Starring Rajendra Kumar, Shashi Kapoor, Mala Sinha, Manmohan Krishna

1947. The year when beleaguered masses of the subcontinent broke metaphorical shackles of imperialism and basked in the aura of freedom also witnessed the abominable trauma of partition, unprecedented barbarity and deep rooted hatred. The subsequent task of healing wounds, putting out raging fires of mistrust and lay the foundations of a modern nation state fell on the shoulders of our leaders, who had the moral authority to inspire people from various fields to join them in this immense task.

From Bollywood, the charge was led by none other than Baldev Raj Chopra, who was hounded from his hometown, Lahore, in 1947 and who founded the formidable production house, BR Films, in 1956.

It required a filmmaker with a heightened sense of humanism, coupled with a commitment to the motherland and fellow citizens to create cinema in the mainstream genre on potentially volatile subjects without sounding prejudiced or preposterous. “Dharmputra” produced by B.R. Films and directed by B.R. Chopra's kid brother, Yash Raj, who had made his debut only two years earlier with “Dhool Ka Phool”, boldly tackled the issue of religious bigotry, fanaticism and communalism, just 14 years after partition, when wounds were still raw and passions simmering.

Relegating metaphors to the backburner, the film took an honest and realistic look at Hindu-Muslim ties in the years leading to Independence, starting from 1925.

Adapted from a book by Acharya Chatursen Shastry and written by Akhtar-Ul-Iman, the film traces the irrevocable degeneration of a composite fabric, brutally torn apart.

As slogans like ‘Hindu-Muslim bhai-bhai' / ‘Inquilaab Zindabad' that echoed on the streets of Delhi are replaced by blood curdling, primordial cries of hatred ‘Allah-o-Akbar' / ‘Har-Har Mahadev' and divisiveness, ‘Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan' / ‘Quaid-e-Azam ka elaan, ban kar rahega Pakistan' one can feel the anguish of the common men, who become an unwitting pawns and consequential victims of machinations not of their own making.

Yash Chopra lends expression to all sections of the political spectrum prevailing at that time – from the moderate (Rajendra Kumar in a cameo, giving passionate speeches for unity/ brotherhood and singing a song against the blood letting) to the newly introduced Shashi Kapoor, a firebrand activist of the Hindu right wing, who virulently, and sometimes violently, espouses Akhand Bharat, with no place for Muslims in it.

The pillars

The pillars on which the film rests are its script and dialogues that are hard hitting and to the point and were instrumental in getting it National Award for the Best Hindi film and Filmfare award for Best Dialogues (Akhtar-ul-Iman).

The verbal spats Kapoor has with his foster father (who is cast in the mould of Hindu-Muslim brotherhood and tehzeeb and for whom, the thought process of the two being separate entities is anathema) played by Manmohan Krishna (Dr.Rai) with conviction, are a treat to watch.

Similarly, when the ever reliable Nirupa Roy (Savitri/ Dr. Rai's wife) challenges Kapoor (who essayed the role of Dilip – a Muslim boy born out of wedlock but raised by a Hindu couple – with chutzpah and verve) on his views about the superiority of Hinduism, the tension is palpable.

The film is a slow starter and gains momentum only in the second half, as it hurtles to a dénouement where serious issues are raised – the relevance of relationships over ties of blood and the question of faith.

Rehman (Javed) and Mala Sinha (Husn Bano) – as the Muslim biological parents of Dilip, do not have scenes that call for a display of histrionics – pass muster.

However, one does feel let down by thespian Ashok Kumar (strangely, un-credited in the titles). As the hookah smoking votary of brotherhood, fierce nationalist, chess loving, wizened old Nawab Badruddin (father of Husn Bano) he goes over the top in quite a few scenes.

The lyrics by Sahir can be an eye-opener for several, latter day poets, on how to wield the pen. The qawwali rendered to steps of a dancing girl at a family function (as must have been the wont in 1920s) “Jo Dil Dewana Machal Gaya” to the Sufi number “Chahe Ye Mano, Chahe Woh Mano” sung at a dargah, from the call for peace “Yeh Kiska Lahu Hai Kaun Mara” to the angst of a woman separated from her beloved “Main Jab Bhi Akeli Hoti Hoon” – each song, composed to music by N.Dutta, is worth listening to, although, none was a chartbuster.

“Dharmputra” also lagged on the technical front – the editing could have been tauter and the art direction and cinematography (in black and white) could have been better.

It is unfortunate that '70s onwards Yash Chopra completely succumbed to the diktats of the box office, (particularly under his Yash Raj banner) and did not imbibe the passion and zeal of his elder sibling It is said that B.R.Chopra was heartbroken at “Dharmputra” not being a commercial success, but that did not deter him from making films on contentious subjects in the future.

PS: Dharmputra was narrated by one of the most recognized voices ever to have boomed on the silver screen – Dilip Kumar lent his baritone to the film.