19 June 2016

Dharmputra (1961)

Directed by: Yash Chopra
Music: N Dutta
Lyrics: Sahir Ludhianvi
Starring: Shashi Kapoor, Manmohan Krishna, 
Mala Sinha, Ashok Kumar, 
Nirupa Roy, Rehman, 
Deven Verma, Indrani Mukherjee, 
We're living through contentious times. Last week saw one of the most horrifying mass shootings in the US, which lately (and unfortunately), has not been a stranger to these acts of domestic terrorism. In the tragic aftermath, a presumptive presidential candidate saw fit to blow up the discourse by implying that the current president is an apologist for terrorist groups, or worse, a sleeper cell for them. However, this is not just happening here in the US. Bigotry and intolerance are rising everywhere. Someone, somewhere, is offended by something. Which is fine, if he/she chooses not to watch/read/take part in whatever it is that offends them. Today, however, proxy wars are fought on social media platforms, people deem fit to band together and threaten violence against the person who so offended them, demand their ouster from their professional positions, and make life miserable not just for the 'offender' but for everyone associated with them.  

Amidst the roiling socio-political atmosphere in what is surely one of the most contentious presidential election years here in the US, I re-watched a film from the 60s, and was taken aback at how the more things change, the more they remain the same. Dharmputra is set in similarly contentious times – the years leading up to the Partition in India. As I remarked in my review of Hey Ram, the wounds of the Partition still fester under the scabs, almost sixty years after the incident. It is tragic – and scary – that the underlying premise of a six-decade-old film is  even more relevant today, than it was then.

The film begins in the mid 1920s, 1925 to be exact. India is still ruled by the British, even though the call of nationalism is beginning to catch fervour. Dr Amrit Rai (Manmohan Krishna) receives an unexpected visit from Nawab Badruddin (Ashok Kumar). 
The old man was Dr Rai's father's closest friend, and indeed, after his death, had quasi-adopted the young Amrit, even paying for his education abroad. Dr Rai considers him a father-figure and the Nawab's daughter, Husn Bano, his sister. The flustered Nawab has come about Bano. She's ill, he says; she suffers from 'be-abroo'. In other words, Bano has disgraced herself. She is unmarried – and pregnant. Dr Rai cannot hide his shock, but he is compassionate and unjudgemental when he speaks to Bano (Mala Sinha).  

When he wonders that she was so betrayed, Bano demurs. 'Dhokha kehke main apni mohabbat ki touheen nahin karma chahti, na hi apni kamzori pe parda dalna chahti hoon.' ("I do not want to insult my love by terming it betrayal. Nor do I wish to cover up my own weakness.")
Javed (Rehman), her lover, had also been her tutor. They had fallen in love, and Javed had approached the Nawab for her hand in marriage. Unfortunately, Javed was a mere professor, and not their social equal. But the Nawab had wealth enough for both, interrupts Dr Rai, he could have made Javed a peer, if he so chose. Ah, yes, says Bano, witheringly – if he chose! Instead, the Nawab had insulted Javed and had him thrown out of the house. Humiliated, Javed had left Delhi, and she doesn't know where he is. Neither he, nor the Nawab, had known then that she was pregnant.

Dr Rai is caught on the horns of a dilemma. He owes Nawab Badruddin a lot, and his chacha, as he calls the Nawab, has come to him for help. However, he confesses to his wife, Savitri (Nirupa Roy), he  is a doctor – his profession is to save lives, not take one. Conducting an abortion is against his conscience. 
On the other hand is the question of Bano's reputation (and the Nawab's). If news gets out about Bano being pregnant, she will be ruined. After pacing the floor the whole night, Dr Rai comes to a decision. They – the Nawab, Bano and the Rais – will move from Delhi, where everyone knows them, to the Nawab's Shimla residence. There, Bano will stay until she gives birth, and then the Rais will bring up the child as their own. Of course, no one thinks to tell Bano of the plan, until the baby is born and Amrit Rai gives his and Savitri's names as the parents. 
They return to Delhi where no one questions the child's parentage. The Nawab names his grandson Dilip, and he and a heartsick Bano leave on a sort of pilgrimage. In a twist of fate, at one of the shrines, they run into Javed. The Nawab, already feeling guilty about having wrecked his daughter's life, begs the younger man's forgiveness, and gives his blessings to their marriage. 
Bano and Javed move into the Nawab's house in Delhi, which adjoins the Rais. Bano cannot keep away from Dilip, who is being lovingly brought up by their neighbours. Javed dotes on the boy as well (he does not know yet that Dilip is his son). They are very happy, and soon that joy is about to be doubled. Bano is pregnant again. 
Unfortunately for poor Bano, she trips and falls down the stairs one day and miscarries. Her position is all the more tragic because it is clear that she can never conceive again. Next door, Savitri has just given birth to twins, and a grieving Bano wonders if she should ask for Dilip to be handed back to them. 
Javed, though grief-stricken, remonstrates gently. It is not to be thought of – Dilip thinks of Amrit Rai and Savitri as his parents. 

Savitri, kind and compassionate, encourages Dilip's closeness with Bano and Javed. (Her husband, also loving and compassionate, however sees Bano's barrenness as a fitting punishment for her 'crime'.) In order to make it easier for the little boy to go back and forth between the houses, they construct a sort of bridge that connects the two residences. Dilip now has many people doting on him his biological parents, his adoptive ones, his grandfather...

Until, one day, Nawab Sahib, who has been vociferously taking part in the national movement (to the extent of renouncing his title of 'Khan Bahadur') is fatally wounded when he leads a procession to take down the Union Jack and replace it with the tricolour.

This is the last straw for the afflicted Bano, and Javed decides to take her abroad for some time. When they return, fifteen years later, it is to a country in turmoil. Bano is only interested in meeting Dilip.
However, India is on the brink of not only independence, but also a very fraught period in its history. 'Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan' and 'Quaid-e-Azam ka elaan, ban kar rahega Pakistan' have replaced the nationalist fervour of Bano's youth. The British's divide and rule policies have succeeded in breaking the unity between Hindus and Muslims that had stood the nation in good stead earlier.

Savitri and Dr Rai welcome their friends warmly. The twins, Sudeep and Sudesh (Deven Verma), are now in college, and there's a younger sister, Rekha (Tabussum), who was born after the Javed and Bano left the country. (There's a slight problem with the time lapse and the kids' ages.) The younger three Rai siblings are a happy-go-lucky lot, but Dilip (Shashi Kapoor) is not only more serious, he has grown up into a deeply religious person, immersing himself in his country's politics. He excoriates his siblings for their indifference to the political atmosphere, and castigates them for being enslaved by the cultural mores of their oppressors. His younger brother points out that if Dilip and his cohort manage to expel the British, they would only be exchanging one oppressor for another. Before their sparring can devolve into an argument, Dr Rai interrupts.

The family find Dilip's obsession amusing (Savitri) and downright boring (his siblings). However, his bigotry and narrow-mindedness run deep. He's horrified that his parents' closest friends, the ones they want him to meet, are Muslim!  Innate good manners force him to offer Bano the respect that tradition demands, but his later behaviour is snubbing.
Savitri apologises, but Bano, caught up in her unexpressed maternal affection, makes excuses for his behaviour. 

Savitri points out that a proposal of marriage from one of Dr Rai's close friends has been rejected outright by Dilip because the girl had lived abroad for a couple of years. Obviously, she must have forgotten Indian culture. Bano demands to meet the girl, Meena (Indrani Mukherjee) whom she approves of at first sight.
When Dilip realises that his marriage has been fixed, he accosts his mother. How could she arrange his marriage to a girl who has no clue about Indian culture? The wife of his dreams is someone who is steeped in Indian culture and tradition. What tradition is he referring to? Savitri tries to remind him that many atrocities were committed under the name of 'tradition'. One needs to change with the times. Dilip is not convinced.
Bano comes to Savitri's rescue. She has great faith in Meena being able to change Dilip's mind, and she conspires with Rekha to have Dilip meet Meena. Her ploy works. Dilip is soon besotted with Meena, and their engagement is announced.  
Savitri's and Bano's joy is short-lived. The political situation has worsened, and Dilip is soon caught up in the divisive hatred that is being spawned. Neither Savitri's impassioned speech about the evils of 'traditional' Hinduism as espoused by Dilip, nor his siblings' outspoken arguments about the rigidness of his views turns Dilip away from his stated cause - akhand Bharat, 'Hindustan' without Muslims. Even his father's warnings of demonising the 'other' falls on deaf ears.

Outside, the few compassionate, moderate voices are being drowned out by the raging rhetoric on both sides. The path that Dilip is on can only lead to tragedy. As his loving family, both adoptive and biological, watch on, Dilip hurtles towards self-destruction. Will he ever learn the truth about his parentage? Will he able to accept it when he does?
Nationalism, religion, prejudices are as relevant today as they were in the period leading up to our Independence. Based on a novel (of the same name) by Acharya Chatursen Shastry, Dharmputra raises questions about communalism, fanaticism, and nationalism that resonate even today. When you begin to demonise a certain people, and make them the 'other' (as a certain political candidate is doing over here), your focus becomes less on finding a solution to the problem, and more about apportioning blame.  
Dharmputra was Yash Chopra's second directorial venture after his debut film, Dhool ka Phool (which dealt with the bold subject of premarital sex) and he tackled the subject of Partition with sensitivity and maturity. Produced under his brother BR Chopra's banner, it was a subject close to the latter's heart. Chopra Senior had seen the horrors of the Partition firsthand having left Lahore to come to Bombay. Unfortunately for the Chopra brothers, Dharmputra, released barely 14 years after the Partition, with its reconstruction of the Partition scenes, fared badly at the box office. Riots and protests against its screening caused it to be pulled from theatres by owners who feared for their lives and property.

Despite minor flaws, and a tendency to veer into unexpected melodrama in the last few minutes, Dharmputra stands the test of time. As I mentioned before, the subject is as relevant in today's world as it was then.
Dilip is both literally and metaphorically a 'dharmputra'. Like his mythical namesake, he too is convinced of the rightness of his path. So much so, he is unwilling to listen to anyone who warns him of the consequences of his actions. Yet, he's also an affectionate son and brother, and right until the end, willing to respect his parents' beliefs, even if he's shocked by them. He's also steadfast in his principles. While genuinely in love with Meena, he's willing to put off marrying her until after the country is independent.

As Dilip becomes more and more radicalised, however, there's nothing anyone can say that will change his mind.  Shashi Kapoor, in one of his first adult roles, is very, very good as a young man who is so bound by a rigid definition of 'dharma' that he's willing to sacrifice anything and everything at its altar. He's the scariest of bigots, because he believes in the rightness of his cause.
In stark contrast to his progressive family, he rails and rants against 'them', making them the 'other'. We see many Dilips today, all of them but manifestations of that same bigotry and narrow-mindedness. The modern, real-life Dilips are found in all religions, in all classes, in all sections of society, whether Western, or Eastern. Many of them today come from similarly liberal, educated backgrounds, and when they self-destruct, after being responsible for waves of destruction, their families often left wondering how and where they were radicalised.

Ashok Kumar's Nawab Badruddin is more a product of his society and his times than a cruel father. He has to live by societal rules, he tells Amrit Rai, but the latter is blunt  – is your daughter's happiness worth less than your good name? It says much for the Nawab's character that it is not. When he runs into Javed again, he apologises profusely, and willingly gets him married off to Bano. This is not to protect his daughter's reputation  – after all, Amrit Rai and Savitri had already saved her from dishonour and disrepute. He even apologises to Bano for making the decision to give her baby away, and tells her that if she so desires, he will get the baby back. 

Amrit Rai and Savitri are also very human in their characterisation. When the former tells his wife that God had punished Bano for her sins, it is a personal principle that he lives by  – abortion is a sin against God. Moreover, as a doctor, his responsibility is to save lives. Yet, his genuine affection for Nawab saheb and Bano leads him to take a decision that will protect his rakhi sister's honour. 
He also calls out his son's bigotry for what it is, cutting through all the fine words and stripping off all pretence. He's the voice of conscience in the film, and he is both moral and upright, his warmth and genuine affection for his family and friends providing the leavening that prevents him from being self-righteous.

Savitri is equally principled and affectionate. In the beginning, when Bano demurs at sharing her plate in case Savitri's dharm is destroyed, she affectionately chastises Bano: Tumhara khoon hi jab apna keh diya toh dharm kya kharab hoga? Dharm kya aadmi se badha hai? (When I've accepted your blood [son] as my own, how will my religion be destroyed? Is religion greater than humanity?)  
She is also willing to question her son when his principles run counter to what 'dharm' should actually mean. What traditions are you talking about, she asks him. The ones which marry a young girl off to an old man, and then push her onto the funeral pyre when he dies? The ones that subjugate women? Which Hindu traditions is he protecting, what is he fighting for? Nirupa Roy reminds you that she's a very fine actress indeed. Her Savitri is a very un-Nirupa Roy-like role, and it's a shame that she was slotted into the suffering mother roles.
They are not the only ones. Sudesh is not far behind in questioning his brother. 'Aur agar aap na hota toh mussalmaan alag mulq na maangta!'  ('If it weren't for people like you, Muslims would not have asked for a separate country') he tells a fuming Dilip bluntly. No truer words were ever spoken. 

Apart from Savitri, none of the women really have a role to play, which is rather a shame.
Mala Sinha may have received top billing, but her role is only to provide the requisite Muslim background for Dilip. Her lachrymose portrayal of Husn Bano did nothing to endear her to me. Especially when she keeps finding excuses for his nasty behaviour. However, it was such an unexpected pleasure to see a heroine who takes responsibility for her own behaviour without too much drama (at least then). 
Indrani Mukherjee had nothing to do but look pretty, and she did that very well. Tabassum's fate was even worse; she doesn't even have the satisfaction of a song

The males didn't fare any better  –  Rehman was shortchanged, going AWOL for large chunks of the film. (He did get to be part of a couple of songs, however.) Neither did Ashok Kumar who is allowed to die after he's done the job of getting Bano married off to Javed. Nor even Deven Verma, though he did get a couple of great lines.
The film basically belonged to Manmohan Krishna and Shashi Kapoor, who embodied the two facets of Hinduism  – moderate and extremist. As the question of faith and religious identity come to a head towards the climax, these two actors, supported by Nirupa Roy in form, wound the tension to a fine pitch.
Rajendra Kumar made a cameo as another moderate voice, and got to sing a song that made me wish Rafi had never mentored Mahendra Kapoor. So did Shashikala, uncredited, for a song that seemed to be shoehorned in. [Another famous actor made a cameo as well  –  well, his voice did. The voice over in the film was narrated by Dilip Kumar.] Despite  hard-hitting lyrics from Sahir Ludhianvi, this score was really not one of N Dutta's best. Of the lot, the only songs I really liked were Main jab bhi akeli hoti hoon, Aaj ki raat, and Bhool sakta hai bhala.

The film's dialogues (Akhtar Ul Iman), holding back no punches, helped it win the National Award for Best Film, and the Filmfare Award for Best Dialogues. It's a shame then that Yash Chopra meandered far from his initial foray into films, preferring the mustard fields of Punjab and the tulips of Switzerland, chiffons and misty hills, to socially relevant films like these.

If films can be a cautionary tale, then Dhamputra was one. Like all such cautionary tales, however, it's apparent that no one's ever listened to it. Unfortunately. 

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