Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Dharam-Veer: the love that sings its name

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.

: 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.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Well Dharam-veer does have some gay overtones, now that I think about it. But there is another movie which is a worse offender - "Yaarana" (Big B and Amjad Khan).

    Sample these lyrics from a song in that movie.
    "Bhole o Bhole" where Big B prays to Lord Shiva that his friend not leave him.
    Some of the lines in this song go as:

    "Mere yaar ko manale.. woh pyaar phir jagade"

    "Kya hoga phir tera gauri joh rooth jaye" - he compares his relation (with Amjad) with that of Shiva and Parvati

    "Jism hun mein woh jaan hai meri, usko nahin pehchan hai meri"

  3. You know, I've often wondered about this strong streak of what we are characterizing as homo-eroticism in Hindi movies. Let's take two of them as examples. There's Sholay by Ramesh Sippy, and Dharam-Veer by Manmohan Desai.

    To the best of my knowledge both Sippy and Desai have never been rumoured to be interested in men, and in fact both romanced multiple women. If neither Sippy nor Desai presumably have a personal stake in introducing homoerotic undertones in their movies, are they trying to appeal to a gay audience?

    Is the homoeroticism at all intended, whether deliberately or subconsciously? Or is there a tradition of valorizing asexual male bonding which is unique to Indian popular culture?

  4. I think this is just a result of over-sentimentalising the notion of friendship. You turn friendship into camp and it inevitably gets gay overtones. I don't want to offend any gay people here but that is the only reason I can think of.

    i am sure ramesh sippy or manmohan desai would be horrified to read whatever you have written!!

  5. Swati, Alok: I don't see why Sholay needs to be brought up in this context. It's a very different film, the male-bonding relationship isn't campy in the way Dharam-Veer is, and the female characters are much better defined. I wouldn't put the two films in the same box at all.

    Shailesh: good point about Yaarana.

  6. I dont think its any form of homo-eroticism that happened back in the 1970s. Im sure it was a very restricted social structure we had back then, but I dont see India's top directors expressing their creativity in such subtle displays, or in such directions really. All this is basically what Alok says - "oversentimentalising the notions of friendship". Movie characters back then were usually loud and unreal when it came to their relations with other people. Especially heroes would always have to be pure white angels-in-bellbottoms.

    Even I saw the movie yesterday. For that matter, I happened to see a bit of Border on my cable too. Another display of overt machoman antics from Bollywood. I couldn't stop myself from putting up my views on it on my blog. Take a look and tell me if you happen to share my views on it.[I dont bloody know how to put hyperlinks in a comment, or I would have putten up the exact link.]

  7. Guys, just to clarify (since I'm getting the awful feeling that clarification is required): this was a JOKEY post. Just for the record etc, I don't really think Dharam-Veer was intended as homo-erotica (though there might have been something subconscious going on, as Swati suggests).

    Need tips from Great Bong about how to write such posts without drawing serious, analytical comments...

  8. Ohh thanks for the clarification and I was thinking that you had started writing for the Journal of Queer Studies. Hahaha :)

    Actually the post was funny but there is a serious element to it too, in the way male bonding is portrayed in the popular culture and what does it say about questions of gender and sexuality.. Okay my last "serious" comment here :)

  9. As the song goes
    "Bus Yehi Apradh mein har baar karta hoon
    Aadmi hoon aadmi se pyar karta hoon"

    Anupam Kher actually played a poofter in some movie I don't rememeber where he sang this as he minced along Grant Road to the jeers of the shady ladies.

  10. "it being decreed in this kingdom that ironsmiths and their sons be so attired" - love it. For what its worth, I thoroughly enjoy the "jokey" posts. Also, you might enjoy this

    same subject but with screen caps.

  11. One wonders how many more times Jabberwock will be put in a situation of clarifying some things about the post :).

    Regional cinema (at least, Tamil cinema) is much worse. I can quote a whole lot of films with strong gay overtones at will.

  12. And, though this is a "jokey" post, there is a serious aspect to this characteristic of Indian cinema IMO.

  13. Brown Magic: thanks for that link! I'd seen it on Turbanhead several months ago and was looking for it but couldn't find it through Google. Will add a link to the post now.

    DD: yes, I think he played a character named Pinkie - with a pink wig.

    Zero: wrt regional cinema...I'm sure there is. If you see the clip of the Rajkumar song that's doing the rounds these days, you'll see a man truly, madly, deeply in love with his guitar.

  14. Oh but Jai, a lot of people tend to see Sholay, Yaarana, Dostana, etc. as falling within a continuum where the primary focus of the film is the bond between the two male leads. Sholay is just the most sophisticated and nuanced of them.

    To me the question is fascinating, which is perhaps why I was excited to see your post, because I don't see too many articles about it.

    Oh, and I do not understand the appellations "bad" or "worst offender" used by some commenters. The representation may be over the top, but there's nothing wrong with making male bonding or introducing homo-erotic undertones to movies.

  15. Swati: I agree it's an interesting topic (have read about it a bit myself) and worthy of serious analysis. Even if the directors/scriptwriters didn't consciously intend the gay overtones in those films, a lot of it derives from the nature of many real-life male friendships in the Indian middle/lower class - where even if a relationship doesn't become sexual, there's often an extreme emotional dependence that goes beyond the usual platonic friendship. (The reasons can be many - including the fact that many of these men never get to interact with women in a meaningful way while growing up and consequently develop a fear of the opposite sex.)

    Guess there's no problem if the post engenders a wider discussion, even if that wasn't the spirit in which it was written.

    Patrix: thanks for the link, I did see that post on Bloglines earlier. The Amitabh-Shashi Kapoor bathing scene in Silsila was a hoot.

    I also enjoy the (definitely inadvertent) gay overtones in some of those Mithun movies where he's a streetsmart badass surrounded by his sidekicks, and their idea of being "macho" is to refuse to have anything to do with women ("Laundi ke saath baat kar raha tha saala? Eeesh!")

  16. Jabber:

    Re your last comment. Brahmacharya is/was honored as an important male trait. [As you know, Hanuman's celibacy is well, celebrated.] Hence, Mithun's comment would be well understood by the audience as a "desirable trait".

    The comments of this post should come with a suitable warning, the likes of which I saw in a National Geographic two decades ago. It carried a snapshot of two Chinese males; one's arm locked on another's neck, their heads close together. The caption indicated that male-male displays of affection between friends "are very common in Asia".

    I think we're reading too much into it given our Western sensibilities and our efforts to deconstruct every thing. :-)

  17. A few years later (probably in 1980) there was a bathing scene in Silsila with Amitabh and Sashi Kapoor, remember?

  18. I think the resolution of Dharam Veer smacks of the Star Wars "Leia is Luke's sister" notwithstanding their smouldering kiss in Star Wars IV. And then of course "Main Khiladi Tu Anari" where man-love was what it was all about.

  19. The Graduate: some cool inputs there, thanks! Like I've said in the comments, I wrote the post for fun - but if you ask me what I seriously think about the issue, I'd go with your point about it being common in some societies (in certain periods) for men to cavort with other men until later in life. I doubt the directors of many of those films would even have got the implications of what they were doing (though I suspect sophisticated actors like Amitabh and Shashi K probably cracked a joke or two about it offscreen).

    About the period continuity in Dharam-Veer: though the movie takes its melodramatic plot seriously enough, there is an element of deliberate camp in there as well. I think the idea was to place the story in a quasi-fantasy setting rather than an identifiable place/period - and to throw in whatever would make for paisa-vasool rather than bother about consistency. I quite enjoyed the incongruities of the costumes/other details.

  20. I would agree with Quizman. Reading into the movies with very American sensibilities.

    And, you do realize you have now destroyed my cherished memories of innocently watching Dharamveer and Sholay as a child. Thank you. :(

  21. "I have nothing to go on for India in comparison, but would note that in Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, Pran and Firoz - two otherwise virile characters - refer to earlier intimacy[...]"

    @Graduate: It was Maan and not Pran who had a gay 'ole time with Firoz :)

  22. I wish to comment on the comments made by a previous reader where he talks about the song "Aadmi hoon aadmi se pyaar karta hoon" sung by a 'poofter' in a Hindi film.

    Our society is being taken over by the forces of heterosexualisation, Heterosexualisation is a process which has been imported from the west along with its MNCs and capital inflow. These forces seek to destroy all men's spaces and convert them into heterosexual, mixed sex ones.

    They are especially after male-male sexual bonds (or those which often had a sexual elements in it, although hidden from the society) which flourished behind the scene in the strong men's spaces, eventhough persecuted by the formal society. In the men's group sexuality between men was not a 'poofter's affair, and everyman was believed to be capable of desiring another man. The concept of Masti in fact acknowledges this universal (straight ----- meaning masculine, not heterosexual) men's attraction for men.

    The forces of heterosexualisation are hell bent on pulling out these secretive male bonds from their hiding, isolate them with the label 'homosexuality' (which seeks to insinuate that only a particular kind of feminine gendered male can have a sexual need for a man) and then throw them into the 'homosexual' ghetto, which is nothing but the western, urban version of the traditional Hijra/ third sex ghetto, no matter what the definitions say.

    The forces of heterosexualisation abuse its control of the media to portray male-male sexuality as essentially feminine.

    It made me quite angry to watch Shekhar Suman's "the Laughter channel" episode where this fem guy tries to make fun of the song "aadmi hoon aadmi se pyaar karta hoon" by swinging his arms like a chakka.

    I wanted to ask him, "If you really are a 'aadmi' desiring another man, why don't you behave like one".
    And if he wants to behave like a Chakka then he should say, "Hijra hoon aadmi se pyaar karta hoon"

    The problem is the western society doesnt recognise gender as separate biological human trait, which all other societies past or presenbt do. Thus in India a Hijra is nnot a man. He is a half-male/ half-female.

    The problem with the western concept and term of 'homosexuality' which is used to denote male sexual need for men is that it does not take into account the gender of the person. And considers a Hijra to be the same as a man. But Hijras themselves don't consider themselves to be men. In real life you will never catch a poofter singing "I'm a man and I love a man". He is likely to sing though, that "I'm a woman and I like a man". It is only the forces of heterosexualisation that want to maniplate the truth by forcibly labelling the poofter as a 'man' ----- a homosexual man.

    Thus the concept of homosexuality equates a man with the half-male, half-female if he dares to be open about his sexual need for men. It is nothing but the age old conspiracy of the forces of heterosexualisation to isolate male-male love from men's spaces, deny them manhood and condemn it into the third sex space.

    Another problem with the term 'homosexuality' is that though it is defined as a 'man attracted to another man', its usage world over is actually to denote to the age old concept of third sex ----- that of promiscuous/ receptive anal/ oral sex, associated particularly with the feminine gendered male who indulges in this as an expression of his feminine identity, treating his anus/ mouth as a vagina.

    theh majority of male-male sexuality however exists within the straight spaces, albeit hidden, and they have little to do with any kind of anal or oral sex. It is about things like bonds, love, companionship, jealousy, and a strong sexual desire for the man's body itself, where sex involves things lke seeing, touching, mutual masturbation etc. For the gays and women, however, the man's sexual worth is limited to his penetrative value, which is of no use to a 'straight' man who desires men, which represents 95% of the straight population (although it is not empowered today to talk about it or to own it up).


  23. the way some guys keep using the word camp for sexual bond between two men, its so ridiculous.

    I mean it was considered to be an integral part of masculine warriors to stay away from women and bond sexually with another man in most warrior societies in the including the ancient Greece.

    And too much sexual/ emotional/ social intimacy with women was supposed to be 'campy' in every so-called male dominated society.

    Its only in the queer west that 'heterosexuality' (meaning emotional/social bond with women, as opposed to just "wham, bam thank you maam') has been propagated as 'manly'.

    And of course the terms gay and homosexual only exist in an anti-man, namard society like the west.

    Anyone who says he's heterosexual is QUEER!

  24. Even using the western term 'gay' or 'homosexuality' for sexual bonds between masculine men, whether exclusive or not is just stupid and wrong.

    The term homosexuality misses the gender of a person.

    A feminine gendered male's (transgendered/ Hijra/ chakka/ Koti, etc.) attraction for men cannot be the same as a masculine gendered male's attraction for men.

    Our society recognises the gender differences. In fact the Hijras and Kotis have very clear cut names for such differences. Kotis are feminine gendered males who play the female's role, while Giriyas are normal men no different from those who fuck women.

    The term 'homosexuality' ignores a person's gender, which is our basic identity.

    SO stop using the word 'gay' and 'homosexuality' for non-feminine sexuality between men unless you're a queer yourself.

  25. The Dharam-Veer title song not only had gay overtones, it was demeaning to women as well. In the original title soundtrack, one of the lines is "Mushqil se kaabu mein aaye, ladki ho ya ghodi" (It is difficult to control a young girl or a horse". There were protests and the line was re-recorded for the movie as "Mushqil se kaabu mein aaye, thodi dheel jo chhodi" (A girl is likely to get out of control just as a kite is likely to fly out of control when you let the wind take control of the string).

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  27. Thanks i enjoyed reading your post, someone had mentioned the Anupham Kher gay character earlier, it was from the 1991 film Mast Kalandar Anupam really is a talented comic actor he really portrayed his camp gay character 'Pinku' really well, he reminds me of some gay men i know. Pinku was also bollywood's first openly gay character

    Anupam as Pinku

    Anupam singing a parody of 'Ek do Teen' the beginning of which where he sings the addmi pyar karta hoon song

  28. LOL- Jabberwock- They were TWINS! I know, cos my twin brother and I ( me, being female) saw this movie as kids and went wild with re-enacting the songs- even in public places like the round-abouts on Dadar Chowpatty, swinging from one wooden horse to the other, as the merry-go-round spun. err.. much to the baffled amusement of the boy operating it and sundry strangers BUT. Yes, its all about Dosti and Brotherhood. We are Indians. we hold our same-sex friends' hands in public un-embarrassed. So there.

  29. This post and the comments almost maxed out my Netflix queue. LOL Thanks!