1977 | India
Director: Manmohan Desai

Once you’re done with the knowledge-based cherry-picking, there are a wide variety of factors that come into play in deciding which are the potential gems among the selection of five-dollar Bollywood DVDs at your local Indian shop or favorite online vendor. Familiar names or faces in the cast or crew of a film are always helpful, but there are also certain thematic or conceptual lures that might serve to tip the scales. In the case of Dharam-Veer, for instance, it didn’t hurt that the cast included the amazing Zeenat Aman. And while its male lead, Dharmendra, isn’t one of my favorite actors, I do harbor a lot of good will toward him thanks to his co-starring role with Amitabh Bachchan in the classic Sholay, as well as his appearance in other highly enjoyable films such as Ankhen and Alibaba aur 40 Chor.

But what really closed the deal for me with Dharam-Veer was the fact that its action was described as taking place in a vaguely medieval “mythical kingdom.” This aroused in me fevered hopes that Dharam-Veer would be some kind of mind-boggling ahistorical period piece—something, in other words, along the lines of Mard, the 1985 classic whose depiction of hero Amitabh Bachchan’s battle against the British Raj managed to include MTV-inspired eighties fashions, gladiator battles, and women in frilly Victorian garb strapped to the front of Sherman tanks.

These hopes of mine would have been even more fevered had I realized at the time that Dharam-Veer‘s director, Manmohan Desai, was also Mard‘s director. And, though my expectations would have no doubt bloated accordingly, I probably still would have come away from Dharam-Veer satisfied. The mythical land of the film’s setting is indeed a gumbo of anachronisms, a greedy mash-up of medieval Europe, ancient Rome, and the 1001 Arabian Nights that also manages to contain, along with its jousting matches and Roman chariots, gypsies, pirates and a climactic battle at sea involving canons. This freedom from the constraints of history not only emboldens Dharam-Veer‘s art direction, but also allows its costumers to follow their muse wherever it may take them—a creative liberation that results in such singular sights as Zeenat Aman’s medieval gauchos and black nylons, black leather assemblages that put the “glad” in gladiator; and Jeetendra in some almost indescribably flamboyant flamenco dancer outfits; and, in those instances where the reach of the clothiers’ imaginations exceeds that of their budget, baggy white long johns to fill the gaps.

I want to describe Dharam-Veer as a visual feast, but it’s actually something less nutritionally balanced than a feast—more like a visual raid on the candy jar, provided the candy jar is mostly full of Neco Wafers, Jolly Ranchers, and Zots. The costumers render their otherworldly creations in a splashy comic book palette that, combined with the preponderance of brightly painted cardboard in the sets and backdrops, makes Dharam-Veer look like Prince Valiant by way of Flash Gordon by way of the Classics Illustrated version of Ben Hur. Fittingly, all of this riotous display is in service of the type of over-heated, coincidence-dependent, improbably convoluted, and cheerfully chaotic plot that seems to have been the exclusive territory of 1970s masala films. Whatever food metaphor you choose for the experience, you’re bound to come away from it engorged—and, if you bring the right attitude to it, you’ll be giddily satisfied as well.

Dharam-Veer was one of four successful films directed by Manmohan Desai that were released during 1977, all of which dealt with the enduring Bollywood “lost and found” or “separated at birth” theme. The most successful of these was the blockbuster Amar Akbar Anthony, which starred Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna, and Rishi Kapoor as brothers who grow up separately, unaware of one another’s existence. One is raised as Hindu, another Muslim, and another Christian, and ultimately they are united in vengeance against the man responsible for shattering their family. Following this model, Dharam-Veer opens with a complex shuffling of the familial deck. Interestingly, however, thanks to a chain of coincidences, all of these elements manage to fall back into their proper place over the course of the film, and the final dramatic revelation simply reveals that everything is pretty much as it should be, despite it not seeming that way.

As the film opens, a line of young noblemen are presenting the King with jewels and other forms of valuables in exchange for marriage to his daughter, the Princess Meenakshi (Indrani Mukherjee). The Princess, however, is unable to witness this touching spectacle, because she—headstrong, independent girl that she is—is off in the wilds hunting tigers. A gang of thugs hired by her brother, Satval Singh (Jeevan), is also on the hunt for Meenakshi. Satval Singh has been told by a seer that he will die at the hands of his firstborn nephew and so has decided to cut off the whole nephew-birthing business at its source by having the Princess killed.

Fortunately, Jwala Singh (the mighty Pran), a proud hunter who is “well versed in the ways of the Samurai” and who has at his side a super-intelligent falcon, Sheroo (played, according to the credits, by Sheroo The Wonder Bird), happens upon the scene and rescues Meenakshi from her attackers. The grateful Meenakshi promises Jwala Singh anything he wants as a reward for saving her life. Jwala Singh asks that she become his wife. Immediately. Proving that she is truly a woman of her word, she agrees. The two are married in a ceremony that Jwala Singh performs himself.

Sadly, Jwala Singh and Meenakshi’s first night of marital bliss is interrupted when one of the tigers Meenakshi had been hunting shows up at their door looking for some payback. Jwala Singh takes off in pursuit of the animal and on his way comes across a local whom the tiger has fatally mauled. Covering the corpse with his own cloak, he continues on and is soon locked in a death struggle with the enraged beastie. Meenakshi, meanwhile, wanders out after Jwala Singh and, seeing the dead body wrapped in his cloak, doesn’t bother to go in for a closer look before jumping to conclusions and plunging into a deep state of shock.

Meenakshi is eventually discovered and returned to the castle, where she remains in a wordless trance. Even so, the King still needs to get her married off. So when a nobleman with suitably diminished expectations comes courting, the deed is hastily done. This leads to the film’s best line of dialogue, when Meenakshi finally awakens from her stupor in the presence of her new husband and he, in explaining the situation she finds herself in, says “You were not conscious when we got married.”

Fortunately, Meenakshi’s new husband, despite being willing to marry an unconscious woman, is a true gentleman. When she informs him that not only is she married to the hunter Jwala Singh (whom she now believes to be dead), but also now with child as a result, he stops short of making the demands of marriage upon her. Rather, he agrees that the two of them should live separately under his roof, raising the child as man and wife, while not taking part in any of the carnal activities that such a union might imply. In return, he asks that she promise to never reveal the true nature of the child’s parentage (and we’ve seen how Meenakshi is about keeping promises).

After the required interval, Princess Meenakshi gives birth to twin boys, a circumstance which is of no small concern to the craven Satval Singh, who is still determined to avoid the destiny the seer has laid out for him. Luckily for Satval Singh, his wife has also given birth–at exactly the same time as Meenakshi. Seeing an opportunity to serve two ends at once, Satval Singh switches the second born of the Princess’s twins, Veer, with his own child, then takes the firstborn twin, Dharam, and drops him off a parapet. Meanwhile, Satval Singh’s wife has had a crisis of conscience and has, unknown to him, switched her child back with Veer.

As the gods would have it, Sheroo The Wonder Bird is flying by at precisely that moment and, unwilling to tolerate infanticide on his watch, scoops Dharam up in his beak and flies off into the sunset. Sheroo The Wonder Bird deposits baby Dharam with the kindly blacksmith Lohar and his wife Dhano. As fate according to Dharam-Veer would have it, Lohar and Dhano also happen to be nursing back to health the wounded Hunter Jwala Singh, who has been in a coma for the entire nine months since getting on the wrong end of that tiger, and who awakens from that coma at the precise moment that Sheroo makes his baby delivery. Of course, Jwala Singh has no way of knowing that the baby is his, or even that he has fathered a baby, so all he can say is, basically, “Nice baby you’ve got there.”

Twenty or so years go by, during which both the King and Meenakshi’s husband die, leaving her Queen of the realm. Because Satval Singh has believed all along that his son, Ranjeet (Ranjeet), is actually the child of Meenakshi, he has beaten and verbally abused him constantly, and so the boy has grown up to become a resentful lout much like his father. Veer (Jeetendra), on the other hand, has grown up to become a somewhat exuberant young man with a taste for big puffy sleeves with frills, and Dharam has grown up to become forty-two year old Dharmendra. Lohar has raised Dharam to be strong like the bull, and in an earlier scene, we see him showing a younger version of Dharam how to split wood with one swing. That younger version of Dharam is played by Dharmendra’s actual son, billed here as “Bobby Junior Dharmendra”, but better known later as the Bollywood star Bobby Deol.

The class boundaries in Queen Meenakshi’s kingdom are obviously considerably more porous than those of medieval England or ancient Rome (or even modern India, for that matter), because Prince Veer and Dharam, the poor blacksmith’s son, have somehow, over these twenty-some years, become inseparable friends. They spend their (by all appearances considerable) leisure time dancing across the kingdom’s lush hillsides, proclaiming and demonstrating their love for one another with a homoerotic intensity that almost threatens to eclipse that of even Feroz Khan and Vinod Khanna in Qurbani.

Somewhere in the course of their frolicking, they encounter Pallavi, a mean princess played by Zeenat Aman. The two men commemorate the occasion by singing a charming song about how one must keep one’s woman on a short leash in order to prevent her from developing a haughty attitude like Pallavi’s. Dharam declares that Pallavi, despite all appearances to the contrary, will ultimately be his. So begins a strange courtship in which Pallavi shows her affection for Dharam by forcing him to perform in life and death struggles in her personal coliseum, locking him in a cage where he is poked with spears by dwarves, and has him bound and whipped.

Finally, Dharam convinces Pallavi to come away with him, and what follows is a jaw-dropping musical number in which a singing Dharmendra leads a bound Zeenat Aman around on a rope while forcing her to do menial tasks. It appears that Pallavi is beginning to enjoy this treatment, but then she takes the first opportunity to stab Dharam in the gut, leaving him to bleed to death as she hightails it back to her castle.

AS LUCK WOULD HAVE IT, who should come upon Dharam’s wasting body but the hunter Jwala Singh. Jwala Singh nurses Dharam back to health, and Dharam, impressed by the remarkably out-of-shape looking Jwala Singh’s mastery of the Ways of the Samurai, asks to become his pupil. Pallavi, meanwhile, has had an attack of conscience over gutting Dharam like a stuck pig and returns contritely to his side. Ultimately, she realizes her love for Dharam and, in so doing, becomes virtuous and kind.

This is an unhappy development for Sujan, the man to whom Pallavi has been promised in marriage, as well as for Pallavi’s brother, Dev Singh (Dev Kumar). The two quickly become part of the growing list of Dharam and Veer’s mortal enemies, which also includes Satval Singh, Ranjeet, and for reasons I won’t even go into, Azad, the leader of a band of gypsies. This axis of evil conspires to turn the two BFF’s against one another. The scheme results in Lohar, Dharam’s adoptive father, being framed and punished in the Queen’s court for a crime that he didn’t commit, and ultimately to the murder of Dharam’s adoptive mother in circumstances that place suspicion upon the royal family.

Despite the Queen’s assurance that the family is innocent of these crimes, Dharam asks that in recompense she leave her castle and come to his hovel to take the place of his mom. As demonstrated before, Meenakshi is honorable to a fault and so acquiesces to this demand, spending her days from that point on cleaning up around Dharam’s hut, feeding him food with her hands, and giving him foot rubs.

And so, as mentioned earlier, those familial bonds that fate conspired to break at Dharam-Veer‘s outset manage to, despite all obstacles, reassert themselves by its final act. It is the purpose of the “lost and found” films to serve as a testament to the strength of these bonds and dramatize how, as an expression of God’s will, they exert a magnetic pull that no barrier of class, character, or geography can resist. In Dharam-Veer, this means that everyone ends up having the relationship with one another that they’re more or less supposed to be having (though admittedly with some creepy overtones), even though they don’t know it—until, of course, events lead to a round of startling revelations…and battles at sea involving pirates and lots of swinging back and forth from the masts of longships!

I have spent a lot more time than I normally would summarizing Dharam-Veer (even though, believe it or not, I haven’t come close to giving everything away). The reason for this is that the insane convolutions of Dharam-Veer‘s plot are such a large part of its appeal. As with many of the best masala films, in between marveling at its many visual delights, one can’t help sticking with it just to see what preposterous turn of events it will throw at you next. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on what type of cards the film has up its sleeve, it comes at you from a whole different angle, blindsiding you anew by way of some extremely bizarre primitive special effects or absurd action choreography.

Those special effects largely consist of shots, none too seamlessly integrated into the sequences in which they feature, in which horses are made to perform leaps that horses either wouldn’t or couldn’t do by means of what appears to be animation using cut-out photographs against a still background. The result is actually quite arresting visually, in a surreal sort of way, if you disregard that you were intended to accept it as reality. As for the fight staging, the defining philosophy appears to have been “You can never have too many backflips.” People perform this move in response to even the slightest bit of physical force–and in defiance of all known laws of physics and also incorporate it into their attacks, forcing their opponents to wait until they have spiked their landing before running them through.

Given its vintage, the one thing that really would have put Dharam-Veer over the top is a seriously funky score. However, the music by the team of Lamikant-Pyarelal is quite conservative, depending a lot on relatively traditional Indian rhythms and instrumentation. This is still not a bad thing, and the songs are pleasant overall, if not exceptionally memorable. It’s often hard with these movies to separate the songs from the production numbers—or “picturizations”—that contain them, and those here are top-notch. The sequence for “Hum Banjaron Ki Baat Mat”, in which a literal army of floridly garbed singing and dancing gypsies overwhelms Princess Pallavi’s amphitheater of pain, is without question the moment when the picture is at its most excruciatingly colorful. But it is another gypsy themed number, the climactic campfire rave-up “Band Ho Mutthi To Laakh Ki Khul Gayi To Phir Khaak Ki,” that is the clear standout, even though it was less characteristic of Dharam-Veer in that it is merely dazzling, rather than overwhelming, in its use of color.

Dharam-Veer‘s cast does a good job within the constraints of the comic book world that the film creates. Dharmendra is a performer who’s very good at standing on top of things, puffing out his chest, and booming out defiant proclamations—often while pointing—to the corrupt powers that be, and he gets to do a lot of that here. Zeenat Aman, who has shown elsewhere that she is an actress of considerable range, spends the first half of the film pouting and scowling, and the second half winsome and starry-eyed. Jeetendra, by far the most abused of the celebrity clothes-horses on display, does perhaps the most admirable job by managing not to be completely eclipsed by his wardrobe. Lastly, Jeevan, thanks to a spirited commitment to shaking his fists and hissing the heroes’ names through clenched teeth, makes for a fine two-dimensional villain.

Dharam-Veer is a movie designed to thrill, and it succeeds on all of the intended levels, as well as on many levels that probably weren’t intentional. In addition to watching its spectacular musical numbers and beautiful stars, there is the singular astonishment that comes from seeing combinations of color and fabric that will likely never be repeated in human history. Adding to Dharam-Veer‘s singularity is the fact that it’s pretty much guaranteed to be the only place where you can see a special effect shot of a horse jumping over a castle wall that is at once so patently phony and so hauntingly compelling. Even if you could find any of these elements in another film, the chances of that film also starring Sheroo The Wonder Bird are slim to none.

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