It's Dharmendra's 81st birthday today. When I wish him, I will tell Dharamji he doesn't look a day older than 50. I say that to him every year. He will laugh with delight. But it is true. Of all Bollywood's macho men of yesteryears, he looks the least likely candidate for the octogenarian's club. He is fighting fit and raring to go at all times. Yet, for all his robust health and sunny disposition, I know the day depresses Dharamji considerably. He doesn't celebrate his birthday. He remains a simple and emotional Jat from Ludhiana. And on this day more than most, he achingly misses his parents.
When Feroz Khan passed away, I learned from his son Fardeen that you should tell your father you love him before it is too late. I didn't do that...Dharmendra
When he turned 75 and completed 50 years in Bollywood, I interviewed Dharamji over breakfast at his bungalow in Mumbai's starry JVPD township. Struggling to contain his sadness, the veteran actor said with a break in his voice, "What to celebrate my birthday when the person who gave birth to me is not here." From his pocket, he produced a tattered and faded letter. It was the last one from his father. He reads it every morning. Then kisses it and reverently touches the letter to his forehead. "I'm very emotional," Dharamji told me, big tears rolling down his cheeks, the heartache of a strong man unashamed to show his feelings. "I don't enjoy birthdays without my parents, I pray to them to help me be a good person, to give me strength to make others happy. I like seeing smiling faces."
Breakfast was stuffed aloo and pudhina parathas with butter from his farm in Lonavala. And tall glasses of rich, frothy lassi. You can take the farmer out of Punjab but who is going to take Punjab out of the farmer? His sons Sunny and Bobby Deol, both grown men with growing sons of their own, sat silently and respectfully at the table. Dharamji was sentimental. "After 50 they say the reel of life gets fast. But I still feel like the newcomer who caught the Frontier Mail to come to Bombay and become an actor," he said. "I was a schoolteacher's son who wanted to be an actor simply because it is human nature to want to be loved, liked and admired. I just wanted a Fiat car (which I could drive as a taxi if I failed at films), a flat, and to be seen in film posters. Fans called me He-Man. I have moved on from that but today fans still call me from Tunisia and Nigeria."
My father's love for my sisters was unconditional and special. But he always stopped short with me. Yet today I miss him more than anybody else.Dharmendra
Which wasn't quite true, because the year before Dharamji had so many releases he was giving Salman Khan, Hrithik Roshan and John Abraham a run for the Bollywood Hunk's title even at the fine old age of 75, but not for him their obsession with abs and biceps. "I don't understand Bollywood's craze for six-pack abs, big biceps and chests. I was known for my thighs," he told a reporter I'd sent to interview him.
At 81, age continues to be kind to Dharamji. He exercises daily, does yoga, maintains a strict diet and stays off alcohol. He told me over the lassi, "I was the biggest boozer in Bollywood. But one day, on a flight to LA, I said enough was enough. If I could survive the long flight without a drink, I could stay without touching booze later on in life."
I want more from my sons. And I want to give more. I want to hug them, but stop myself, I don't know why.Dharmendra
After breakfast, when we were in his study, I asked Dharamji what he wanted most in the world on his birthday. Hesitatingly he said, "I want more from my sons. And I want to give more. I want to hug them, but stop myself, I don't know why. There is an awkwardness between us. As a boy, I feared my father. He was a disciplinarian. So I was naturally close to my mother. My father's love for my sisters was unconditional and special. But he always stopped short with me. Yet today I miss him more than anybody else." His eyes were awash with unshed tears. Then he said, "When Feroz Khan passed away, I learned from his son Fardeen that you should tell your father you love him before it is too late. I didn't do that." He was crying again. Sunny and Bobby Deol weren't around. They had quietly withdrawn, taking their unexpressed affection with them. Impulsively, I got up and hugged Dharamji. Surprised, he kissed my forehead like a father would. And then thumped me hard on the back with a hand so big he nearly knocked me down. There were tears in my eyes, too.