Cinematic Secularism of Dharmputra

Dharmputra (Yash Chopra, 1961) is one of the most remarkable films that engage with the problematic theme of communalism set against the background of Partition of India. The story begins in 1925 depicting the closeness of two families- headed by Nawab Badruddin (Ashok Kumar) and Gulshan Rai. Nawab’s daughter, Husn Banu (Mala Sinha) becomes pregnant, though she is still unwed. Her lover Javed Hamid (Rehman) has been declared unfit by Nawab to be her husband because of his social positioning. Now, eager to save his family’s reputation and honour, Nawab looks for him but he is nowhere to be found. Nawab goes to Rai’s son Amrit (Manmohan Krishna) for help. Amrit and his wife Savitri (Nirupa Roy) adopt the baby. Eventually Banu meets her lover, Javed, and with the approval of Nawab get married. Soon, taking part in the struggle for Independence Nawab is killed and the couple goes to some other place to get over the trauma and return after some years. While on the one hand, the freedom movement is nearing its goal, on the other hand, communal politics is leading the country to the Partition. Dilip is now grown up as a handsome young man (played by Shashi Kapoor) and has joined a communal Hindu organization that preach hatred against the Muslims. Dilip and his organisation declare that all Muslims in Delhi must be killed or forced to leave for Pakistan. With a lynch mob, he goes to the house where Banu lives with her husband to execute that agenda.


His parents try to stop him but he refuses to listen to them. At last they reveal the truth about his biological mother. At once, the entire ideological and cultural understanding of Dilip gets shattered. The film ends with a plea for communal harmony.

The film is based on a novel of the same title written by Acharya Chatursen Shastri. It was Shashi Kapoor’s first adult role. The songs penned by Sahir and composed by N Dutta are still popular. Akhtar-ul Iman wrote the dialogues. Later in the film, a voice-over by a narrator (Dilip Kumar) describes the plight of partition and communalism. Rajendra Kumar makes a special appearance as a secular nationalist figure resembling a congressman. Despite the boldness of the theme and the freshness of the memories of the violent Partition, the film could not get expected success; however, it earned rave reviews and the national award.

This was the second film directed by Yash Chopra under the banner of BR Films headed by his brother BR Chopra. In his directorial debut, Dhool Ka Phool (1959), he had highlighted the misery of an unwed mother, the trauma of being an ‘illegitimate’ child and broader social hypocrisies. The mother has to abandon the infant that is found by an old man. The social attitude towards such a child begins unfolding soon when the old man, Abdul, requests the villagers to adopt the child. He tells them to accept him as a gift from God but no one, whether Hindu or Muslim, is ready to keep the child whose parentage is not known. Abdul raises the child to become a good human being, instead of a Hindu or a Muslim. The song sung by Abdul in the film, ‘Na Hindu Banega Na Musalman banega, Insan Ki Aulad Hai Insan Banega’, depicts Abdul’s desire to see the child as a sign of humanity. Naming the child Roshan (Enlightened) and telling him to become a symbol of the changed time (Badle Huye Waqt Ki Pehchan Banega), Abdul metaphorically points towards the new nation and its new sensibility. In another sequence, he says that he found the child on April 15, 1947. Though he mentions April, it resonates the day India won freedom. Though, I do not propose to see the child as a ‘midnight child’, but there are enough hints in the narrative in this regard.


In Dhool Ka Phool, the narrative prominence of Abdul’s character and an intense secular stand in the song is interesting in the light of the fact that Yash Chopra used to be a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Caste Hindu fundamentalist outfit, and even made crude bombs to be used in the riots during Partition. Partition’s violence, friendship with Sahir and the impact of his elder brother soon changed him.

The secular vision of the Chopra brothers is most clearly expressed in Dharmputra that argues for a secular society based on religious amity. Acharya Shastri wrote to B R Chopra suggesting to him to make a film on Hindu-Muslim unity and sent his novel for consideration. Chopra, himself a victim of partition, liked the novel and decided to convert it into a film. He had earlier made Chandni Chawk on the theme, which was rejected by the audience, but a determined Chopra went ahead with the project.

Acharya Chatursen Shastri, a prominent writer and journalist in Hindi, has been, on the one hand, criticized by some critics for being ‘reactionary’ and ‘revivalist’ in his depiction of history and, on the other, placed in the league of Premchand. However, his sympathy for the RSS is evident from his description of the Partition’s violent days in Delhi in the preface of Dharmputra, the novel, where he describes the defeated Muslims and praises the ‘angry tigers’ of the organization. The communal activities of the RSS, at that time, were even accepted by the organization itself. Not going into further discussion, it can be argued that the Chopras changed the tone and texture of the novel since the film is not entirely based on the literary text.

The film begins with the credits rolling with the song, Saare Jahan Se Achha, written by Iqbal, and visuals of cultural symbols of multi-cultural, multi-religious India echoing the inclusive nature of the Indian National Movement in which background the story unfolds. In order to win Independence, a voice-over emphasizes the unity of the two communities- Hindu and Muslim. This unity was one of the important aspects of the movement. The story begins with a procession against colonial rule in 1925 and ends with the partition days of 1947. It must be noted that Arya Samaj and the RSS along with the Muslim League championed the communalization of society, particularly in the North-West India during these years. It is, indeed, remarkable for the Chopras to point finger at the Hindu communalists because their family belong to the Arya Samaj. Thus, the film stands out as an example of rare artistic integrity and commitment.

The narrative and scenic elements employed in the film continuously reiterate the socio-cultural as well as a humanist unity of the communities. The deep sense of neighbourliness makes the two families one entity. This bond is repeatedly expressed through everyday lives and also through the crises the families face. The ultimate sign representing this unison is the adoption of Bano’s infant by Amrit Rai. This act not only refers to the close ties between the families that demand from Amrit Rai and Savitri to do so in order to save the honour of Nawab and his unwed daughter, but also marks the families as one conveying the inseparability of the two communities. The construction of the bridge joining the houses of the two families to make it convenient for the child to visit Husn Bano further strengthens the closeness. The song about the oneness of God, Nawab’s sacrifice for the country, the voice-over etc. asserts the shared space including the political, strongly underlining the equal claim of the Muslim community on the nation by recalling its intense cultural and political contribution.

The film also counters Dilip’s thoughts regarding the ideal woman. In an argument with her son, Dilip, Savitri underlines the rampant oppression of women by regressive socio-religious practices. Here, we witness, as Bhaskar has pointed out, an educated middle class woman’s inclination towards the modernist ideals of the State.


Dilip refuses to listen to his father’s argument on the difference between the true religion and communalism. His ideological-political notion- the purity of his origin, and the inseparability of the nation and the religion- is only shattered by the truth that Husn Bano, the Muslim woman, he is about to kill for the nation, is his mother. His cry Ma! (Mother!) dissolves into the cry of the nation agonized, killed, looted, raped, displaced due to the violent orgy of the Partition. Using documentary visuals of violence with dramatized sequences and the song Ye Kiska Lahoo Hai Kaun mara (Whose blood is this, who is killed), the film leaves a deep impact. Just before the end, it is the police, an arm of the State, that come and control the violent mob.

The film deserves unquestioned commendation for portraying the unprecedented violence and trauma brought by Partition, and for highlighting the dangers posed by majority communalism. Despite the hollowness of its ideology, it remains one of the biggest challenges before the nation since Independence. Even the release of the film was threatened. Yash Chopra had recalled those days in an interview: ‘It was the most controversial film of the time and both the communities threatened to burn down the theatres. The exhibitors weren’t willing to release the film and to give them confidence, Shashi Kapoor, Deven Verma and I sat in the manager’s room for all the shows everyday….’

Though the film was only a moderate success at the time of its release, it remains an important film on the theme of Partition. Ironically, Bombay cinema has made very few films on the theme while a number of important filmmakers had witnessed the tragedy and some were also its victims.

(Published in South Asian Composite Heritage, Nov 2015-Apr 2016 issue)

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