Most down-to-earth celebrities are human conundrums, but Dharmendra is a conundrum in a different sense. The simplicity and openness of his nature blew away fans and colleagues alike, so much so that we wondered how such a successful man could remain so basic, so rooted and so humble. In fact he did not even want a biography written about him. He would rather, he told me once, come out with a coffee-table book of pictures of his multitude of heroines—including the top names from Vyjayanthimala and Meena Kumari to Sridevi as well as other names from Bengal, the South and other actresses that included Tarla Mehta and Mallika Sherawat. And with Garam Dharam, this is the real conundrum.

Asha Parekh tried to put this quality in a nutshell. As his romantic co-star in five hit films, she described Dharmendra as a human being who ‘Kept the village atmosphere intact within him, and did not change much over the decades of success and fame.’

When he first became a star, the man even talked to his photograph, saying, almost disbelievingly, ‘Wakayee tu actor ban gaya hai (You have actually become an actor)!’ For a BBC interview, he once declared, ‘Had I not become an actor, I would be driving a tractor in Punjab. But I still drive a tractor at my farm in Lonavala and enjoy it!’

‘A simpleton, warm, unassuming’

Sanjay Khan, actor and film-maker, said, ‘He is a simpleton, warm, unassuming and self-effacing, almost as if he does not know his own worth! When he embraces you, it’s clear that there is genuine love, not any vested interest.’

Khan recalled Dharmendra’s lasting ties with people who belonged to his village and surrounding areas. During the outdoor shoot of Haqeeqat, on one occasion Dharmendra and he ventured out one day from the elite Officers’ Mess which they were sharing with Chetan Anand, Vijay Anand and Balraj Sahni. They wanted to have a drink with the unit. But on returning late, they were asked for the password, which they had forgotten! ‘An officer had been shot dead for that reason!’ said Khan. ‘We were so scared and I was sweating despite the cold! We said, “Hum log film wale hain (We are from the film unit)!” And there was no response! So Dharmendra said loudly, “Main Dharminder hoon (I am Dharmendra).” A light flashed on us, and a Sardar from the Army hollered out his own introduction, abused and hugged him, and they started beating each other in delight. They knew each other!’

Leena Chandavarkar, co-star in Rakhwala and Ek Mahal Ho Sapno Ka, got sentimental as she remembered her co-actor. An unforgettable incident for Chandavarkar was Dharmendra’s role in saving her husband Siddharth Bandodkar’s life after the accident he had with his gun. Her husband was admitted in a hospital and the actress was at her wit’s end when the medicine needed urgently to save her husband’s life was not available anywhere.

Chandavarkar remembered the actor calling up to enquire about Siddharth, and when she wept and told him her problem, Dharmendra actually managed to get the medicine for her. She said, ‘He saved Siddharth’s life! Later, when another medicine was needed that could only be found in London in those days, I called Dharam again. He actually contacted his friends in London and within a day or two, got it flown to Mumbai through a captain he knew in the airlines.’

Dharmendra actually went to the airport to get the medicine and brought it to the downtown hospital in his jeep. ‘It was pouring as it was the rainy season, and Dharam was driving his open jeep himself. I came to know of this because he gave it to someone at the entrance to the hospital and went away,’ she recalled.

Later, when her brother went to the Deol residence with Rs 20,000 (the cost of that drug), Dharmendra was very angry. He showed her brother his clenched fist and said, ‘Yeh do kilo ka haath dekhte ho (Do you see this huge hand of mine)? I will beat you with it! How can you offer me money? Wouldn’t you do the same for me?’

‘Don’t tell anyone that I am a flirt’

On the other hand, this shy gentleman’s naughtiness and sense of humour were well-known as well. ‘I remember Dharamji as a very naughty man on the sets,’ said Aruna Irani, who did several films with him and played his sister in Charas. ‘He was always laughing and joking, and we would enjoy his jokes. He was a very hospitable man and would share his food with me. For me, he is like a badmaash paaji (naughty big brother)!’

Irani stresses on the fact that Dharmendra was ‘As khubsoorat (beautiful) inside’ as he was in looks. ‘He is an emotional man too, especially with women, and he would joke with me, “Don’t tell anyone that I am a flirt!”’ she laughed.

Even about his own spectacular success, Dharmendra has a grounded opinion. He just smiles and says, ‘I am what I am today because of my mother’s blessings and the love of the people. My parents told me that if you are intrinsically good, God bestows his choicest blessings on you. I was on great terms with all my film-makers, co-stars and even the other heroes, though not all were emotional bonds. If some of them did something to me that they should not have, I never bothered. Khudi se jeeyo zindagi sudhar jaayegi (Live life your own way, you will never regret it!),’ added the actor poetically.

This also explains the trashy films he was a part of for a long while. ‘Dad was amazing,’ said Bobby Deol. ‘His family was the most precious of all to him, and he always wanted them to have the best. This is why dad always worked like a busy bee. He isn’t proud of many of his films, but very happy and self-satisfied that he worked so much only for his family.’

It is Asha Parekh again who decisively sums up Dharmendra in a nutshell: ‘To me, he represents manhood. How many of our heroes can match him in that?’

Excerpted with permission from Dharmendra: A Biography, Rajiv Vijayakar, Rupa Publications.