By: Subhash K. Jha, IndiaFM
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Danny Denzongpa reigned supreme as baddie in Hindi films till he lost out Gabbar"s role to Amjad Khan. The Sikkimese actor treks down the past...
Danny Denzongpa prefers to be a recluse. He is rarely he spotted at any of the media circuses. He lets his “work to do the talking". He can boast of one of the rarest attributes of a star today - exclusivity ! He"s old-fashioned in the sense that he doesn"t respond to SMSes, but can be contacted via his trusted business manager of years, Madan Arora. In a formal fax, Madanji cautions me that I had better be on time for “Dannyji is a stickler for punctuality". Feeling weighed down by the constraints of formality I tip-toe into Denzongpa"s stylish Brewery office in Andheri, Mumbai. Beaming genially, Danny exudes an old-world charm as he takes his seat “after you"! Chivalrous and courteous, he orders for chai and cookies. The cloud of apprehension clears and then like two long-lost pals, we catch up with his vintage years.
He grew up in the lap of Himalayas in the picturesque state of Sikkim. But for his mother"s entreaties, Danny would have been an army officer! He had even cleared the Armed Forces Military College but his mother dissuaded him and he ended up joining the Film&Television Institute in Pune instead. His unconventional Oriental looks had no takers in the film industry. “They would look at my photographs and shrug sympathetically, urging me to go back home and seek good work. 'This is no place for you", they would tell me," guffaws Danny after a 36-year successful stint in films.
Those were tough times and Danny even taught Yoga at the film institute to his juniors like Asha Sachdev, Shabana Azmi and Romesh Sharma. “But I never gave up and B R Ishara gave me my first break in Zaroorat," he recalls.
It was in Screen that he read about Gulzar remaking the Bengali hit Apan Jan, realising the tremendous potential of the youth film, he applied for the role that had already gone to Shatrughan Sinha. “My good friend, Jaya gave me a letter of introduction to Gulzar and I volunteered to play the role of a ventriloquist in the film," he reminisces fondly. Danny promptly located a dummy maker in a Bandra shanty and learnt the mechanics of the puppet that would remain perched on his shoulder all through the film. His dedication paid rich dividends and the film was his first release and a hit.
However, his fondest memory of the film is that of the legendary Meena Kumari, “She was very sick by then, but was simply exemplary as Nani ma in the film. She would recite her shaayari to us during the breaks," he recalls emotionally.
Path of villainy
When noted filmmaker, B.R. Chopra awarded him the highest score in his FTII examination, he also promised him a role in his film. But when Danny approached him for the role of the aging, crippled, sadistic husband of Zeenat Aman in Dhund, he was told that the role was taken by his friend Amitabh Bachchan, “But as luck would have it, his Anand became a hit and he wasn"t keen on playing negative roles any longer. The role went to Shatrughan Sinha who didn"t report on time for shoot on the very first day and finally it landed in my lap," narrates Danny. Chopra wasn"t convinced. He found Danny far too young for the role. The very next day, Danny donned the aged look with the expert help of veteran make-up artiste Pandhari Juker. The film was wrapped over a month-long spell in Mahabaleshwar. Dhund also hit bulls eye. And quite unwittingly, Danny was committed to a path of on-screen villainy.
Distributors demanded that Danny be included in all big-budget films, he was considered the lucky mascot. N.N. Sippy had earlier cast him in Chor Machaye Shor and approached him for the role of Shashi Kapoor"s lost-and-found brother in Fakira. “I laughed at N.N. Sippy. How absurd that a fair and handsome Punjabi-like Shashi to have a chinky-eyed brother like me. 'Won"t they question the paternity of the brothers?" I objected," he recalls quaking with laughter. But no questions were raised, viewers lapped up the emotional saga and Fakira was a huge hit! Director C P Dixit demanded that Danny cry copiously in the climax scene, but Danny objected. The melodrama was turning out to be too much for his FTII sensibility. Shashi used to work in three shifts those days and he had no patience with Danny"s artistic emotions, “You are being paid to cry," he hollered at Danny and reluctantly Danny dabbed his eyes with glycerine and over-emoted. “I went to watch people snigger on the opening day and to my surprise all the women around me were sniffing into their "kerchiefs and I was mobbed after the show! After that I never asked any questions, I became a lamb on the sets," he says shaking his head.
Eight hits in a row - Mere Apne, Zaroorat, Chor Machaye Shor, Kalicharan, Kala Sona, Fakira, Laila Majnu and Dhund - Danny became the numero uno villain of his times. His stint as a top baddie continued unabated. But Danny never spread himself too thin, he worked on his own terms. Never worked on Sundays and took an annual vacation during summer. “I insisted on shooting in cooler climes away from Mumbai"s October heat and producers agreed," he recalls with disbelief. But then success is the operative word in the film industry. Danny was riding the crest of success but his heart pined for the open spaces and he was getting claustrophobic in his urban trappings. “I really thought of buying a helicopter and flying down to Mumbai for shootings from Mahabaleshwar. But then I stopped short and thought, next I may want to go and live on the moon, there is no end to wanting..."reflects Danny in a typically Buddhist manner.
Loss and gain of Gabbar
Being the top baddie, Danny was the chosen one for Ramesh Sippy"s Sholay, “But I had already alloted my dates to Feroz Khan for Dharmatma which was to be shot in Afghanistan and there was no way I could have backed out of it," informs Danny without a trace of remorse.
Wasn"t Gabbar"s role his biggest professional loss? “No!" he states emphatically,"Amjadbhai became the greatest villain of our times and hiked his fees enormously. He brought dignity and status to character artistes. After Sholay, as the number two, my fees shot up eight times over. I have gained enormously from the loss of Gabbar to Amjad," he reasons.
Solace in substance
“I realised I had become so stale that I didn"t watch myself on-screen," he says by way of self-analysis, “How tedious it must be for the audience then? I decided to cut down on cliched work," he muses. Danny thumbed down run-of-the-mill roles, making way for significant projects like Khuda Gawah in the role of Khuda Baksh,"My riding skill and Urdu diction were put to best use," he notes happily.
Over the years, Danny has hand-picked interesting roles in exciting projects like Krantiveer, Asoka, 16 December, Shikar and the latest addition to his tally of films, Frozen, a black-and-white film shot on-location in Ladakh, in which Danny essays the central role of Karma," I have modelled it on my father, I pray just like him in the film, I have borrowed many of his gestures," he elaborates. Frozen will be screened at the Toronto Film Festival.
“Guru Dutt was never a hit filmmaker but his films still play somewhere or the other all over the world and he is immortalised in cinema, that makes me think," he spells out his career strategy thus.
Nirvana in a brewery
Danny backed a school teacher for his radical views during state elections in Sikkim. He won the election hands down and was appointed the Chief Minister. “He summoned me to Gangtok during one of my camping vacations in the Himalayas, I had to borrow my brother"s suit to meet him and then he slipped the brewery licence into my pocket," relates he. Not realising the worth of it, he was ready to sell it off, but he was alarmed at the market price being offered for the permit. “I woke up and put up the brewery," he explains. Since then, he has resisted all marketing initiatives of putting his face on the labels of his brew, he is resentful of the 'filmi" brand names that they have given the beer bottles that he sells, “Imagine one of them is called He Man and another Jungle King and there is one called Hit," he jokes.
But now Danny is content, "I just flow with life, I have no ambition, no expectations, no greed," he surmises, adding that he is privileged. His son is still in school and he does evince an interest in films. What Padma Shri Denzongpa longs for these days is a quick game of table tennis with his pal Amitabh Bachchan,"who"s too busy with his work" and the role of legendary Genghis Khan!