Danny Denzongpa’s Sikkimese heritage has often led unimaginative directors to cast him in roles with roots in Nepal and China. Denzongpa has even played an Afghan – in Feroz Khan’s Dharmatma (1975), he is the strangely named Jankura, and in Mukul S Anand’s Khuda Gawah, Denzongpa is Khuda Baksh.
Denzongpa’s latest film revisits this Afghan connection, but in an interesting way. In Deb Medhekar’s Bioscopewala, the 70-year-old actor is a bioscope operator from the South Asian nation. The film, which will be released on May 25, is a clever reworking of Rabindranath Tagore’s well-known short story Kabuliwala. The original tale traces the friendship between an Afghan dry fruit seller and a Bengali girl who reminds him of his daughter. In Bioscopewala, the girl has grown up, and she sets off to find the bioscope man and his daughter.
“Everyone wants me to play an Afghan character, but that’s not what attracted me to the script,” Denzongpa said in a phone interview from somewhere in northern Sikkim. When not on a movie set, the 70-year-old actor can be found in his home state, where he runs the Yuksom brewery, whose brands include beers such as Dansberg and Denzong. “I found the story to be emotional and nice and simple. I like simplicity. I don’t like gimmickry.”
Denzongpa would have made his own version of Tagore’s Kabuliwala if he had managed to get a producer on his side. When he was in school, he had seen Bimal Roy’s Hindi version in 1961. “We had read Tagore in school, and I happened to see the movie with Mr Balraj Sahni,” Denzongpa recalled. “I loved the movie, and I thought of a remake sometime in the late 1970s or the beginning of the 1980s. I met a producer, but he politely refused.”
Denzongpa ranked Kabuliwala as one of his three favourite Hindi films (the others being Raj Kapoor’s Jagte Raho from 1956 and V Shantaram’s Do Aankhen Barah Haath from 1957). He says he would have stayed faithful to the original story, which is set in the late 19th century. “The Bioscopewala filmmakers felt that it was now outdated, so they have changed the time period,” he said. The movie, written and produced by Sunil Doshi, was originally meant to star Denzongpa’s frequent co-star Amitabh Bachchan, but when it didn’t work out, Dengzongpa stepped in. “Mr Bachchan knew I was very involved with the story,” Denzongpa said. “The film has a very good cast, and the nice thing is that so many people are from the film institute.”
Dengzongpa has a deep connection with both Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan. He has been friends with Amitabh Bachchan for decades, and was batchmates with Jaya Bachchan – she was Jaya Bhaduri in those days – at the Film and Television Institute of India in the late ’60s. It was Jaya Bachchan who persuaded him to change his birth name, Tshering Phintso, to the cool-sounding Danny.
Denzongpa made his debut in 1971 in a role in which he would be frequently cast over the next few decades – the hero’s silken-haired sidekick. In BR Ishara’s Zaroorat, he plays a character also named Danny, who “knows seven languages but not the name of a big man” who will give him a job. The melodrama in Zaroorat revolves around the hero, played by Vijay Arora, and Denzongpa is around to lend a shoulder when required.
In Gulzar’s Mere Apne (1971), Denzongpa is Sanju, a ventriloquist who is part of a gang of young strugglers. Mere Apne is among the many films in which Denzongpa has been cast as a generic Indian without a back story, rather than an exotic creature from somewhere in the subcontinent.
In Yeh Gulistan Hamara (1972), Denzongpa introduced another facet of his talent – a smooth and lovely singing voice. The song Mere Paas Aao features Johnny Walker. Denzongpa has sung several songs in some of his films, including the popular Suno Suno Kasam Se from Kala Sona (1975), and a bunch of Nepali hits.
“I actually wanted to study music at the film institute, and I thought I would become a singer,” Denzongpa revealed. “I realised at the institute that there was music, but it was part of the acting course.”
He has sung with “all the great guys” – Lata Mangeshkar, Kishore Kumar, Mohammed Rafi – and also belted out a bunch of hits in Nepali, one of the languages he speaks fluently. “RD Burman had a musician named Kancha, whom I became friendly with,” Denzongpa recalled. “He wanted to make a private album in Nepali, so I did him a favour. Pancham [RD Burman] arranged the music. We would sit down in the evening and rehearse and we recorded the songs on my off on a Sunday. The songs were very popular, and they remain so.”
Denzongpa’s singing can also be heard in the Nepali hit movie Saino (1987), which he wrote and which his nephew, Ugyen Choppel, directed. He planned to remake Saino in Hindi, but instead made it for television as Ajnabi in 1994.
Denzongpa’s achievements in writing and singing have taken a back seat to the primary source of his fame: his performances in a range of roles since the ’70s. Despite an estimable fan following, Denzongpa never made it as a hero. Still, his star quality and ease before the camera ensured that his talent found expression in a variety of parts on both sides of the moral divide – the unrepentant villain, a rapist, a terrorist, a baddie who reforms his ways in the last reel, the hero’s friend, a father, a soldier, an intelligence officer.
Mohammed Hussain’s Khoon Khoon (1973), a copy of the Clint Eastwood-starrer Dirty Harry (1971), is an example of the kind of remorseless and deranged villain that Denzongpa was often recruited to portray. Denzongpa is chilling as the psychotic serial killer who taunts the police force by committing a series of murders. His long-haired and mad-eyed character, named Raghav, is described as a “hippie-type young man”. When Ram Gopal Varma made his crime thriller Drohi in 1992, he cast Denzongpa as the mentor to a criminal named Raghav, probably as a tribute to Khoon Khoon.
Denzongpa was a staple of Hindi movies in the ’70s and ‘80s. A measure of his acceptance was that he was often cast as the hero’s long-lost brother. Among his early hits is CP Dixit’s Fakira (1976), starring Shashi Kapoor as the confidence trickster of the title. Denzongpa plays Toofan, who is actually Fakira’s brother. The conceit is repeated in Mahesh Bhatt’s Lahu Ke Do Rang (1979), in which Vinod Khanna and Denzongpa play half-brothers.
Fakira’s producer, NN Sippy, was the one who persuaded Denzongpa that audiences would not mind if there was no physical resemblance between him and the hero. Sippy was a reliable hit-maker in the ’60s and ‘70s, and he perhaps understood that Hindi filmgoers had warmed to Denzongpa, who had had his first big success, the suspense thriller Dhund in 1973.
“NN Sippy came to my house and wanted me to act in Fakira – this was a time when Manmohan Desai was making one hit after another with lost-and-found films, in which brothers would be separated and found through a locket or something,” Denzongpa recalled. “I didn’t want to do those roles. Some similarity had to be there with Shashi Kapoor, so it was suggested that we hang a picture of a Nepali looking woman on the wall in the background.”
Sippy gave Denzongpa an important lesson in the way in which stardom works in popular Hindi cinema: “Once the audience accepts you, you can play any part.”
Denzongpa still wasn’t convinced, but he took on the role “as an experiment”. Fakira was a big hit. “I realised that I could play any part after that,” Denzongpa said. “In Hum Se Badkar Kaun, I played four brothers, none of whom looked like each other. The other actors were Amjad Khan, Mithun Chakraborty and Vijayendra Ghatge. I just fail to understand the audience – when they love you, they forget all the differences. People have been kind, very kind.”
Denzongpa was the original choice for the Gabbar Singh dacoit character in Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay (1975), but he lost the role to Amjad Khan because he was shooting for Feroz Khan’s Dharmatma in Afghanistan. Before Khuda Gawah, The Godfather-inspired Dharmatma introduced Indian audiences to the sport of buzkashi.
“The shoot was a lot of fun – Afghanistan is a beautiful country, with lovely locations and very good-looking people,” Denzongpa said. “It’s the kind of place where if you go onto the street and look through your camera, you will see a painting. The light and the dust are lovely.”
Denzongpa is an experienced horse rider – his family bred horses in Sikkim – and he rode some lovely specimens in Dharmatma. When he returned to Afghanistan for Khuda Gawah in 1992, the situation in the country had changed irreparably. “It was peak Taliban time, and nobody wanted to shoot there,” he recalled. “The Afghan government gave us their full co-operation for the shoot. Our cars would be accompanied by one tank in the front, another behind and a helicopter above us. It’s so sad what has happened to that beautiful country.”
Despite his steady appearances, Denzongpa soon tired of playing the same role over and over again in formulaic films that differed only in terms of the star cast and the soundtracks. “I was doing these potboilers and action films and although they were successful, it went on and on and on,” he said. He decided to strike out in a new direction in 1980, by writing and directing the horror thriller Phir Wahi Raat.
Phir Wahi Raat, in which a woman is haunted by nightmares of her insane aunt and an apparition, was born out of monotony. “There was a time when I was shooting for 23 films together – in one month, I was shooting three films,” Denzongpa said. He recalls finishing a schedule for a movie about dacoits and going to another set for another film, also about dacoits, where the costumes, props, background actors and shooting style were identical to the first production.
“I was fed up with the same scripts and the same roles,” Denzongpa recalled. “I needed a break, and I decided not to sign on any more projects and direct a movie instead,” NN Sippy produced Phir Wahi Raat. “The film was quite good, and it did alright. It starred Kim, my girlfriend at the time, and Rajesh Khanna.”
The movie turned out to the only one directed by Denzongpa. “Big producers wanted to take me on as a director, but the scripts I was being offered were exactly like the ones I had been doing.” Instead, the actor decided to focus on his acting and his brewery. “I could still direct if I wanted to – nice sensible small films are being made these days. Someday, perhaps.”
Despite his unhappiness with his work, Denzonga was hardly done. The 1980s yielded some of his most popular expressions in villainy. In Esmayeel Shroff’s Bulundi (1981). Denzongpa plays a gangster and his son. The movie was revisited in 1993 by Mahesh Bhatt as Sir.
Bulundi is among the films that Denzongpa’s fans still remember him for, the actor said. “Bulundi, Lahu Ke Do Rang, Chor Machaye Shor, Devta, Dhund, the Bengali jubilee hit Lal Kothi, and, surprisingly, Sanam Bewafa – these are films that people still talk about,” he said,
Although Denzongpa was frequently cast as a villain beyond repair – such as in Sanjay Khan’s Abdullah (1980), B Subhash’s Aandhi-Toofan (1985) and Mukul S Anand’s Agneepath (1990), his fan base gravitated towards his natural suaveness, casual sexiness and high fitness levels.
Agneepath, starring Amitabh Bachchan in the lead role, was remade by Karan Malhotra in 2012, but the replacement villain, Sanjay Dutt, isn’t a patch on the original. Denzongpa plays gangster Kancha Cheena, an isle of calm in a sea of unrelenting hyperbole. Kancha wears impeccably tailored suits and eyeshades and coolly orders mayhem from his poolside lair in Mauritius. Amitabh Bachchan’s character even tells Kancha that he wants his tailor’s address, since he has such an enviable wardrobe.
“It is amazing, the kind of hardened fans out there – one fellow used to keep sending me letters written in his blood,” Denzongpa recalled. “I had to send him a letter telling him not to do anything crazy. Similarly, there was a woman who told me that she loved me and would commit suicide if I didn’t marry her. I wrote to her and persuaded her to get married. On the day she delivered her son, she called my office from the hospital to inform me.”
Filmmakers continue to approach Denzongpa to play the dastardly villain or the suited man in charge of saving the country. In 1997, he appeared in the Hollywood production Seven Years in Tibet as a Tibetan monk. His recent roles include a jam maker in Shivajee Chandrabhushan’s Frozen (2007), a crooked scientist in Shankar’s Enthiran (2010), and a high-ranking intelligence officer in Neeraj Pandey’s Baby (2015).
Denzongpa might have had more films to his name if directors had been willing to agree to his conditions. For the past several years, he says, he has refused to shoot in the summer in Mumbai. “I come down to Bombay only when I need to,” he said. “My conditions are that I will shoot only in the winter in Bombay, between November and January. Bombay summers are terrible. It is so uncomfortable that you can’t keep your hair straight. You start sweating and everybody looks uncomfortable on the screen.”
Denzongpa can, perhaps, afford to be choosy. There is another reason for his relative lack of ambition.
“Sometimes, I just don’t feel like working at all,” he said. “My pace has been very slow and very happy. I don’t shoot on Sundays. I follow my heart, and I follow my impulse. I don’t plan.”
Bioscopewalla was shot in Ladakh. “People are responding positively to the trailer, and I hope they are not disappointed by the film,” Denzongpa said. “People feel, if this guy is in a film, it must be good. When people like you and go to see your movies, you can’t disappoint them just because you have been paid some money.”