40 years ago, before Baahubali, Gladiator and Pirates of the Caribbean, there was Dharam Veer.
I can’t tell you that you need to see this film because it’s brilliant. It’s frankly ridiculous. But you need to see this film to admire the unfettered imagination of one of Hindi cinema’s greatest masala makers – Manmohan Desai.
Dharam Veer is set in an unidentified time, which means anything is possible. So there are kings, queens and evil ministers, gladiators and jousting contests, banjaras and a hawk who swoops in to save the day.
There’s also Pran in a ponytail playing Jwala, the master swordsman who is hailed as a legendary Samurai. In one scene, Dharmendra, playing the local blacksmith’s son Dharam, asks Jwala: Agar aap mujhe samurai sikha de toh… And of course Jwala obliges.
You might wonder, why is Dharmendra wearing a skirt? We don’t know. But look at these other costumes.
Here’s Jeetendra as Veer the prince.
And Jeevan as the queen’s evil brother.
And Zeenat Aman as the haughty princess who must be taught a lesson.
Her character is the hardest to digest. In one song, Dharam, kidnaps her and ties her up because he loves her.
But while the princess is quickly tamed, Desai also gives us a queen who hunts tigers and rules the kingdom. Early in the film, she meets Jwala, has a Gandharva marriage which means a secret wedding, gets pregnant and then separated from him.
And then enters, one of the most progressive male characters in the history of Hindi cinema – a king who willingly marries the pregnant queen and takes another man’s child as his own.
The action moves at a breakneck speed and there is only one rule – you can’t question anything. Babies are exchanged and re-exchanged. Despite grave misunderstandings and machinations by a plethora of villains, the bromance between Dharam and Veer stands strong.
My favorite character is the villain, played by Jeevan, who just keeps scheming. When it is prophesized that his sister’s son will cause his death, he instantly plans her murder, saying jab behen hi nahin rahegi toh bhanja kahan se hoga.
It’s too much fun. Dharam Veer has the innocence of a children’s story. As the madcap plot unfolds, you can almost sense the director’s glee at having so many different toys to play with – this includes a battle at sea in the climax.
Dharam Veer released in 1977 and was one of the four hits Manmohan Desai had that year. The others were Amar Akbar Anthony, Chacha Bhatija and Parvarish. Do you know any other director who can match that? Check out Dharam Veer on Youtube.
All this month, Film Companion will celebrate the works of Manmohan Desai. You can follow our series FC Flashback which aims to reintroduce legendary actors, filmmakers and technicians to a young audience.