My earliest memories are of a huge house, a fairyland overflowing with children and uncles and aunts and grandparents and cousins and ayahs. We lived in a huge joint family. It was one big, happy family. Like a Sooraj Barjatya family, but with a little less glitter.
I was the youngest in the household, and Sunny was the oldest, so I was the most pampered, and Sunny was the most responsible one. I spent more time with my mother than my father because he was always busy shooting, sometimes three-four shifts a day. He never had the time to come with me to school PTA meetings and things like that. Because he was so busy we rarely went out to restaurants for dinners. And he didn’t want us to attend film parties because he didn’t want us to be influenced by that fake environment and grow up as shallow human beings. When he did have some free time, we would sit at home together.
Although we didn’t spend much time with him in Mumbai, he did take us for holidays by car. I remember dad driving us to Goa, and to Kashipur, near Nainital, where we had a farmhouse. My father tells me that once, at the Kashipur farmhouse, someone was arguing with him and he got angry. But dad was even more shocked to see that I had taken it so personally that I jumped over a two-foot wide water dyke and leapt at the man, shouting expletives in my broken four-year-old lingo.
For our December holidays we used to go to my father’s birthplace, Phagwara, in Punjab. Later, the school holidays were changed by the government to summer holidays in May, which was not so much fun, but we still went every year until I was eleven years old. We didn’t have our own house there, but we had a bit of land and loads of relatives. When I was eleven the Hindu-Sikh riots broke out, and after that dad never allowed us to go back there for our holidays. Our little world was not safe anymore.
I used to always go with my dad for his outdoor shooting schedules. That’s when I got to spend a lot of time with him. On the sets, I was of course given privileged treatment but I never thought it was because I was a ‘star son’. At that age, ‘star’ was only a word in a nursery rhyme for me. For many years I believed that all the fuss over me was because I was a child, and children are always fawned over.
I really didn’t know exactly what my father did. But I liked the fact that he was loved by so many people. That was one of the reasons why I decided early in life that my future lay in films. I thought that this must come from being in films. As I grew up I realised what a warm, giving, big-hearted man he was. He was a man who could look after other people, even complete strangers, and support them. Even today, when I’m shooting out of Mumbai, people come up to me and say, ‘You must help us because you’re Dharmendra’s son. He used to help us whenever he was here.’
When I was much older, I saw dad’s first film, Arjun Hingorani’s Dil Bhi Tumhara Hum Bhi Tumhare. And noticed how skinny he was in the film because of the years of struggle; of living on one meal a day and walking miles to producers’ houses to show his photographs. He used to work for an American drilling company before he joined films, and he was given the option of a transfer to America. But he refused, because his heart was set on films. I don’t really know what gave him the courage to drop a secure job and pursue his dream with single-minded passion. But he left everything and came to Mumbai. He didn’t even have a house when he arrived here. For a while he stayed as a paying guest in someone’s balcony. Because of lack of food, he had lost so much weight and strength. But still, he sent all his earnings back home. It sounds like a movie story, but it isn’t. It’s fact, not fiction.
All my relatives who are here in Mumbai are here because of him. Our house is like a mini-Punjab. There’s a continuous influx of people from Punjab going in and out of the house. I sometimes bump into people whom I don’t even know! Anyone from Punjab would come and say he’s from my father’s village and find refuge in the house.
I remember one incident. A stranger was pestering the security guard and getting aggressive. My father heard the commotion and went down to see what the matter was. The security guard was driving the man away, and suddenly the man caught my father’s feet and said, ‘Paaji, meinthoda fan aa. I came all the way from Punjab just to see you. You can beat me up if you want, but I’m happy I saw you.’ And my dad chided the man and took him in the house, and fed him and gave him new clothes to wear! That’s how he is, very soft-hearted.
My mother says I’m very much like dad. I personally feel my brother Sunny is more like dad except that he’s very quiet. In me dad’s traits are more obvious because I’m more extroverted and gregarious, like dad. I’m also as gullible as dad is. People can take me for a ride, like they have taken dad many times. But the way I see it, it’s their loss, not mine. They lose out on my friendship.
As I grew up I realised what a warm, giving, big-hearted man he was. He was a man who could look after other people, even complete strangers, and support them. Even today, when I’m shooting out of Mumbai, people come up to me and say, ‘You must help us because you’re Dharmendra’s son. He used to help us whenever he was here’
People who see me at a party or in my car assume that I must be a snob. Till they speak to me, and realise that unlike a rich star’s son or a businessman’s son, I’m very much down-to-earth. I’m not a typical rich kid. My grandmother and grandfather taught the importance of being humble and down-to-earth and that has been passed down to me through my father. When I have children I hope I can bring them up as well as he has brought us up. He didn’t give us everything we desired, but helped us to realise the value of things. And more importantly, the value of human beings; of respecting and loving others.
Another amazing thing about him as a father is that he has never ever hit me. Only once, I had refused to give my prelims, which were optional, because my elder sister also hadn’t given them. My mother must have told dad about it and he was angry. He just patted me lightly on the cheek with those huge hands of his, and the matter was settled instantly! Believe me, he can’t bear to hit anyone in real life, no matter how many goondas you see him bashing up onscreen.
I was brought up very protected. He never allowed me to go out with friends for parties. He didn’t believe in the concept of children going out. His protectiveness towards me stemmed from an incident which occurred when I was three years old. My grandmother, my mother and sisters had gone to Lido cinema to watch a film of dad’s. I was left alone in the house with my maid and my father. And while playing I fell from the first floor. Dad heard a loud thud and when he came into the hall he saw me lying there with blood all over me. He just slapped the maid and picked me up and ran like a madman to the hospital. Since that day, until I was in my teens, he always feared that if I went out I would get hurt and there would be no one around to help me.
He still worries about me so much that when I broke my leg in London a couple of years ago, although Sunny was there with me, he took the next flight in. The funny part of that injury was that when I was admitted into the hospital, I insisted my mother should be with me all the time. The British hospital staff were amused— such a big boy, why do you want your mother with you? But I made a fuss. And I think that was the first time in the history of that hospital that they must have added an extra bed in the room so that a mother could stay with her grown-up son.
I went to a disco for the first time when I was 18 years old. And then for the next few years, I went through a phase of rebellion. That’s an age when every son learns the importance of saying ‘no’ to his parents, of asserting his own individuality. And it’s a necessary phase. You have to go through it and learn from your own mistakes what is right and what is wrong. Or else it haunts you all your life.
This was the most difficult period of our relationship. Dad never gave me the freedom. He tried to explain things to me. But he never hit me or even raised his voice. I could see the pain in his eyes. I knew I was hurting him, but at that point I was blind.
Fortunately, I learnt from my own experiences who my real friends were and who were just good-time buddies. And slowly, I began to realise the importance of family and of settling down.
Then I met Tanya, my wife. When I told dad about her he wasn’t really sure I wanted to get married because he knows I’m very fickle-minded. I’m an Aquarian, you see. In fact, even my father-in-law agreed to the marriage only because I was Dharmendra’s son, and he respects my father immensely. My wife is from a very different world (she is the daughter of a very rich business family) and they knew about me only from what was written about me in the gossip magazines. No father would give his daughter’s hand in marriage to the kind of person I was painted out to be. But when my father realised that this time I was serious about marriage, he met Tanya’s parents and arranged everything for me.
Over the years, I’ve come to realise how much I enjoy his company. Today, dad spends most of his time on his farmhouse near Lonavla and I really miss him. I make it a point to spend as much time as I can with him and make sure that every New Year’s eve is spent with my parents at the farmhouse. And the last two New Year’s Eves have really been the best in my life.
As a child one is often asked: who do you love more—your father or your mother? The mother is the more obvious choice because a child spends more time with her and whenever there’s a problem, the first thing you want is your mother. But dad I’ve grown to love and respect more and more over the years. If it wasn’t for those days he went without food, I wouldn’t have been eating in five-star hotels today. If it wasn’t for the days when he went without a roof over his head we wouldn’t have been living in a bungalow today. I owe him my everything.
This article was first published in September 2000