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There Can Be No One Like You, Dharam Paaji!

The current actors may gloat about their unique style and take pride in blurring the lines between conventionally feminine and masculine clothes, but you were the original trendsetter.

Dear Dharm Paaji,

Not many people in my generation may consider you in their long list of celebrity crushes, and perhaps even fewer would pen a letter admitting their undying admiration for you. But what can I say? I’ve always been an oddball.

Getting introduced to you

My first brush with your movies was in the late 80s and early 90s when renting VHS and watching back-to-back movies (sometimes all night) was a norm in most houses. Come an extended national holiday or a designated school break, and the practice would commence with unmitigated enthusiasm.

Living in a joint family had its advantage. I got an array of options, and I scarfed everything that came my way with equal relish. That’s how I kept abreast of the popular 70s cinema, even after being born in the next decade.

I gawped at you with an assortment of uncles, aunts, and cousins tucked in warm hand-spun quilts, munching dry fruits in the dead of winter or sucking on tangy orange slices during scorching summers. That’s why my earliest memories of your films are hemmed by the delicious whiff of roasted peanuts, the tang of juicy mangoes and oranges, and the aroma of home-cooked delicacies.

The adolescent in me couldn’t get enough of your impeccable comic timing. The scenes where you tried to fool a naïve Basanti in the temple sequence or climbed a water tank to yell—”sau-side! Police coming. Budhiya going jail … chakki peesing, and peesing” still leaves me in splits. Only you could scream something preposterous like “Basanti in kutto ke samne mat nachna” and still make sense. I enjoyed slipstreaming as the older generation lapped up blockbusters like Chupke Chupke, Seeta Aur Geeta, Professor Pyarelal, and the others.

You, as a Hindi-speaking botany professor, Dr. Parimal Tripathi, masquerading as a driver for his lady love, gave a new dimension to comedy. After all these years, I can’t help but smile as I imagine how “go” would sound if it were to be pronounced the same way as “do.”

That wasn’t all. You smoothened the path for homegrown spy thrillers. Today’s generation may find it tacky, but back then, an entire generation was struck by your charisma as an undercover spy agent in the movie Shalimar. Awestruck and wide-eyed, we gaped at you, dodging laser lights and blending with checkered walls in your painted black and white avatar in the heist movie. The title track  ‘Mera Pyar Shalimar,‘ sung by legendary Asha Bhosle, added the requisite Bond-styled spunk.

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Growing up

As I grew up, the bombardment of your corny action movies, with some cutting across the edge of banality, disappointed me. Though a tiny part of me enjoyed the bizarre dialogues, like ‘Tumhari ye goli lohe ke shareer ke paar nahin jaa sakti’ as you caught a bullet in midair or your testosterone-dripping fights with lions that brought loud cheers, wolf whistles, and applause, I was more-or-less over you. Dozens of illogical movies hardly did justice to the Dharmendra I had come to admire. The new-age actors were hankering for my attention, and I readily gave in.

But then, I was yet to discover your understated charm. Your black-and-white photograph in a film tabloid kickstarted an ever-lasting affair.  That picture nudged me to dig out your old movies—most of them released before my time. As I devoured those movies, one film after another, I realized there was more to you than met the eye.

The movies introduced me to the gentle, intelligent actor that hid behind your crowd pleaser, rugged persona. The sensitivity you displayed as the gentle prison doctor in Bandini put you at par with Nutan, who had an author-backed character. You made Satyapriya Acharya, the highly-principled man in the movie Satyakam believable and showed an entire spectrum of sentiments when the character married a sexual assault victim. As a criminal who nursed a widow played by Meena Kumari in Phool Aur Phattar, you sketched a template the romance books still employ. I gaped with wonder as you dished out a rare slice of feminism and that too with unmatched poise in that delivered-to-perfection dialogue—’mujhe tumhare beete dino se nahin tumhare aaj se matlab hai’ to a woman prisoner serving life imprisonment.

Newer entrants no match

Much before the era of Khans, you sparkled as a jealous lover in Ayee Milan Ki Bela. You were perhaps the first to flaunt your bare-chested machoism on the big screen.

The current actors may gloat about their unique style and take pride in blurring the lines between conventionally feminine and masculine clothes, but you were the original trendsetter. Who else could pull off those thigh-high frocks in Dharam Veer and still look good? And what about those skimpy briefs? You are the only one who could swing around trees in your tiny shorts, invent outlandish dance steps to ‘Jat Yamla Pagla Diwana’ and still win hearts.

What can I say about that effortless swag? You epitomized the word even before it found identity in the public vocabulary. How many men can boast of pulling off textured suits, slim pants, and high-neck t-shirts with the same elan as quirky sweaters and outlandish mosaic shirts? No wonder you were voted one of the world’s most handsome men. A chic suit, a fedora… and voila! You could give Hollywood stars like Gregory Peck or Paul Newman a run for their money.

In short, it’s not wrong to say that you represented a complete package. A man for all seasons, you aced all genres, be it action, romance, comedy, commercial potboilers, or meaningful story-backed roles.

Decades later, your charm still keeps your fans spellbound. When those soulful eyes look from the screen, recite stirring Urdu couplets, or recount a past anecdote, the fans like me are transported to the nostalgia of yesteryears.

They say the secret of genius is to carry the spirit of a child into old age. I am yet to see somebody who embodies the words better than you!


Image source: a still from the actor’s golden years

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About the Author

Supriya Bansal

A Radiologist by profession, Supriya Bansal, spends most of her day inhabiting a monochromatic world consisting of different shades of grey ranging from black to white. She is an active member of many online writing read more...

15 Posts | 16,039 Views

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