Dharam Veer is a Hindi cinema TARDIS, holding way more bedazzled boots, pirate shirts, Elizabethan doublets, Roman sandals, feisty gypsies, hand guillotines, romantic princes, creepy statues, sworn promises, lost relatives, baby-switching schemes, court politics, sword fights, naval battles, and eye-for-an-eye justice than you imagine could possibly fit inside its perfectly normal-looking DVD box—and did I mention it also travels in time?
I love every minute of this film. It is a masterpiece of masala, the Indian popular cinema style that is a mix of plots, emphases, and tones and generally embraces “more is more” across the board (plot, tone, production design, cast, run time). The director, Manmohan Desai, is in my opinion the uncontested master of this form, and all the other major crew are experts as well: screenplay (Prayaga Raj, who worked on 15 films with Desai), dialogue (Kader Khan, who for decades stars in many films of this type), the composing duo Laxmikant and Pyarelal, art design, stunts, costumes, etc. It’s possible that Dharam Veer contains so much story and so many visual references that probably only a time- and space-travel metaphor can properly suggest its complex strands. Whatever it’s doing, and where/whenever it goes, it’s at the top of its game, and it must be seen to be believed.
The plot hinges on a double-whammy of one of Hindi cinema’s favorite tropes: long-lost family members. Here it is multi-generational, with parents and children ripped apart, some of them having to exist with secret knowledge of true identities and others blithely unaware of truth bombs that will re-order their places in society. At the center of this complicated chart are Dharam and Veer, who are best friends (described in this song as the eighth wonder of the world) and, unbeknownst to them, royal twins. When they were born, their uncle and major villain Satval Singh threw Dharam from a tower and swapped his own son Ranjeet with Veer, so that Ranjeet would grow up to be king. In a fantastic re-switcheroo, Satval’s wife undoes his misdeed by putting the two babies back. Dharam, meanwhile, is plucked out of thin air by a falcon named Sheroo, taken to the woods, and raised by a kindly blacksmith and his wife. Dharam and Veer’s real parents are the queen Meenakshi and a hunter named Jwala, who married each other in secret in a forest and then were immediately separated by a fierce tiger, who Meennakshi thinks mauled Jwala to death the day after their marriage. Meenakshi returns to the palace and is married off to someone else immediately, so Veer is assumed to be fully royal and legitimate.
Are you confused enough to need a diagram? Great! In it, you’ll see heroines Pallavi and Roopa (each royalty of a sort in their own right) and the second generation of villains, plus a sense of the additional layer of relationships between Dharam and his birth parents.
In more consistently serious-minded Hindi films, separated families (specifically brothers) are often read as symbols of the nations of India and Pakistan, artificially ripped apart by Britain during Partition. In films like Dharam Veer, I’d argue that this idea is simultaneously cherished and exaggerated to a point that lies somewhere beyond meaning but short of ridiculousness. My theory is that 30 years after independence and just a few months after the end of a national state of emergency in which Indira Gandhi revoked civil liberties, filmmakers were ready to discuss just how many players—and how much complexity—are involved in holding a nation together. Maybe Dharam Veer can also be seen as a call to action: the older generation (Meenakshi, Jwala, and the blacksmith) that shepherded in the new nation did its best, but the children they raised must act fearlessly to protect and restore the country’s destiny. Setting the story who-knows-where-and-when adds to the feeling that this is a fable, a narrative with timeless lessons. Whatever messages were intended, the film connected exceptionally well with the audiences of the day; all of the sources I can find label it a blockbuster hit. (One source says that when adjusted for inflation, Dharam Veer earned about 40% more than the current all-time Indian box office leader.)
The cast who take on the job of portraying all of this is utterly top notch. If you’re familiar with 1970s Hindi cinema, you’ll recognize everyone in the film and feel reassured by their presence, because all of these people have performed well in this type of film before (and they’ll go on to do others as well). If you’re not, rest assured you’re in the hands of experts who know exactly the range of notes required in this symphony of emotions. My particular favorites in Dharam Veer are Neetu Singh as Roopa, an assertive, self-determining gypsy leader; Dharmendra as Dharam, oozing confidence and heart despite his questionable wardrobe (more on that in a minute); and Pran as Jwala, a grumpy loner who knows what’s what in this world and opens his heart only to the right people.
Of special note in the cast is Sheroo the Wonder Bird, playing Jwala’s falcon who saves baby Dharam and performs other useful tasks that I don’t want to give away. 1970s Bollywood adores animal characters and often writes them very well—by which I mean that the characters do things that those animals either do or could conceivably do with good training. The best thing about these animal friends is that nobody in films bats an eye at them—such is the level of commitment to the world the film creates. Everyone is all in, and that enthusiasm is a joy to watch.
Historical Wackadoodle is one of my favorite genres of Indian cinema, and even without a specific referent, Dharam Veer’s affinity for chariot scenes and lack of twentieth-century technology (and hangups) put it safely in this category. If there’s one thing Dharam Veer loves above anything else, it’s the costume closet. The sartorial hedonism in this film is very high. It’s as though the wardrobe team debated whether their inspiration board was disco pageant, S&M staff, gladiator, Cossack, pirate, Elizabethan nobility, or carpet remnant monster and landed on the answer “Yes please!” Out of all of the wonderful outfits and accessories, my favorite might be the boots. Dharam Veer is a nonstop parade of them, some of which I would, in all seriousness, gladly put on right this minute.
All this and much, much more awaits you in Dharam Veer!
Dharam Veer is available with English subtitles on Youtube. For more Indian historical wackadoodle, check out Mohenjo Daro, Jodhaa Akbar, Asoka, and Baahubali (both parts) on Netflix (all but the last of these are based on real people and/or cultures, but their degree of accuracy and concern for reality varies.)