En route to Cape Town – to cover the shoot of Acid Factory, a Bollywood riff on Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs – the flight bedevilled me with a bumpy bout of insomnia.
So whom could I yak with among the co-passengers? Dia Mirza, no way! In any case she was playing cards with her mom. Dino Morea? Nope, he was plugged into an iPod.
Danny Denzongpa, yes, yes, I could swirl some Scotch on the rocks with DD. Not possible either. He was in deep slumber, a flute of champagne ignored on the shuddering folding tray. Moreover, I’d been instructed by the film’s technical crew on board, “Don’t go and occupy the empty seat next to Danny saab. He only enjoys female company. Ha, ha!”
That ruled me out. And that partiality for female company was all-too-true. During the Johannesburg halt, in the transit lounge, he was surrounded by a bevy of exceptionally tall women, engaged in chemistry-crackling conversation. Where did the tall femmes materialise from? I still haven’t figured.
In a sharp beige linen suit, never mind the long-haul flight, DD resembled a business magnate, which he is actually. A website maintains that he’s worth 30 million US dollars, thanks considerably to his beer brewery chain located in the north-east, partnered with his brother. Perhaps that’s why he isn’t cash-dependent on the movies.
As he turns 74 today (February 25), the actor-cum-business-whiz of Sikkimese-Nepali-Bhutia descent, still cuts a ramrod, no-flab silhouette. And speaks to us media types only when he’s spoken to, consistently on guard about how much to say and how much not to. Precious little is known about his wife, Gawa, of royal origin. About his son scheduled to follow in his bootsteps, it has been emphasised that Renzing will have to go it alone. No recommendations from daddy-o.
Vis-à-vis his daughter, Pema, there has been pin-drop silence. Visitors to the Denzongpas’ high-walled bungalow Dzongrilla (a twist on Shangri-La?), in Juhu, aren’t encouraged. All that’s known is that a decade and more ago, Amitabh Bachchan and the almost-forgotten actor-Romesh Sharma, would drop by frequently to play ping-pong.
Danny, born Tshering Phinsto Denzongpa, initially contemplated joining the army but quixotically joined the Film and Television Institute of Pune instead. That his looks didn’t exactly fit the chocolatey hero requirements of the early 1970s, obviously didn’t faze him. Neither did it, the audience. From the outset, he’s portrayed characters which haven’t been slotted into any specific state or territory.
Okay, so he hasn’t been the quintessential leading man. On the upside, take his stock of bad guys encompassing the gamut of dakus, smugglers and a wheelchair-bound sadist to jilted lovers, despotic patriarchs and demonic scientists. That’s the stuff that prolific filmographies are made of.
Among his best, I’d count Dhund, Devata, Hum, Khuda Gawah, China Gate. And Robot essentially for matching strides with Rajnikanth. By and large though, the actor seemed to get no satisfaction, explaining his prolonged sabbaticals. Nixing projects which called for shoots in the scalding summer months, and the same ol’ roles, there have been periodic lulls in a career stretching over four decades. Clearly, it would become a curious case of Cherchez Le Danny whenever he cloistered himself in his family’s horse-breeding farmhouse.
Come to think of it, DD’s filmography could have been much more quantity- and perchance, quality-crammed. In addition, call it utter professionalism or gross misjudgment, he insisted on honouring his commitment to Feroz Khan’s Dharmatma over the Gabbar Singh role in Sholay. As it turned out that was one helluva career-faltering decision.
Enter Amjad Khan, who became the go-to for ice-cold villainy. Followed the hegemony of Amjad Khan and then of Amrish Puri. Slowly but surely fiendish felons became near-redundant, what with heroes revelling in portraying those quaintly-called ‘characters with grey shades.’ Pitch black was no longer the colour of the season.
In between spewing diabolical deeds onscreen, Danny Denzongpa had sought to change lanes. He directed Phir Wohi Raat featuring his girlfriend Kim Yashpal and Rajesh Khanna. Evidently, direction wasn’t his scene following the mixed response to the suspense-horror flick.
Neither did the songs voiced for films by DD burn up the charts. Despite such also-attempts, the actor retained his equanimity. No bouts of brooding, no harsh statements belted out in print.
Surprisingly, the Film Institute graduate didn’t ever gravitate towards parallel cinema at all during its height. No films under the helmsmanship of the rule-breakers for him.
At most, he was okay with the medium wave by debuting in B R Ishara’s Zaroorat (this zaroorat being sex!), and joined the ensemble cast of Gulzar’s Mere Apne. And there’s the curiosity piece Abhi To Jee Lein, directed by the seasoned acting coach Roshan Taneja. In the company of his Film Institute peer, Jaya Bhaduri, Danny played a revolutionary college student. Perhaps this endeavour was ahead of its time, or it was just inefficiently bunged together. All those who’ve seen it, raise your hands please!
Another unlikely Denzongpa film: Frozen which delved into the travails of a family, living under the foot of the Himalayas, where the army moves in. Photographed in dazzling black-and-white, at most the indie film has a cult following on the internet. Danny Denzongpa’s get-up is strongly redolent of Toshiro Mifune, the legendary actor of Akira Kurosawa’s classics. For once, the actor actually promoted one of his films, unconditionally.
Apart from Frozen, which did the rounds of the festival circuit in 2007, the actor hasn’t been venturesome. No pain, no gain, hasn’t been his catchphrase. Over to his presence alongside Brad Pitt in Jean Jacques Annaud’s Seven Years in Tibet (1997), alas, it isn’t high in recall value.
Admittedly, to recap Danny Denzongpa’s style (never over the top, always with a touch of class) calls for a thick tome. Who’s to do that? Obviously someone who has tracked him closely and someone whom he trusts implicitly. Is there such an entity? Journos like me couldn’t ever dream of venturing that a-way. As it happened most of us were obsessing rightly or wrongly over Amitabh Bachchan all through the 1970s and ‘80s.
Come to think of it, the only time I had a semblance of a conversation with Danny was on returning from the Chennai studio sets of Aakhri Raasta. At a hotel foyer, he stopped me to ask, “So what did Amit say? He keeps threatening to retire (after the near-fatal punch during Coolie). Tell him not to even dream about quitting.”
“Why don’t you tell him yourself,” I arched a brow.
“It’s not my place to advise him,” he riposted.
“Sorry, neither is it mine,” I said politely.
Hundreds of moons later in Cape Town, pleasantries were exchanged amidst the chaotic Acid Factory shoot. Retaining his trademark sangfroid among the confusion, the actor was focussed on his takes, unmoveable from his chair as cars crashed and faux bombs exploded. He’d dart a wan see-what-one-has-to-go-through smile at me.
At the end of the day, he’d retire to his suite. A forbidding do not disturb sign dangled from the knob.
Now that was a lost-op to pin Danny Denzogpa for that chestnut question, “So what makes you tick?” Obviously he would have exhaled a cloud of cigarette smoke at that dumbo inquiry.
So, I didn’t dare to knock on the suite’s door. As for checking out on that ‘only female company preferred’ attitude, it just wasn’t in my place to sleuth.
All seen, done and acted at 68 today, Danny Denzongpa is entrenched in the public mind as an excellent artiste.
Honestly, my only whimper is that he could have been a great one. If only he’d admitted to himself, that for an actor there can be nothing like, “I can get no satisfaction.”
(The writer is a film critic, filmmaker, theatre director and a weekend painter.)
(This article is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on 25 February 2016. It had been republished to mark Danny Denzongpa’s birthday.)