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Dharmputra (1961)

Originally written for EPW Blog

B R Chopra's Dharmputra (1961) was the second film directed by Yash Raj. It was based on a novel by Acharya Chatursen Shastry (who died in 1960). The screen adaptation was by Akhtar-Ul-Iman. The story is set in Delhi during the time of partition. Although the film is often described as story of a Muslim child who is adopted by a Hindu family and grows up to be a Hindu fanatic, the film is in fact about two religious families and their response to religious fanaticism - a response based on their interpretation of religion, a response steeped in a mishmash “Hindu Humanism” and “Nehruvian Humanism”. The usual: Humanity is the real religion, all religions are equal, so on and so forth.

Husn Bano, daughter of Nawab Badruddin, was in love with commoner Javed who was her tutor. Of course, she gets pregnant. Nawab, although a progressive man, was worried about his status and didn't allow the two to get married. He sought help of Dr Amrit Rai, son of family friend and neighbour who he helped become a doctor. Doctor was conflicted about his duty and honour of his “rakhi” sister. As a solution, Doctor adopted the child giving him his family name. Nawab Badruddin after visiting a dargah has a change of heart and lets the lovers marry. However their out- of-wedlock child, Dalip grows up to be a fanatic who in the climax chanting, “Narayae Bajrang Bali, Har Har Mahadev”, seeks to kill his real parents for being Muslim, who are caught on wrong side of partition line. Of course, when the truth is revealed to him, he suffers a momentary loss of identity only to wake up to the folly of his thinking. He realises how religion is just a constructed identity that depends on environment. He gets married to a smart “westernised” girl and probably lived a happy content life until 1988, when B R Chopra  one Chandramauli Chopra came out with “Ramayana” and his grand-children dreamed of “Ram Mandir”.

The film gives us a portrait of a Hindu fanatic of that era. A man obsessed with “Motherland”, a man conceded with who touches him and what he touches, a man sermonising about culture, a man concerned about westernisation of women, a man much conflicted about marriage and its relation with nation building and a man baying for Muslim blood. In sum, a common garden variety fanatic.

While the film provides a very clear portrait of the fanatic, what the film fails to tell us is how this fanatic was created. There's no answer provided. He's not shown to be part of any organisation. He is not shown as under influence any particular leader. He is just a fanatical student leader, raised in a moderate Hindu family which has brotherly relations with a moderate Muslim family. The only issue these moderate families have handled immoderately is that of “pre-martital” sex and the “illegitimacy” arising out of it.

The hints to origins of this fanatic in the film are subliminal but obvious.

The movement for overthrowing British rule is on. Nawab Badruddin respects Gandhi but doesn't believe in his non-violent ways. Dr Amrit Rai on the other hand is a follower of Gandhi. Nawab Badruddin taunts Amrit Rai for being a coward son of a brave father. Just then, child Dalip walks in holding a toy gun ready to kill the Britishers. Nawab Badruddin tells Amrit Rai that the child is his real son.

Although the tone of the exchange is light and comic, this is an allusion to the way people make relation between blood and behaviour.

Much later when the fanatical traits in Dalip become more obvious, his adoptive mother mock complaining to his real mother Husn Bano, wonders where he could have got such traits from. She does have a point. Besides adopted Dalip, she has other children, twin brothers and a daughter who are shown as regular fun loving people.

It is as if the film seeks to tie it to the question of “aggressive Muslim Blood”. A strangely regressive thought embedded in a film supposedly promoting progressive thinking. While a Hindu may become fanatic because of the environment a Muslim is just more likely to be a fanatic just because he is Muslim. Strange is the world of Indian cinema.

On casual viewing this national award winning film is often easily passed off as a film promoting the vision of Nehru. In fact, when the violence of 1947 is unleashed on its screen, the political voice of sanity in the film is presented as that of Nehru. In the end, this symbolic link is directly set when a voice over of a speech by Rajendra Kumar (in a cameo as a Congress man) is overlaid on a visual of Nehru delivering a peace speech from Red Fort.

But, if you watch this film on YouTube today, you will see people cursing Nehru for trying to ban the works of Acharya Chatursen Shastry. The wiki page for Acharya Chatursen Shastry, without any citation, will ironically tell you: "He was a friend of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister, but he opposed Nehru's proposition of secular India. Nehru tried to ban his books after Congress came to power and accused Acharya Chatursen of fuelling tensions between Hindus and Muslims. He was also a patriot”.

The politics of 1960s may have been complex but today the things are so simple that even a film like this is just too easy for the fanatics to appropriate.



  1. Good interpretation. Its based on stereotypes and sometimes shallowness of relegion. If things could be genetic may be then relegion impacts behaviors and passes from one generation to another. But then again this is a bigger question of nature vs nurture. Is religion nature or nurture...

  2. I don't think B R Chopra had anything to do with Ramayana. He did produce the amazing 'Mahabharat' series. Ramayan was Ramaanand Sagar's. You might need to correct that.


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