Hindi cinema has a long and noble tradition of homo-eroticism, going right back to the aged Aristotle leching at the luscious young Prithviraj Kapoor in Sikandar; but rarely has the theme been presented with such unselfconscious directness, such purity of purpose, most of all with such sweetness, as in the lovely early scenes of Manmohan Desai’s Dharam-Veer wherein Dharmendra (mini-skirted) and Jeetendra (in princely tights) gambol over hill and dale, looking deep into each other’s eyes, clasping hands and singing lyrics that swear undying love: “My life is naught without you” and suchlike. Just watching this song, Frodo and Samwise would have sprouted immense quantities of chest hair and then headed off to the nearest bar to pick up orc-women.
The love of Dharam and Veer for each other is startlingly progressive for 1977, though midway through the sequence the director (perhaps in a bid to throw the censor board folks off track), briefly introduces Zeenat Aman into the song – she plays a haughty princess in a carriage and one shot is cleverly edited to make it seem like Dharam is singing “I will never leave your side” to her rather than to Jeetu. But the illusion is never really convincing; as my observant friend Ajitha pointed out in an SMS, the two men are very mean to her throughout her brief appearance.
Dharam-Veer, one of the many films that defined my worldview as a child, was showing on Set-Max’s correctly titled “Super Cinema Series” last night. This is a great film with many larger-than-life human characters and some surprisingly puny animals. I’m thinking in particular of the small, fluttering hawk that we see on Pran’s shoulder in the early scenes of the film, and the equally diffident tiger that he later does battle with. (Incidentally, watch closely when Pran proposes marriage to his lady love at the beginning of the film. He’s gazing intently into the bird’s eyes throughout his speech. The men in this film really do have issues with women.)
The story In a palace in an unnamed medieval kingdom somewhere, the villainous Jeevan hears a prophecy stating that his eldest nephew will be responsible for his death. In the manner of all evil maamas since the time of Kamsa, he takes this news in bad spirit and quickly tosses his sister’s newborn baby off the terrace. But the hawk appears, picks up the infant in one swell swoop and deposits him in the house of a poor ironsmith and his wife. So child-lorn are this penurious couple that it never occurs to them to enquire about if someone may have misplaced or lost a baby; instead, with all the stoicism of someone who’s found a 5-rupee coin on an empty road, they accept the baby as their own, and their love ensures that it grows up to become Dharmendra in a mini-skirt (it being decreed in this kingdom that ironsmiths and their sons be so attired). Which does not in any way impede his relationship with the dashing prince Veer (Jeetu).
Meanwhile, Pran dodders bitterly about the countryside (in films of the 1970s and 1980s, no one doddered bitterly like Pran did) with his horse and his hawk, waiting for 20 years to quickly elapse so he can be reunited with his son. And in the palace the villains, led by Jeevan and Ranjeet, scheme to separate the two heroes and thus preserve the heterosexual tradition.
The women: There are two! In most big-budget multi-starrers made in Bollywood around this time, heroines were inconsequential anyway, but Dharam-Veer goes a step further. While the two heroes are perfunctorily teamed up with Zeenie and Neetu Singh, there’s nothing remotely resembling chemistry between these supposed romantic pairings. The women are so insignificant you can’t even call them foils. (At one point Jeetu teams up with Neetu to rescue Dharam but when the job is done the two men simply ride off together hand in hand, leaving the girl to her fate.) If Ingmar Bergman’s profoundest films, as we are so often told, are studies of the human face, the greatness of Dharam-Veer lies in the tenderness of the glances exchanged between its two leading men. The film comes alive when they are together. Even when they fight it’s like a lover’s spat, a prelude to the joys of making up.
But unbeknownst to them, they are really long-lost brothers (or cousins, I’m not sure – there were many babies in the early scenes and it got very confusing). This then is what allows the film to return to the path of conformity. Blood is thicker than gay love and clearly Dharam and Veer have no future together other than a platonic, brotherly one. And so they ride off into the sunset together, but this time with their respective heroines, who still look a little confused about their function in this film.
Note: movie trivia supplied by the TV channel tells us that in 1977 Manmohan Desai released four films – this one, Amar Akbar Anthony, Parvarish and Chacha Bhatija – all of which were golden jubilee hits. Moreover, each of these was based on the lost-and-found theme, a feat that is hopefully unique in film history. (Racking my brain for a comparable directorial achievement in such a short span of time, I can only think of John Ford who, over a 20-month period in 1939 and 1940, released five classics: Drums Along the Mohawk, Young Mr Lincoln, Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath and The Long Voyage Home. Unfortunately not one of these movies had a lost-and-found theme, though I did catch an Indian chief grinning lasciviously at Henry Fonda in the first one.)
P.S. Do take a look at this brilliant collection of stills from the gay song (complete with subtitles) on Turbanhead. (Thanks to Brown Magic for the link. I had seen the post many months ago but couldn't find the link when I searched for it through Google.)
P.P.S. Dharam-Veer description from this site: Once Upon A Time In A Kingdom Lived Two Legendary Friends Whose Friendship Came To Be Known As The Eighth Wonder Of The World. This Is He Story Of These Two Friends, Their Loves, Romances, Antics, Bravery Ang Guts, Interwoven With The Intrigues Of State, Justice And Loyalty To There Brethren.