aankhen Mala Sinha
1969 Satyakam Sharmila Tagore
1971 Mera Gaon Mera Desh Asha Parekh
1973 Jugnu Hema Malini
1973 Yaadon Ki Baraat
1975 Sholay Hema Malini
1975 Chupke Chupke Sharmila Tagore
1977 Dharam Veer Zeenat Aman

Their star draw reached its apogee with Sholay. The rollicking romance between the boisterous tangewali (horse-drawn cart driver), Basanti (Hema Malini), and the flirtatious crook, Veru (Dharmendra) made the screen crackle with infectious humour. And Dharmendra's partner-in-crime, the wry Amitabh Bachchan, provided the perfect foil to his furiously funny antics -- including the immortal 'maasi in jail' drunken gig atop a water tank.

Comedy became Dharmendra's ace card -- as he was to discover when he let down his sleeve and tousled his hair. Whether he was prancing to Main Jat yamla pagla deewana (Pratiggya) or goofishly asking, "Angrezi mein t-o to hota hai, toh g-o go kyon hota hai, goo kyon nahin?" (Chupke Chupke), Dharmendra had the audience in splits.

In the late 1970s, Dharmendra reduced his workload considerably. But hits like Dharam Veer kept the star sheen alive. A popular joke of that time pointed out that his Sholay was still running and his Razia Sultan was still being made.

In 1983, his son Sunny made his debut with Betaab. Dharmendra, too, struck gold as a hero in Nauker Biwi Ka. Father and son scoring hits as romantic heroes in the same year? Definitely a rare feat.

Later, after the surprise hit Hukumat in 1987, Dharmendra was even romantically paired with Sunny's heroines like Sridevi (in Naka Bandi), Dimple (in Mast Qalandar) and Amrita (in Sachaii Ki Taaqat). But the quality of Dharemndra's blood-and-gore films became increasingly suspect, especially in the 1990s.

Probably, for the actor who once said, "I keep running all the time to stay in the same place," the studio air is like the much-needed whiff of oxygen.

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