On his birthday the first thing Sunny Deol needs to do is gift a lifetime one-way paid holiday to the guy who vets his scripts nowadays, pronto. For the actor has increasingly become irrelevant in today’s Make In India era, though ironically Sunny’s act as the ‘son of the soil’ is his biggest hit till date (think Gadar: EK Prem Katha).
A known loner within the Mumbai film fraternity, Deol never liked to be counted among the brash, in your face heroes of Mumbai filmdom. The actor with his dhai kilo ke haath neatly ticked all the boxes to qualify as the desi Sly Stallone. But the bravura persona he displayed on screen tapered into a tepid recluse in real life, happy in his comfort zone, wary of taking on roles of varied hues, content in recycling his successful ones.
One could argue that maybe he liked it that way, to remain in a time warp, not taking his career seriously, lazy to even think of re-inventing himself. To be fair to him, he never got that top-notch set of directors and writers to work with in his heydays. Only Rahul Rawail, JP Dutta and Rajkumar Santoshi could bring the best out of Sunny, sadly they did not collaborate as often as they would have liked to. In lesser hands he was always the teeth-gnashing, wronged feller spewing dirges about the species canine.
So here is a look at five of his less talked about roles in a career spanning over three decades.
Sunny’s portrayal of Arjun Mavlankar, an unemployed youth set in the chawls of Mumbai is now hailed as a cult classic. Aided by Rahul Rawail’s crisp direction and a taut script by Javed Akhtar, it scored at the box office but never really catapulted Sunny to superstardom as a two week run would do to a wannabe hero today. It had Paresh Rawal’s assured debut as a local goon and Dimple Kapadia playing Sunny’s lover. It was also fleetingly famous for a smooch between the two leads that a certain six-year old Emraan Hashmi would have watched at a local single-screen then.
It was not always a voluble outburst that defined Sunny Deol. A vastly underrated film, Dacait showed the actor’s softer side and his restrained act as Arjun Yadav an educated youth who becomes a dacoit on the run, was top-notch. Unfortunately, the film bombed at the box office and nobody really remembers it now. With some mature performances from Rakhee as Sunny’s widowed mother and Suresh Oberoi as his brother, Dacait was in a league of its own. Rawail and his cameraman Rajan Kothari captured the ravines of Chambal like never before and the ending shot of the baby caressing a dead Sunny’s rifle is a classic.
Dharmendra put the failure of Dacait behind him to produce this gem, which can easily be counted as one of JP Dutta’s finest along with Ghulami. Sunny plays Krishna a police inspector whose past as the son of a dacoit comes to haunt him. Dutta was successful in capturing the inner turmoil of Krishna who comes to know who his parents’ killers are, while also confronting a step-mom lusting after him. It had some brilliant turns from Danny Denzongpa, Sujata Mehta, Kulbhushan Kharbhanda and Farah coupled with Ishwar Bidri’s superb camera that lustily imprisoned the dusty terrain of Fatehpur Sikri in its frames.
N Chandra directed Sunny Deol in this much hyped venture as it was the temperamental director’s next after the blockbuster Tezaab. Sunny played the title role of Narsimha, a faithful yes-man to the villainish Baapji (an unreal Om Puri). Sunny played Narsimha convincingly, but too many puerile sub-plots spoiled the show for both Sunny and the director. There were a couple of standout confrontation scenes between Sunny and Om Puri prior to the interval, but the film petered out into a disappointing finale making it an above average fare at the box office.
It is interesting to note that a majority of Sunny’s films during the nineties did well at the box office. Dharmesh Darshan helmed this one, which hit bull’s eye at the box-office, mainly due to some great action sequences and a heartfelt performance by Sunny as Inspector Karan. Darshan reprised the successful trio from Tridev and Vishwatma for this romantic action thriller that also had a popular soundtrack. While Chunky Pandey just filled in the frames, there were some electrifying scenes between Naseeruddin Shah and Sunny Deol as they tried to woo a hapless Juhi Chawla. I remember, film magazines had a field day carrying exclusive stills of a sultry Pooja Bedi who did her mandatory swimsuit scene in this one.
Sunny Deol’s clout at the box office was immense, but as the clock ticked and the single-screens gave way to shiny multiplexes his one-man army narrative failed to evolve. Whatever may have been his compulsions, the actor failed to graduate from a Guddu Dhanoa or an Anil Sharma vision of the Indian hero.
Will there be sunny days once again? Can the actor reinvent himself like Sanjay Dutt did with Munnabhai or get a new lease of life like Anil Kapoor did post Slumdog and 24? For a Deol fan, those questions loom large, even as the actor makes one final attempt to regain some of his lost glory with Ghayal Once Again. Catch the title logo which Deol just tweeted:
(The writer is a Social Development Consultant based in Delhi working with The World Bank.)