Father and Sons

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The unique life-and-work model of the Deols of Bollywood

‘Join the madness with the awesome trio and get chimped,’ announced the publicity material of Yamla Pagla Deewana 2 (YPD2), the Punjabi-flavoured comedy featuring the three Deols—paterfamilias Dharmendra with his boys Sunny and Bobby. Those who walked out of the theatre on 7 June were more than just ‘chimped.’ “I felt cheated,” says Bharathi S Pradhan, editor of The Film Street Journal who has chronicled the Deols over the decades. She describes YPD2 as an ‘ego trip’ and as one of those ‘home movies’ best viewed, well, at home. In her column in The Telegraph, she served the senior Deol a reality check. “He is no longer the cute Dharmendra of Sholay,” she says. “You can’t have him and a chimpanzee pull off the Sholay motorbike stunt and think that’s comedy.” Pradhan, however, reserves her bluntest words for Bobby, the youngest Deol: “Bobby was never known for his acting abilities and you give him a double role… who are you kidding?”

Though the film has bombed—it got off to a lukewarm start and was quickly eclipsed by the youthful appeal of Ranbir Kapoor’s Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani—even their most trenchant critics, counting Pradhan, are unwilling to write them off yet. There is a reason for it. For starters, Dharmendra has had a success profile of over 50 years in Hindi cinema. In an industry where respect is bought, he has earned it. When Dharmendra comes calling, no star worth his or her salt can refuse his invitation. Proof: the YPD2 music launch event. In a single packed room, it had Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Hrithik Roshan and several other top stars in attendance. Later, the Khans did a little jig with their beloved Dharamji, as sons Sunny and Bobby floated in the background. For most of their lives as celebrities, the Deols have maintained a low profile. Their women, even more so. But that part of the story comes later.

The story of the Deols begins, as it must, with Dharmendra. Especially, the story of his early years, oft-told but renewed as a riveting tale each time it is narrated by the man himself. Here’s how it goes:

A talent contest discovers a boy from Sahnewal in Ludhiana, Punjab. The boy overrides his father—a school teacher with no patience for filmi fools—and confides in his mother, telling her of his big screen aspirations. “Initially she was shocked,” the actor said in an interview to Tina Ambani. “When she realised how much it meant to me, she came around. She asked me to send applications to directors in Bombay—she was so naïve she thought you could just apply to become a star! Filmfare magazine announced a talent search along with United Producers. I went to the barbershop, asked them to style my hair like Dev Anand and sent in my photos.”

Like Dev Anand, Dharmendra is a charmer who swings between playing the affectionate elderly guardian and a saucer-eyed prankster, depending on the occasion. His rustic innocence sets him apart in a profession awash with superegos (“Ego is a disease,” Dharmendra once said).

“True-blue sons of the soil,” is how Pradhan describes the family. When you see a Deol, you know you have seen one. “The Kapoors,” says Pradhan, “are also Punjabis but they are more sophisticated and perhaps more Bombayite. They have travelled far from their roots. But Dharmendra is still the same.”

Writer-lyricist Niranjan Iyengar, who has interacted with the family during his days as a journalist, agrees. “Dharamji still looks at the world with wonder in his eyes,” he says, “All the experiences in the film world haven’t corroded him.” The Deols, he adds, don’t take their stardom seriously. “While they find the spotlight exciting, they are still at loggerheads with it.”

One popular story of Dharmendra goes that as a starry-eyed new entrant, he was smitten by the Kapoors, billed as Bollywood’s first family. ‘If only,’ he would wistfully wonder, ‘I could establish my very own acting dynasty someday.’ And though he has been close to the Kapoors, he chose to align with Dilip Kumar, practically the opposite of the Kapoors in that the ageing thespian has no dynasty to speak of. “Dilip,” he told me in 2011, “is my brother from another mother.”

Dharmendra shares a love of Urdu with his idol. “Dharamji is a terrific poet. I hope someday he will compile his work into a book of verse,” says director Sriram Raghavan, who gave him his most worthwhile late-career role in Johnny Gaddaar. “One day, we were passing by Natraj Studio [in Mumbai], which was being demolished then. It’s a studio where he said he had shot many memorable pictures. Later, he wrote a touching poem about it,” says Raghavan.

For long, Dharmendra was reluctant to share his poetry with the public at large. It’s also a miracle how for years he managed to keep his personal life away from prying eyes. “It’s an ordeal for them to appear before the press,” says Sangeeth Sivan, director of YPD2, expressing both surprise and delight over the family’s aggressive canvassing for the film. “They did more than was expected of them.”

The Deols put up a formidable presence at YPD2 promotional events. That’s the way they are, says Sivan. Despite being such a close joint-family unit, each has little in common with the other—except the surname. While the glib Dharmendra enjoys the limelight and Bobby appears indifferent (even a bit ‘lost’ as one of his friends notes), Sunny remains painfully reticent.

If there were ever an award instituted for the ‘Most Enigmatic Male Actor’, Sunny’s name would figure top-most. But those who know him say he is quite the opposite of his screen persona. Beneath his tough exterior, the hand-pump-uprooting fits of rage (Gadar), loud bawling, jingoism and dhai kilo ka haath (his 2.5-kg hand in Damini), Sunny is a softie who breaks down at the merest mention of his father. On Dus Ka Dum, a game show that once had Dharmendra and Sunny as guests, host Salman Khan had this to say about his Jeet co-star: “I have always wondered you are so soft-spoken, but when you get angry in a scene, where does the anger in your voice come from?” While asking him this, Salman turned to the audience and said, “I’ve never seen him lose his cool.”

In that episode of the show, talking about how introverted Sunny was, Dharmendra recalled the making of the popular Betaab number Badal Yun Garajta Hai, featuring him and Amrita Singh. “The song spoke about thundering clouds and rain-drenched lovers,” said the father, “I didn’t know how to tell him that it’s a romantic song and he must embrace Amrita passionately. We had to do a number of retakes because he just wouldn’t move. Main hota toh ladki ke andar se nikal jaata (If it had been me, I’d have hugged her hard enough to go right through).” Sunny hadn’t changed since, Dharmendra added. “Nature badalti nahin (does not change),” he told Salman puckishly.

By most accounts, Sunny has a wry sense of humour. Some of which was on display in a recent episode of Koffee with Karan, where he appeared with Bobby. When host Karan Johar asked Bobby what he would do if he were offered films like Murder and Julie, Sunny interjected: “He would murder Julie!”

Despite being so different from each other, be it their personalities or career arcs, the media tends to slot them all in a one-size-fits-all bracket. For the audience at large, they remain Bollywood’s Last Action Heroes even though all of them—particularly Dharmendra with films like Chupke Chupke and Guddi—have displayed a flair for comedy. Even Sholay, Dharmendra’s biggest ever hit, has more goofiness than action. Sriram Raghavan says unlike his public image of a bumpkin of sorts, Dharmendra is a man with a keen understanding and knowledge of the world, especially cinema. “After the Johnny Gaddaar narration, he asked me if I had heard of Purple Noon. He said [my film] reminded him of that film. Incidentally, Purple Noon is one of my favourite films,” says Raghavan, who feels it’s about time India recognised the actor’s contribution to Hindi cinema.

In an essay on the actor in Outlook, Mukul Kesavan lists enough reasons why Dharmendra’s talent was overlooked by the film industry. Kesavan blames it on those Greek god looks: ‘Hindi film critics tend to see actorly ability as a compensatory talent: thus histrionic ability is granted to actors who are either unconventionally attractive (Bachchan, Naseeruddin Shah) or positively plain (Sanjeev Kumar, Om Puri). Dharmendra, light-skinned, rugged, with the perfect Colgate smile, didn’t fit the mould.’ Kesavan rates Dharmendra’s performance in Satyakam (1969), which the actor himself considers his finest effort of all the 250-plus films he’s done, as ‘arguably the most affecting and powerful’ by any male actor that decade.

Rachel Dwyer, professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, says that Sunny is also underappreciated as an actor. “He was one of the most important actors of the 1980s-90s. His genre of the wounded hero and nationalist fighter is not popular today, but he has acted in the classics of that time, including Ghatak, Ghayal and Gadar,” she observes.

Bobby, the more outgoing of the two, however, hasn’t been quite as successful as his father and brother would have expected. He started off on a promising note with Barsaat. “Maybe it was the other frills around the business that he wasn’t able to cope with,” Iyengar says.

Taken together, the Deols’ contribution to Hindi cinema is no less than that of the Bachchans and Kapoors, dynasties whose fame has reached mythical proportions today. But such comparisons are unwarranted, says Iyengar: “If you use the same yardstick to define Irrfan Khan’s success as you do Shah Rukh Khan’s, then that would be unfair to Irrfan.”

Pradhan points to another difference of the Deol dynasty. “The Bachchans are a mixed family where the women are allowed to go out and work,” she says, “It’s not just Amitabh and Abhishek who work, but also the daughters-in-law [Jaya and Aishwarya], as opposed to the Deol women who have kept themselves off-limits.”

In the 1990S, nosy movie reporters had a field day with ‘scoops’ on the Deol women. These tales were mainly about Dharmendra’s first wife Prakash Kaur and Sunny’s wife Pooja, on whose idea YPD2 was reportedly based.

When it comes to women, Dharmendra remains old-school, says Pradhan. She recalls attending the wedding reception of Sunny’s sister and being requested by Dharmendra “not to write about it”. Even Esha Deol’s decision to join Bollywood was frowned upon by her father at first. “Once, I asked him if his [other] daughters Vijeta and Ajeeta will ever get into films,” says Pradhan. “He said, ‘Please, don’t even write that you asked me such a question’.”

Iyengar feels not enough credit is given to Hema Malini—Dharmendra’s second wife and an echt Deol—for bringing up her babies Esha and Ahana largely independently. “She is the Tamil version of the kind of innocence that Dharamji represents,” Iyengar says. “While the Deols can be flamboyant, Hemaji is restrained because of her discipline as a dancer.” Emotionally if not physically, she is as tough as the Deol men. “You cannot take liberties with her,” he adds.

Perhaps the most radical Deol is somebody who has not been mentioned yet: Abhay Deol. “His ideas of life are different and so are his performances,” says Iyengar of Dharmendra’s nephew. “Sunny and Bobby still have a bit of Dharamji in them, but Abhay does not.”

Waiting in the wings now are Sunny’s teenage sons, who are expected to honour the family legacy as actors in their own right. Not that Dharmendra, at 77, shows any sign of slowing down. “He wants to keep his most stunning performances for the very end,” says Sivan. “He once said, ‘All my dreams are accomplished. Now I am ready to enter the best phase of my life.’”