This post is part of the Swashathon, a blogathon devoted to the swashbuckler adventure genre of films, hosted by Fritzi at Movies Silently. Be sure to check out all the posts!)
It’s probably true for many that when one thinks of “swashbuckling”, one thinks of films such as The Mark of Zorro or The Three Musketeers. But Indian cinema is no stranger to a type of film that gives us a hero, a villain, damsels in distress, and swordfights a-plenty – only there, it’s considered masala filmmaking with a healthy dose of “dishoom-dishoom”. The master of masala, of course, was the great Manmohan Desai, and his Dharam Veer is an excellent example of Indian swashbucklia.
In a mythical kingdom, princely suitors send gifts in order to woo the princess Meenakshi (Indrani Mukherjee). A mysterious suitor sends the gifts of flowers and a sword, along with a note, all delivered by his falcon (Sheroo the Wonderbird!) -- gifts symbolizing love for the princess and the power to protect her. He is rejected, of course, because he is a mere hunter (though one, his note tells us, “well versed in samurai”).
At the same time, the princess Meenakshi is out hunting, and is set upon by a group of attackers organized by her brother Satpal Singh (Jeevan), who is determined to get rid of her because of a prophecy that he will be killed by his eldest nephew. No Meenakshi, no pesky nephew, is his thinking. But the hunter Jwala Singh (Pran) is informed of the attack by Sheroo, and he rescues the princess. She offers him anything as a reward – he asks to marry her. She agrees, and they are married, but the next morning, Jwala Singh goes out to deal with a tiger that threatens to harm the princess. In a mix-up, another man is killed by the tiger, and before he ends up going over the cliff fighting the tiger, Jwala Singh places his fringed poncho over the man. Meenakshi assumes this body is Jwala Singh’s, and believing him dead, she ends up in an unconscious state until the moment she is married to the king of another kingdom, at which point she comes to her senses, reveals that she was already married, and, to top it all off, she is pregnant with her presumed dead husband’s child. The king is nonplussed; he takes Meenaskhi in, promises to make her son his heir, but he has a condition: no one should know the truth about the prince in order to preserve his family’s honour.
The king also takes in Meenakshi’s brother Satpal Singh and his pregnant wife – Satpal Singh pretends to be truly remorseful about the attack on Meenaskhi, but when Meenakshi’s babies are born – of course there are twins, because that’s the perfect way to set up a trademark Manmohan Desai “lost and found” theme – Satpal Singh tosses the eldest off the parapets, and switches the younger brother with his own child, born the same day. In an interesting twist, Satpal Singh’s wife switches the babies back.
About that parapet toss – of course, Sheroo the Wonderbird happens along just at the right time, snatches the baby before it can fall to the ground, and delivers it to the home of the blacksmith and his wife who have been nursing Jwala Singh since his fall. Jwala Singh regains consciousness just as the baby is delivered, seen as a good omen all around. The baby is raised by the blacksmith and his wife, and grows up to become Dharam (Dharmendra). Dharam’s twin brother, Veer (Jeetendra) is, of course, raised in the palace and is set to become king one day. The two, with their shared birthday, are the best of friends.
One day, while out celebrating their friendship (on display in the song “Saat Ajube Iss Duniya Mein” – “There are seven wonders in the world, but the friendship of Dharam and Veer is the eighth”), they meet the haughty princess Pallavi (Zeenat Aman).
Dharam immediately falls in love with her, but she’s having none of it. When Dharam wins a jousting match she has arranged, he requests her hand in marriage as his prize. She tosses him into the dungeon, and vows to kill him with her own hands as punishment for his arrogance.
Veer, meanwhile, escapes but with Pallavi’s soldiers hot on his trail, he takes refuge in the tent of a Banjara tribal maiden, Roopa (Neetu Singh).
At this point, I think I need to point out the occasional inadequacy of subtitling to convey things – Roopa clearly identifies herself as Banjara (in a later scene, she tells Meenaskhi that she is “Banjari”), and all references to her travelling troupe of performers call them “Banjara”. “Gypsy” is a difficult word, but is used in the subtitles to mean stereotypical travelling performers. The Banjara are a nomadic people in India, and are included in the list of Scheduled Tribes (a list of indigenous people that acknowledges legal status and which is part of a system of “positive discrimination” in India). Making Roopa Banjari adds another layer into a story that already presents us with the concepts of equality between people from different social strata. The son of a blacksmith can find love with a princess; a prince can find his heart’s desire in a tribal girl.
When the troupe’s singer is unable to perform, Veer steps in as a substitute, and uses the occasion, the performance of the song “Hum banjaron ki baat” (The Banjara are incomparable; they love when they love, and they loathe those they hate) to rescue Veer.
(I'll admit, though, that the fact that Laxmikant-Pyarelal were masters of melding traditional Indian music, both classical and folks, with Western styles -- like the Eastern European violin in this song -- gives this film a decidedly "gypsy" flair, in the best of ways.)
And now I need to point out that although I’ve written almost 1000 words on Dharam Veer, I’ve only scratched the surface of the film. Manmohan Desai is a master of taking a whirlwind of characters and plotlines and turning them into something immensely enjoyable to watch on screen. Desai pulls together a disparate mishmash of elements and turns them into a satisfying spectacle. So, we have European style coaches and Roman style gladiator rings in which jousting contests take place. Dharmendra wanders around in skimpy little gladiator type costumes. Jeetendra gets a series of poufy or frilly shirts. Jwala Singh is a master of the samurai (the sword he uses is a bit “memories of samurai sword”, though); Veer fights, at one point, with an urumi, the flexible, whip-like sword with multiple blades from South India. You’d think this “everything and the kitchen sink” approach to filmmaking shouldn’t work, but in the hands of Desai, it does. Add in some ripping dialogues from writer Kader Khan, and some terrific music from Laxmikant-Pyarelal, and you have a film that, while perhaps not achieving iconic heights as that other Manmohan Desai classic, Amar Akbar Anthony, is still eminently watchable and, frankly, a heck of a lot of fun.
If this post has tempted you, and you'd like to watch Dharam Veer, then head on over to the Shemaroo Entertainment YouTube Channel, where the film is available legally, free, and with subtitles.