Screen

Bollywood Godfather: Dharmatma

It took Bollywood a few years to remake The Godfather, but when it did, HOO BOY. Sicily becomes Afghanistan, the family becomes the nation, there are two sets of costume-coordinated family members, and there’s at least one more musical number featuring scarf-based choreography.

        

At the center of this mid-70s glory is Feroz Khan, my favorite of Bollywood’s handful of actor-director-producer triple threats. Casting himself as Michael, the film was written to be more about Michael than Vito, because Hindi films are almost always about young men, especially when said young man is putting up the money for the production.

Sort of a Telly Savalas and Tom Jones hybrid aesthetically, the swaggering Khan has a very particular template when he plays his own hero: patriotic, (relatively) law-abiding, and triumphant over other male leads, and usually surrounded by a world full of equal opportunity sleaze, at least by Bollywood standards. In Feroz Khan films, shirts are unbuttoned to the navel, bad guys ooze drug-fuelled sweat, and everybody gyrates at the roadhouse. Here’s an example from one of his 1980s projects. This is what sets him apart from his contemporaries: there’s a recognition of some of the baser aspects of being human, without much hand-writing over it or punishment meted out.

Releasing barely a month after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency that would last almost two years, Dharmatma probably dodged a huge problem by putting a lawful twist on the crime syndicate in its central story. This version is more about an individual and his do-gooding for the sake of the nation than it is about family, choices, and inevitability. Vito isn’t a good man, but you can argue that he’s not the worst person in the story. However, he’s also shown to be a hypocrite, his Robin Hood act a gauzy cover for his illegal empire.

Another curious feature of Dharmatma is that it actually omits two of the Corleone brothers. Mainstream Hindi cinema loves drama among brothers, especially during this time period. Why have a story of just one man avenging his father and fighting for patriotism when you could have had at least two? Would it have just been too much work to bump off Fredo and Sonny along with all the other necessary relations and baddies? The film is pretty effective without them, but their absence gnawed at me. Even if the story in Feroz’s hands isn’t so much about family, the setting sure is, so why leave out two of the most gut-wrenching arcs?

The other major deviation from the structure of The Godfather comes in a nod to another major Bollywood-approved convention of the 1970s, the importance of distant childhood bonds: Michael and Kay are reimagined as childhood friends. There’s a 1950s Hindi film in which  Jane Eyre and Rochester can be childhood friends, so anything’s possible. Michael also gets a rival for Apollonia in the form of a suitor from her village—I mean, honestly, who wants a hero who has come by his love easily? Pish. In addition to showing that Michael is willing to fight when necessary to acquire something he values, it gives him yet another person to defeat, even without home field advantage. Apollonia has a lot more impact than Kay in this film. She’s assertive, demands equal rights with men, and makes no apologies for her rustic upbringing. When she is killed in the attack meant for Michael, he is clear to end up with Kay. In this version, she’s much more a nursemaid than a true partner, but at least she too makes her own emotional choice and sticks with it, even when Vito tells her at the beginning of the film to give up on Michael and tries to marry her off to someone else.

Maybe because of all these changes, until at least halfway through this film, my dominant impression of Dharmatma is not “Hey! It’s The Godfather!” but “Hey! It’s the movie in which our director puts things in the immediate foreground, often to obscure what’s really going on or to set up a big reveal of the true nature of the scene!”

The only explanation I’ve come up with is that placing interesting objects or people in the foreground sort of echoes Michael’s fate and duty to avenge his father, which were right in front of him all along but took awhile for him to accept and undertake. Similarly, maybe the identity of certain villains—or rather, the truly evil nature of some central characters—is prominent to us viewers but not to Michael. The culprits are right in front of you, boy! Or maybe Khan-as-director was just in a hard-core “stuff in the foreground” phase. He also had fun with geometry and striking landscapes, particularly in Afghanistan, some unusual camera angles (especially looking up at things), and even rotating the camera around its own sight line to show mental turbulence.

In the hands of a filmmaker more engaged with ethical gray areas than Feroz Khan is, this would set up a juicy dilemma for a mid-70s mainstream Hindi film son: does he obey his parent or the motherland? The same year Dharamatma released, two hugely influential and still beloved films dug deeper into this question. In Deewaar, an unfairly disgraced labor activist (a noble calling in this context) flees town in shame, leaving his wife to raise their two sons in poverty and eventually on opposite sides of the law: the older brother rages against the injustice done to his father and grows up to be a rich criminal, while the younger becomes a cop. Righteousness, very much Khan’s favorite virtue in Dharmatma, becomes a hollow prize at the end of Deewaar. Sholay, a western centered on personal revenge, is more interested in what is good for people’s spirits than in what serves the nation as a constructed entity. Due to Gandhi’s state of emergency, Sholay was famously forced to create a new ending in order to clear the censor board. In the government approved version that released in cinemas, the formal figures of the law swoop in to deal with the worst criminal, denying the victims, most significantly the father figure, their catharsis.

Thanks to the missing brothers, Dharamatma doesn’t have the emotional punch that it could have, even with Michael’s prolonged mourning for Apollonia. In addition to not stacking up to its immediate mainstream contemporaries, it also doesn’t dig into the potential of building on India’s ancient epic of warring families, the Mahabharata, which has been used directly and indirectly for films countless times.

What does work well in Dharmatma is there’s always something going on, something to look at, even if I wasn’t sure why or whether it was designed to do anything other than intrigue or entertain—which are perfectly fine ends, don’t get me wrong. For example, we have the Rapey Cousins, who in addition to being morally bankrupt provide understated comic relief, playing Villain Dumb and Dumber and dressed as twins.

Other 70s delights include motorcycling henchmen wearing rubber heads in an action sequence that includes Michael leaping into the air to catch a live grenade, fly fashions, an Egyptian-ish drug den, some internal parallels to reinforce familial similarities, and maybe even a visual nod to my favorite scene in the original film, when the door to Michael’s world closes on Kay.

Dharmatma is available on Einthusan with subtitles. Learn more about the best Hindi film about warring business families, Kalyug, from one of India’s top critics.

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Beth Watkins appreciates the cinema of things that are right there in the foreground.

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