Dharam Veer

Sometimes in a world full of mean spirited decision making and demonstrations of crushing privilege it really does the soul good to see some unambiguous comeuppances and outrageous costumes. This being a Desai film, I got my wish. But the exercise of privilege and bad decision making was never too far away, although usually dressed up in fabulous boots and an explosion of ruffles.

However. The very sensible and worthy women in this film get short shrift and I did have the occasional moment of murderous rage.

Princess Meenakshi (Indrani Mukherjee) is out in her gilded chariot, searching for game to hunt. She spies a stuffed tiger on a rock in the river and goes to kill it even more. Villains appear, paid off by her brother Satpal Singh (Jeevan, aka Creepy Jeevan). Just as her death seems imminent, a stranger appears. The unknown warrior is Jwala (Pran!), who had been alerted to the kerfuffle by his trusty falcon Sheroo (Sheroo). Meenakshi offers him any reward he names, and he names her. Jwala has been harbouring a secret love for the princess, and had made a hideous statue of her. She is a woman who believes in keeping her word, and I think was swayed by his artistic flair, and they marry there and then with the fire as their witness.

Then follows some tiger wrestling, a misidentified corpse, and Meenakshi becoming catatonic with shock.

She remains in shock long enough for her father to get her married off to Pratap Singh (Pradeep Kumar) who says he doesn’t mind that she is basically a living doll.

How good was Pratap Singh to stop her killing herself, and accepting that she had an heir in the oven while acknowledging that he had no right over Meenakshi’s body. But how does a headache provide a pregnancy diagnosis? But how creepy is Pratap Singh to marry an unconscious woman and plan to consummate the marriage. You know you’re in a topsy turvy world when that is one of the good guys.

Satpal Singh steps up his efforts to rid himself of rivals and avoid unpleasant destiny. More bad decisions help the chaos along and babies are swapped, swapped again, and face near certain death. It’s only about 20 minutes in the movie at this stage and already there is so much plot.

Question: If you picked up a baby swaddled in red velvet who had been delivered by a falcon, and you worked for the palace that was awash with rumours of a baby swaddled in red velvet who had been stolen by a falcon, would you not put two and two together? I’m not blaming Sheroo for protecting his family. But come on humans!

In what represents the present day Meenakshi’s babies have grown up (a lot) to be Dharam (Dharmendra) the adopted son of the blacksmith, and Veer (Jeetendra) the prince.

And Satpal’s son Ranjeet Singh is played by Ranjeet so you already know all you need to know about him. But here are some of his many moods.

Will Dharam and Veer ever find out they’re twins, not just bromantic soulmates? Will Ranjeet ever meet a woman without trying to rape her? Will the family be reunited, true love win, and villains get their just deserts? Whose couture will reign supreme? And what of highly intelligent and faithful Sheroo?

The heroes are the least interesting people in the film, which may explain the costume choices. If you lack substance, add more ruffles. Perhaps a fringed leather mini dress will distract from the absence of matter between your ears. They have some cracking dialogues, especially when their friendship is under strain and Dharam calls Veer out on his privilege. But they also do bad comedy costumes and behave boorishly to the people they supposedly love. Pran is my pick of the heroic litter. His costumes and wigs are a sight, he has a sparkle in his eye when he leaps into the fray, and he has integrity. He isn’t great at decision making, but who is in this world. Luckily Desai amped up the action with jousting, gladiator style fights, and pirate action on shonky looking ships so there is no need for nuanced acting. Now if 80’s Chiranjeevi had some of these fancy duds added to his wardrobe, I’d be delighted. There might be some boot plagiarism afoot as this is a Megastar-less Megaboot treasure trove.

Meenakshi is a stickler for the law and honour but she understands her son and sees through his flouncing. Her weakness is that she expects everyone to be as honourable as she is. And Indrani Mukherjee’s probably younger than her “children”. She and Jwala are kept apart due to their own unbending principles. But she is warm and approachable as a mother, and is affectionate to Veer and Dharam.

However women aren’t actually people with individuality, needs, or rights. When Dharam’s mother is murdered and the royal family is framed, he demands a mother to replace his mother. The queen must go be his Ma. And he is genuinely delighted. It’s like his poor deceased mother never existed, as long as he had someone to feed him and tell him he was perfect. And he had no remorse about taking the queen, his bestie’s mother, away because a manly man’s man needs his mummy.

Pallavi (Zeenat Aman) is a bossy, entitled, aristocrat. Sadly she fails to put a stop to Dharam and Veer who tag team with dated shtick about having to keep a woman on a tight rein so you can be sure to break her. That would have been justifiable homicide I reckon. Dharam thinking that he can just take any woman because he is so awesome is very unpleasant and when he ties Pallavi up and sings to her about how he is worthy of her love…blergh. Dharam’s amazing super strength and very short skirts eventually win her over, because it’s not like she has a day job or anything to occupy her mind. On the upside Zeenat gets some fabulously OTT costumes and some kickarse action scenes which slightly compensate for her “dancing”.

Speaking of “dancing” – Jeetendra is literally carried around for most of this.

Veer meets Rupa (Neetu Singh) when he is hiding from Pallavi’s brother and fiancée and of course has to scrub Rupa’s back while she is in the bath. It’s interesting that the older generation in this film are no nonsense about sex and relationships but the “boys” are quite sleazy. It’s a shame Veer wasn’t more like his progressive but creepy dad. Oh that’s not a good aspiration.

Veer falls for Rupa but like his BFF, decides that treating her mean will keep her keen. Rupa is almost raped by Ranjeet. And then when she is traumatised and shaken, Veer pretends he has no feelings for her. Unfortunately before Veer can sort out their engagement, Ranjeet wins Rupa from the gypsy king and things look grim. Rupa was indignant at the injustice but she didn’t get anywhere with actually changing the outcome. It took Dharam speechifying to make the men decide they could do the right thing. But generally, Rupa was up for rescuing herself and others and never sat back waiting for a miserable fate. Neetu is feisty and fun, and certainly made the choreographer’s life easier.

Manmohan Desai is a master of apparently throwing random masala ingredients together but actually having a tightly plotted and well planned story to tell. Dharam Veer has the stars, the spectacle and the silliness in spades. 4 stars!

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Bahu Begum (1967)

Bahu Begum-title

M Sadiq’s Bahu Begum opens with a happy song, featuring prettily dressed girls playing on swings in a rain drenched courtyard. But it stars Meena Kumari so you know things won’t stay on the bright side for long.

Melodramas are not always my cup of tea, but I like Ashok Kumar a lot and the lovely soundtrack has enduring appeal. And Bahu Begum places a heroine who lives a secluded and blameless life in a moral dilemma, and then pushes her out the door to see what might be. It’s not an uplifting girl power story at all, but there is a charm in the tone and the respect between key characters.

Yusuf (Pradeep Kumar) visits his friend Achchan (Johnny Walker) but his ulterior motive is to see the lovely Zeenat (Meena Kumari). Her family is not as wealthy as they once were and her father Nawab Mirza Sultan (D.K.Sapru) has rented half the house to Achchan. Achchan and Zeenat’s friend Bilqis (Zeb Rehman) help young love as much as they can. Bilqis is less theatrical than Achchan, but they both get results. Yusuf and Zeenat are flowery and poetic, and have more of an idealised love rather than a passionate attraction.

One fateful day Nawab Sikander Mirza (Ashok Kumar) accidentally sees Zeenat’s face and cannot help but look his fill. Sikander Mirza sends his man to present a proposal and at the same time Achchan asks Yusuf’s uncle to send a proposal. The uncle says yes but has no intention of surrendering his control over the estate or of marrying Yusuf off without a big dowry. He sends Yusuf away on a bogus business trip, timing his return for after Zeenat’s wedding. Zeenat only finds out about her wedding when her trousseau arrives, and no one thinks to mention the groom. All overheard conversations point to Yusuf so she assumes it has been fixed, and he himself is sure he is the one.

Bilqis breaks the news to Zeenat on her wedding day. Zeenat gets Bilqis to cover for her and slips away to where Yusuf should be waiting for her. The qawali sung in the dargah seems to be a direct challenge to her to face the tribulations but she cannot comprehend that her true love is not there. Zeenat passes out, regaining consciousness well after the wedding formalities have taken place. An empty palanquin was sent to the Nawab, and there is no bridge left unburned. Some time later Zeenat is found unconscious (again), this time by Naziranbai (Lalita Pawar) and one of her girls (Helen). They take her to the brothel (or whore house as my subtitles have it) as they would not abandon a stranger in need.

Zeenat hears Helen singing about straying from her intended path (the lyrics by Sahir Ludhianvi seem to be very well linked in with the drama) and is drawn to the sadness in the song. It is not until a male guest sees her and waves a fan of banknotes that the penny drops about her current abode. Naziranbai throws the vulgar fellow out and the ladies bond over their miserable histories and a good cry. Zeenat asks for shelter in the brothel and Naziranbai promises to protect her so at worst I guess she would be a virgin prostitute (you know, the ones who only ever dance).

Sikander Mirza asks Naziranbai to send him a plausible fake wife so he can get his little sister Suraiya (Naaz) engaged. Of course, Zeenat is the only girl who can pass for decent. She and her ‘husband’ finally talk about what happened and it is a genuine conversation. I liked that when he asked her why she went to the brothel, meaning why did she throw her honour away, she was firm but polite saying she didn’t take herself there but the brothel that offered her refuge when no one else would. Suraiya guilt trips her fake sister-in-law into staying longer but once she is married, there is no reason for Zeenat to stay. Except that the Nawab loves her, and asks her to remain in his house for their shared honour if not for mutual affection. So of course Yusuf turns up because it is very important that he tell her all about his feelings. What will she do?

Meena Kumari is the tragedy queen, and Zeenat is like the Typhoid Mary of Tears. The longer people are around her, the more they cry. Everyone, at some stage, turns into a soggy mess. Well, except Helen.

Zeenat’s father loses the plot after one of her teary fits, Suraiya goes from manic pixie to weeping wreck. Even pragmatic businesswoman Naziranbai has a sob when proximity to Zeenat finally wears her down. I admired Meena’s ability to cry prettily without getting blotchy or running at the nose, and her makeup artist must have been on call around the clock. She does have some chemistry with Ashok Kumar but I think he could portray rapport with a cabbage so I am not sure who deserves the credit.

Bahu Begum-Ashok Kumar

Ashok Kumar plays Sikander Mirza with regal poise and excellent eyeliner. While the character is obsessed with honour, it is mostly in relation to ensuring his little sister has the opportunity for a good marriage and a happy life. He is not so blinded by his own prestige that he fails to consider Zeenat’s position and desires. There is a bit going on under the surface and Kumar shows the inner turmoil through beautifully judged facial expressions and the pauses and beats in his dialogue delivery.

I liked that the film showed a small space between being married and not, between doing what was right and maybe doing what you wanted. Even though Zeenat was unlikely to deviate from the norms, she could have. And to see her and Nawab Sikander Mirza thoughtfully considering that she had options was quite lovely, especially in the midst of so much heightened emotion and melodrama.

Pradeep Kumar has the charisma of a limp lettuce leaf but since Yusuf, like Zeenat, is more likely to recite a couplet than actually do anything I suppose that is a good fit. Once he learns of Zeenat’s betrayal he goes a bit Devdas, wallowing in self-pity and dramatic eye shadow.  Zeb Rehman is delightful as Bilqis, Zeenat’s mildly rebellious friend. Naaz is afflicted with a character that is either giggling or sobbing so she must have been exhausted at the end of every days shooting. And any film that gives Helen some lovely songs and pretty costumes is doing something right. Johnny Walker has a significant role in the drama but still manages to drag in the comedy sideplot complete with cock jokes and pratfalls.

The opulent sets and costumes give Bahu Begum a timeless quality as does the beautiful soundtrack by Roshan. I have no idea when the story is supposed to have taken place. I think Johnny Walker did slip into some Hinglish in one of his rants but other than that the dialogue is in Hindi and Urdu. I loved the house furnishings, the soft light streaming through draperies and screens and the measured way of life.

I have my issues with the way women are segregated and dismissed, but since this is a vintage film and possibly set in ye olden days I could step back from that a little. But if someone had just asked Zeenat if she wanted to get married and to who, the movie could have been over in one tear sodden hour and had room for a couple more songs. 3 stars!