Only marginally influenced by the Hollywood epic “The Godfather” directed by Francis Ford Cappola with Al Pacino and Marlon Brando in the lead — in terms of the basic premise of a don being a God-fearing philanthropist — “Dharmatma” was actually based on the life and times of Mumbai’s matka king, Ratan Khatri, who also provided the basic logistics for the script-dialogue by Kaushal Bharati. It also differs conceptually from the American blockbuster not only because of the song-dance-romance sequences, or the virgin blooming Afghanistan location in so far as a Hindi film was concerned, it also shows the don or dharmatma’s only son being a reluctant heir to his crime kingdom, this being the only route to avenge the murder of his father and find out the criminal with the help of a ring.
The pace for the movie is set in the pre-title sequence itself that shows a priest (P. Jairaj) reading from the Bible before a prisoner is taken to the gallows. Cut to a man in a three-piece suit, Dharamdas (brilliantly enacted by Prem Nath) pleading with the Governor, requesting stalling of the hanging until a retrial takes place as the man is innocent. There are some snapshot scenes, including committing his daughter, Mona (Farida Jalal), in marriage to Kundan (Imtiaz Khan), the son of his dying friend, Purshottam (Nana Palsikar). In comes his rebel son, Ranbir (Feroz Khan), who, hating his father’s life of crime, shifts base to the picturesque Afghanistan.
Ranbir, who had been blissfully wooing the beautiful gypsy woman, Reshma (Hema Malini), watching ram fights (shown in an Indian film for the first time) and caught up in encounters with Jankura (Danny Denzongpa) in Afghanistan as a guest of Roshal Lal (Madan Puri), returns to India to find his father dead. The song and romance moments, the ram fight, as also the Buzkashi sequence are shot brilliantly by cinematographer Kamal Bose, especially the breathtaking aerial shots — though these are now more remembered for “Khuda Gawah” featuring Amitabh Bachchan. From here on, the scriptwriter changes tracks, with the steering in the director’s steady hands despite the presence of 30-odd secondary characters, apart from 10 other stars that get bumped off one by one: Reshma (Hema Malini), the nurse (Faryal), Mona (Farida Jalal), Vikram Singh (Itfeqar), besides those killed by Ranbir, including Rishi (Ranjeet), Natwar (Sudhir), Meghnat (Satyen Kappu), Anokhe Lal (Jeevan), Kundan (Imtiaz Khan) — with the police nowhere around.
What instantly comes to mind about the film is an absolutely new style of romance, and the virgin Afghanistan locations so tenderly picturised by Bose. Though it was only his second directorial venture, it also established actor-producer-director Feroz Khan as the country’s most stylish filmmaker. The four songs — “Kya khoob lagti ho badi sunder dikti ho”; “Tumne kabhi kisise pyaar kiya hai” (Mukesh-Kanchan) picturised on Hema Malini and Feroz Khan; “Meri galiyon se logo ki yaari” (Mahendra Kapoor-Lata Mangeshkar); “Tere chehre mein jo jadu hai” (Kishore Kumar), with Indivar’s lyrics set to typical Middle-Eastern music by Kalyanji-Anandji made — also added a certain distinction to the 165-minute narrative.
Sharp and crisp editing by B.S. Glaad adds finesse and tempo, while costumes by Mani Rabadi and choreography by P L Raj, Oscar-Vijay, and action by Mohammed Ali are appropriate.
Acting-wise, Hema looks ravishingly beautiful, and Rekha, despite plumpish, excels with seductive expressions. Prem Nath is brilliant, and Danny lives his role while others just about fit the bill. It was one of the big hits of the year.