“Zorro” doesn’t even begin to cover it. “Zorro meets Robin Hood meets the Wild Wild West meets Arabian Nights meets Ugly Bridesmaid Dresses and everybody’s last name is Singh!” is a fair start. Dharam-Veer wasn’t this much of a potluck! My friend Mike, who watched some of it with me, remarked that it looks like the wardrobe and set people went crazy in a bunch of studio warehouses and used every single item they found in them. While they were doing that, I think the writers were combing through as much world literature as they could find for their own influences. I’m also pretty sure a lot of the original film is edited out or lost, because transitions between scenes are very abrupt and the whole thing quite choppy, so Lord only knows what other cultural and historical references have gone missing along with that footage.
Almost everything is also very weirdly played for laughs, even atrocities being meted out to villagers. This sort of defeats the whole purpose of atrocities. But never mind: there is just so much to look at, much of it shiny.
Maharaja Bahadur Singh (Om Shivpuri) lives in a mirror-covered palace with his shrewish Maharani (Urmila Bhatt), his oldest son Gunawar (Master Romi) and infant son Vikram. He dotes on Gunawar, but the Maharani hates him as he is not her son; he is the result of an affair Bahadur had before marrying. She is insistent on her son Vikram being named the true heir. Gunawar is a large-hearted and generous boy, and his fencing guru (P Jairaj) takes him under his wing. Guruji is a man of strong principles, as evidenced by his ginormous statue of Lady Justice standing blindfolded in front of a large colored spinning wheel. (My grandmother had a wheel like that under her silver Christmas tree when I was a little girl, and I loved watching that tree change colors.)
Gunawar (Navin Nischol) grows up to be a very good swordsman thanks to Guruji, which is a good thing because Bahadur Singh is not paying very close attention to what his Senapati Shamsher Singh (Imtiaz) is doing. Shamsher Singh has befriended Chhote Rajkumar Vikram (Sudhir) and is plotting to take over the kingdom while his girlfriend Nisha (Bindu) distracts Vikram by pretending to be his girlfriend. In the meantime Shamsher and his army are looting, raping, and killing all of his future subjects.
I really need to write a post one of these days about my Sudhir pyaar. I adore him.
After soldiers kill an old man whose daughter commits suicide rather than be raped by Shamsher, leaving a really really cute little boy (Master Asif) all alone, Guruji confronts Bahadur Singh about Shamsher’s bad behavior. Bahadur Singh is horrified and boots Shamsher Singh out of the palace, and gives Guruji some money as compensation for the villagers. Guruji never makes to the village of course: a soldier named Zalim Singh throws a knife topped with a “Z” into his back.
Guruji reaches home where he stands there with the knife protruding out of him and has what seems like a casual conversation with an oblivious Gunawar. This cracks me up enormously.
The death of his Guruji causes Gunawar to run to the local costume shop for a Zorro outfit and wig. He transforms himself magically into Errol Flynn! I am thrilled beyond words.
Comedic swashbuckling ensues, with Zorro turning up everywhere accompanied by reverse-action stunts and loony sound effects. Asit Sen takes front and center as a completely inept if corrupt daroga who makes Zorro’s job that much easier. Zorro stops the king’s carriages and distributes the treasure inside to the poor and prevents the army from collecting taxes (thereby also pissing off Shamsher Singh, who despite being kicked out of the palace has maintained the loyalty of his men).
Meanwhile in a neighboring kingdom, a Rajkumari named Rekha (Rekha) makes preparations to visit Bahadur Singh and her betrothed Gunawar (engaged as children by their fathers). She is reluctant and insists on traveling without an armed escort. Big mistake! although not as big a mistake as her outfits.
Rekha doesn’t have much to do in this fillum except stand around (in fact none of the women do much), but she stands around in some of the most hideous dresses I’ve ever seen, anywhere. In any case, when Zorro arrives to save her from the
comedy troop soldiers they are each smitten with the other. Rekha is even more smitten with Zorro when she gets her first look at her fiance:
He arrives at court (I am totally unclear as to where he lives or whether he visits the palace often or if he’s always acted like an idiot there) riding an unfortunate wee donkey, accompanied by his CSP guys (Mukri and Johny). Rekha is unimpressed with the buffoon in front of her, although they sing a fun song together. At some point in here Shamsher Singh manages to imprison Bahadur with Vikram’s compliance (Vikram being the declared heir) and he takes over.
By now fed up with Zorro’s constant interference, Shamsher Singh decides to enlist the help of one Sheru Singh (Danny Denzongpa), currently housed in the palace dungeon. He gives Sheru his freedom in exchange for Zorro “zinda ya maut”. I can’t help but wonder what Baburao Patel would have had to say about Bindu’s appearance in this shiny satin monstrosity; and when Sheru changes into his own clothes I dissolve in laughter. He’s obviously gone to the same costume store as Zorro and come away in a Robin Hood getup.
Oh the crazy joy that is Hindi B-grade cinema.
This joy is only reinforced by the next scene: Sheru shows up at the best dance-club-slash-restaurant I’ve seen since Apradh. Aruna Irani treats us to an Arabian Nights themed dance and looks gorgeous (and shiny). I am pleased to note that the decoration behind the bar is, well, Northwest Native American.
Mike says: “Classic Indian design, but wrong Indian.” I love the Persian carpet draped over the front of the bar too. The little boy who had been orphaned by the cruelty of Shamsher Singh earlier is for some reason dressed like an old man in a clown suit, and on stilts. In fact many in the audience are wearing strange clown outfits, although that isn’t the strangest thing about all of this. I don’t understand any of it, but I’m enthralled. Then Zorro arrives.
Let’s recap, shall we?
I want to live here.
The ensuing brawl between Zorro and Robin Hood is as epic as the setting demands (a chandelier! an argyle plaid floor! pink fleur-de-lys wedding-cake accents!), and ends with Shamsher Singh’s soldiers entering the club and trying to kill them both. Zorro sees Zalim Singh taking aim at Sheru and tosses him over the bar, where he manages to convince Sheru of Shamsher’s treachery. They join forces.
The CSP army is fairly easily defeated with the help of the little orphan boy and his slingshot. Sheru’s heart is melted by his sad little face. He adopts him on the spot as a brother and takes the boy home to his own Ma (Purnima). So sweet.
Back at the palace, Shamsher Singh has joined in the costume parade by donning a fringed buckskin jacket a la Davy Crockett. I am not going to talk about Bindu.
Poor Bahadur has been strapped to one of those faux-torture devices (I call this one the Wheel of Misfortune) so beloved in Indian cinema. The spikes look scary, sure, but they aren’t going to touch the person on the wheel. The worst that thing can do is spin him around really fast and make him nauseous. Zorro has been busy romancing Rekha, and she gets him into the palace. He shadows Shamsher Singh to the dungeon and rescues Bahadur, giving the poor thirsty prisoner water with one hand while fighting off the guards with the other. That is the greatness of Zorro.
He stashes Bahadur somewhere and then has to save the little boy from more of what Mike calls “the lamest villainy ever.”
Darogaji and his men tie the kid to a train track, but the boy is so short that his head and feet miss the track by a good five or six inches, making him pretty safe from harm. This does not stop Zorro from valiantly running along a speeding train to save the child from not being run over by it. Another thrilling rescue ruined by lack of danger!
We now discover the story behind Gunawar’s birth. The Maharaja was in love with a woman named Parvati but was told that she had died by his family. Despondent, he married the woman they wanted him to marry and then Parvati showed up at the palace with their son. Oh and hey guess what? Parvati is none other than Sheru’s Ma, making him and Gunawar half brothers. And you know what else? That candelabra is really poorly designed. How is it that hot wax from the tilted candles hasn’t destroyed the floor/carpet under it? Or do such trivialities not matter when you are a Maharaja and can just get a new floor/carpet?
I know I keep digressing, but it’s really all I can do when I have no idea what is going on. And I think I will leave you here to ponder what might happen next. Will Bahadur and Parvati be reunited? Will Zorro and Robin Hood figure out that they are kin? Will other half-brother Vikram ever catch on that his poorly-clad girlfriend is having an affair with his best friend? Will the parade of Ugly Bridesmaid Dresses ever end (no)?
Or the ruffled shirts? (Seriously, am I the only one who thinks Sudhir is hot?)
Just take it from me: this is no masterpiece of filmmaking, but it’s a dizzying splendiferous eyeful.