As a tribute to Yash Chopra on his birth anniversary, a look at one of his earliest films:
Yash Chopra was called the King of Romance, even though his oeuvre was not limited to love stories. His first two films, Dhool Ka Phool (1959) and Dharmputra (1961) took on the issue of communalism, perhaps as Chopra’s delayed response to the horrors of Partition his own family witnessed in Lahore. In both films a child of one religion is raised by a foster parent of another faith, which has far-reaching consequences for him.
Dharmputra was a particularly hard-hitting film that had courage to take on Hindu fundamentalism. It was Shashi Kapoor’s first film as an adult actor, and it was quite brave of him to agree to play a militant Hindu.
The film begins in 1925, when a troubled Nawab Badruddin (Ashok Kumar) comes to the home of his foster son Dr Amrit Rai (Manmohan Krishna) to appeal for help. His unmarried daughter Husna Bano (Mala Sinha) is pregnant; she had fallen in love with her tutor Javed (Rehman), but the Nawab considered him to be an unsuitable match for Husna. Javed left town and now the Nawab is at his wit’s end.
Amrit Rai’s conscience does not allow him to terminate the pregnancy. So he and his wife Savitri (Nirupa Roy) take Husna to Simla, where she gives birth to a son, who is registered as the Rais’ child.
The Nawab and Husna run into Javed when they go on a pilgrimage; the father asks for forgiveness and gets him married to Husna. The couple moves into a house next door to the Rais. Javed is told that Dilip (Master Babloo) is his son, and the two shower the boy with affection.
Husna has a miscarriage on falling down the stairs, and can never be a mother again, while Savitri give birth to twin sons. A balcony is constructed between the two houses, so that Dilip can safely move between them.
Meanwhile the independence movement against British rule is raging outside, and the Nawab, who is an avid participant in the freedom struggle is killed. Disheartened, Javed and Husna leave the country for a few years. When they return fifteen years later, it is 1947, and India is on the verge of Independence and Partition. The mood of communal hatred and violence is all pervasive.
Strangely, Dilip (Shashi Kapoor), the son of such gentle parents has turned into a Muslim-hating Hindu bigot. When he is first seen, he is sitting in prayer, bare-chested while his twin brothers (Deven Varma-Rohit) and sister Rekha (Tabassum) are playing table tennis. Dilip rebukes them for their adoption of Western ways. He is the kind who won’t sit at a table to eat till the British are driven out—he eats by himself, sitting on the floor. He has even rejected a girl Meena (Indrani Mukherjee) for marriage, because she has lived abroad for a while, and to his mind, must have forgotten Indian culture.
Dilip is also upset that his parents are so close to a Muslim couple. His siblings are all easy going and indulgent of his crazy patriotism, but Dilip gets even more rigid in his communal attitude. He resorts to instigating violence against Muslims and comes up to burn down Javed and Husna’s house, which is when he is told who his real parents are.
Here Dilip delivers a heart-rending soliloquy on identity and the loss of faith, which Shashi Kapoor articulated to perfection, perhaps due to his intensive training in theatre. The film was adapted from a book by Acharya Chatursen Shastry, the powerful dialogues were written by Akhtar-Ul-Iman, and featured a voiceover by Dilip Kumar. Add to it Sahir Ludhianvi’s stirring lyrics—Yeh Kiska Lahu Hai Yeh Kaun Maraa—set to music by N.Dutta, and Dharmputra is a film with a literary quality that was seldom found again in Yash Chopra’s films. And so relevant were the thoughts and emotions about culture, humanity and the condition of women, that the film could be remade today with minor changes and still ring true. There is even a moderate voice played by Rajendra Kumar in a cameo. Apparently, Jawarharlal Nehru tried to get Shastry’s books banned—so things were not too different then.
Older brother B. R. Chopra dared to produce the film for Yash Chopra and outraged fanatics demanded that the film be removed from theatres. It won a National Award for Best Hindi film, but unfortunately, it flopped and Yash Chopra never made a political film again. He went on to become one of Bollywood’s greatest filmmakers, taking Hindi cinema to the world, and leaving behind a rich legacy for his sons Aditya and Uday Chopra. When he died in 2012, Bollywood lost the last of its titans.
(This is an edited version of chapter from my book Take 2: 50 Films That Deserve A New Audience, published in 2015 by Hay House)