Ah, Feroz Khan. As a producer and director, you spare nothing! I watched Dharmatma a long time ago and it was time for a rewatch in the wake of the fantabulous Apradh. I remember that I had liked it, but I was bowled over completely the second time around.
Premnath dominates as the title character: a wealthy and powerful man who believes entirely that the end justifies the means, who has convinced himself that his bad deeds are compensated for by his good ones. Indeed, he is called “Dharmatma” (God Man) by everyone because of those good deeds. Feroz Khan plays his son, a man standing firmly on principles that are completely at odds with his father’s.
Their conflict plays out against a backdrop that includes the gorgeous Afghani landscape, crazy nightclubs (and a dwarf bartender!), opulent mansions, and all the stylish goodness you’d expect from the era (and from Feroz too). The production values are high, the camera work spectacular. Plus: Hema Malini as a gypsy dancer! Danny Denzongpa! Ranjeet and Sudhir in matching outfits! Rekha! Helen! Nadira as a gypsy fortuneteller! Faryal as a sexy nurse! Iftekhar as not a police inspector! And Kalyanji-Anandji’s music doesn’t suck either, especially the background score.
The film opens with tension building as an innocent man is led to the gallows, while Seth Dharamdas (Premnath) tries desperately to persuade his friend the Governor to postpone the hanging due to some new evidence that has come to light.
Our first acquaintance with Dharamdas is thus as a “good guy” and benefactor. That mission accomplished, he visits an old friend who is dying of cancer in the hospital, and performs his daily puja before Kali. He lives in a huge mansion with his wife Shanti (Sulochana) and daughter Mona (Farida Jalal). Mona’s friend Anu (Rekha), the daughter of Kishanlal (Krishan Dhawan)—one of Dharamdas’ men—is in love with his absent son Ranbir. Mona tells Anu that Ranbir is in Afghanistan.
Cut to a badly lit gambling club owned by Anokhelal (Jeevan) and his brother Meghnad (a virtually unrecognizable Satyendra Kapoor). They are not-very-successful rivals of Dharamdas, and we watch as Dharamdas—in his better lit office—outwits them yet again in a criminal enterprise.
Anokhelal’s son Rishi (Ranjeet) and Meghnad’s son Natwar (Sudhir) are drug-addled idiots who wear matching outfits. There’s not much love lost (or respect) between fathers and sons.
(Yes, Ranjeet is still hot despite being drug-addled, idiotic and disrespectful). Anokhelal’s cigarette lighter is even better. Check it out!
It’s an ass! with the flame emerging from its rear end! These are the kinds of details I so appreciate. Anyway.
Rishi and Natwar’s idea of a fun evening out is picking up a girl who thinks Natwar really cares for her, and then raping her. The girl’s father (Nasir Hussain) goes to Dharamdas afterwards to plead with him for justice. This leads to one of my favorite scenes in the film: Gary Glitter’s “Rock ‘N Roll Part 1” plays in the background as a blonde-wigged dancer gyrates in front of a bunch of white hippies and Rishi and Natwar get high and drunk.
When they begin molesting the blonde dancer, Dharamdas’ man DARA SINGH *clapping my hands in delight* arrives to rescue her, and—once the two thugs have shot all their bullets into his bullet-proof vest (I said they were idiotic)—he beats the crap out of them.
Dharamdas visits his dying friend, who asks that his son Kundan (Imtiaz) be married to Mona, whom he loves. Dharamdas readily agrees and his friend breathes his last. Shanti and Mona want Ranbir to be at the wedding, but Dharamdas angrily rejects the idea. Flashback to the bitter father-son quarrel over moral values.
In Afghanistan, Ranbir watches in amusement as a pretty gypsy girl is chased through the woods by her would-be suitor.
Reshma (Hema Malini) and Jankura (Danny) belong to the same band of traveling gypsies, and Jankura is smitten in the worst way. Reshma is not nearly as smitten—until she sets her eyes on Ranbir.
Reshma and Jankura run off, but not without Reshma casting backwards glances at Ranbir, who watches her go rather intently. When he returns home, his uncle (Madan Puri) has arrived from a trip to India and he tells Ranbir of Mona’s wedding plans. But when he suggests that Ranbir go home, Ranbir refuses as stubbornly as did Dharamdas.
To change the subject, his uncle invites him to accompany him to a fair where gypsies are performing. Remembering Reshma, Ranbir agrees with alacrity. What an evening! Hema dances to “Meri Galiyon Se” as Jankura gets increasingly angry at the obvious attraction between her and Ranbir. Many smoldering glances are exchanged, and I think it’s one of Hema’s best dances ever (and that’s saying something). She’s having so much fun, and throws herself into the dance.
The next day Jankura and Ranbir come to blows over Reshma until the chief of the tribe intervenes—but he, too, warns Ranbir to stay away from Reshma. Mona, meanwhile, has written to ask Ranbir to come to her wedding—a plea that he can’t refuse.
Everyone is thrilled to see him when he arrives during the wedding; everyone but Dharamdas, although Ranbir reaches out to him.
I should add that Farida Jalal makes a lovely bride:
Of course, Shanti starts in on the Ma Guilt Trip as soon as Mona and Kundan have departed. She wants Ranbir to marry Anu, but Dharamdas interrupts the discussion drunkenly. Shanti packs Ranbir off to bed before a fight can erupt, and he finds Anu waiting for him in his room. She essentially tells him that she’s in love with him, but he pretends not to understand (so lame!) and soon returns to Afghanistan, and Reshma.
He asks Reshma to marry him, and she accepts. There’s trouble brewing for them, though: at the gypsy camp, a competition for the tribe’s young men is announced with the winner to get “whatever he desires.” We all know what Jankura desires (although I strongly disapprove of women as “prizes”).
The competition basically consists of horses and men trampling each other in an effort to retrieve a dead animal and take it to the chief. It’s all very primitive and I worry that horses are getting hurt, but eventually Jankura wins. He asks for Reshma’s hand just as Ranbir and his uncle pull up in a jeep; Ranbir tells everyone that Reshma has promised to marry him. His uncle and the tribe chieftain, who are friends, retreat into the chief’s tent to discuss the matter. Reshma follows them to speak for herself.
No wonder she wants out! It turns out that she was adopted as an orphan by the chief, but doesn’t belong to the tribe; and after she pleads with him he gives in and agrees to her marriage with Ranbir. Everyone celebrates (even Jankura!), except the gypsy fortune teller (Nadira). She has bad news for Reshma and Ranbir.
Back in India, Anokhelal and Meghnad have requested a meeting with Dharamdas. They want him to join them in a new scheme to manufacture morphine and cocaine—drugs are hugely profitable. He turns them down, both because he doesn’t trust them and also because he disapproves of drugs and the damage they cause. Kundan though is attracted by the profits and turns traitor, joining Dharamdas’ enemies. With his help, Natwar and Rishi gun down Dharamdas and then set off for Afghanistan to eliminate Ranbir as well.
There, it is Ranbir and Reshma’s wedding day.
Is Dharamdas dead? Will Ranbir and Reshma survive? How will Dharamdas’ life and deeds affect his family? This film is supposedly inspired by The Godfather, which I haven’t seen in years and don’t remember very well (I know, I know). Premnath puts in a powerhouse performance as a man torn between his good intentions and his desire for wealth and power. He is just great—he must have loved this role; and he is very ably supported by everyone else.
I do know one thing for sure: The Godfather didn’t have midget bartenders or Helen in one of her most bizarre dance numbers ever.