GHULAMI (1985)

Ghulami released in 1985, 15 years after JP Dutta’s first film Sarhad was shelved owing to Vinod Khanna’s decision to give up films and move to the OSHO’s retreat in Rajneeshpuram, USA. Ghulami came 15 years after that and can be called JP Dutta’s debut feature. Interestingly enough, it firmly set about the palate on which almost every other JP Dutta film (except maybe Yateem) would be built until the time he decided to go war-ways with Border.

Ranjit Singh Choudhry is the son of Makhan Kisan and lives in a village ruled by a ruthless landlord, Bade Thakur (Om Shiv Puri). A young Ranjit is a rebel and doesn’t mind standing up against the British Raj as he is shown cutting telegraph wires in the first scene that we see him in. Ranjit also crosses path with the offsprings of the Bade Thakur in the school that he attends with them. The issue is related to the use of water from different pots pointing to a divide between the two races. A scuffle with them leads him to be flogged by Bade Thakur and his father kicking him out of his house. Ranjit leaves for the town and comes back as a grown up (now played by Dharmendra) after his father’s demise.

Once back, he again starts getting into tussles with Bade Thakur over issues of land and loans that he believes is sheer sharecropper maths which is designed to keep the peasants under the control of the Thakur’s forever and for generations. He sets his sight on the ledgers of the Thakurs and believes that a day will come when he will put an end to it all. The villagers start rallying behind Ranjit as he questions the authority of the Thakurs repeatedly leading ultimately to a peasant uprising. This is just the basic premise of the film. As we all know by now, JP Dutta films are laced with multiple subplots and Ghulami is no different.

Apart from the basic premise already mentioned, Ghulami has subplots involving an Army man, Javar (Mithun Chakraborty) and his love story with Tulsi (Anita Raj) who has no one but Javar to do her bidding. Javar also gets involved in Ranjit’s mission to rid the villagers of their centuries-old oppressors and forms a warm bond with Ranjit. Then there is Gopi Dada (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), a havildar with the local police who loses his son to the Thakurs just for the reason that he wanted to parade him on a horse on the way to his marriage. Ranjit is friends with the Thakur’s progressive and educated daughter Sumitra (Smita Patil). They share a unique bond even though it never gets romantic in nature. When Sumitra is married off to Sultan Singh (Naseeruddin Shah), a top-ranking police officer and also the one who is pursuing the case of Ranjit (who is now considered a bandit), their friendship becomes a cause of friction between her and Sultan Singh leading to some interesting dramatic sequences.

Ghulami is a story pointing out the divide between the Thakurs and the poor villagers and how with the change in time, they revolt against their oppressors and win their freedom. It works because of the strong message that it has and also because most of the performances are strongly in place and the actors are able to make us, the viewers, care for these men and women. Dharmendra plays a highly learned man in the body of a rustic pahalwan with charming ease. Unlike his dialogs in Batwara that border on the lingo of the illiterate, Ranjit Singh Chaudhry here is an eloquent speaker. He uses references from literature and makes them stick with the current predicament of the peasants. It’s not only that he uses his knowledge for dramatic effect. It is shown how he uses his knowledge and his oratory skills to dissuade a dacoit from harming Sumitra. The same Dacoit helps him in his endeavors later as he goes after the ledgers of the Thakurs.

Ranjit is not only a speaker but a fighter who doesn’t budge. When Bade Thakur refers to him as Ranjite, he is swift to correct him and orders him to address him as “Ranjit Singh Choudhry” instead. This shows the pride that he holds in his heart for himself. The same thing is repeated when he is hit by Sultan Singh and Ranjit blasts him saying that he will pay for hitting “Ranjit Singh Choudhry”. His attitude reflects the mood and feeling that the revolting peasants held against the Thakurs.

Gopi Dada, a devoted Havildar is turned into a rebel when his son is killed in the name of a petty tradition that forbade lower cast individuals to ride horses. Gopi is crestfallen at the injustice done to him simply because he was a lower cast. Even his duty of 20 years isn’t able to get him any better treatment. Gopi’s predicament shows why some of the Indians preferred the British Raj over the rule of the landlords. Mithun’s Javar gets involved with Ranjit when he sees him fighting against the whole lot of Thakurs just to get the villagers water from their well after the well of the villagers is corrupted by a dead animal that had fallen into it earlier. Javar is inspired by Ranjit’s selfless spirit and decides to help him when he is corned by the police and the Thakurs. Tulsi’s request in Ranjit’s favor is also an important factor that guides Javar to help him.

Thus the setup of the film is complete. We have Ranjit, Javar, and Gopi leading the rebellion with the help of the dacoits while the Thakurs and Inspector Sultan Singh (who is mildly ethical) trying to put an end to the rebellion once and for all. The film culminates in the ledgers of the Thakurs being burn to a crisp by Ranjit after an elaborate and extremely well-choreographed action sequence. The background score in this sequence and the amount of physicality that Dharmendra brings to his character gave me goosebumps. The director did well to hold the shot just long enough to let us have the feeling of achievement that Ranjit’s character must be feeling the moment he lit the fire. The scene cross cuts with the Bade Thakur collapsing on the terrace floor realizing that his years of maths and documentation would now count for nothing.  It is interesting to note that Ghulami is about payoffs. If one looks closely, the set pieces are designed in such a way that after every act of the villagers or Thakurs there is an outcome or reply associated with it. Ghulami pays off well for those who are willing to persist with it.

The only issues that I had with it were some of the age-old clichés that it used as tropes from time to time. Anita Raj’s character is called Tulsi (a symbol of purity) and she is the one who the antagonists try to violate multiple times and she commits suicide, in the end, to save herself from the dishonor. The manner in which she and Javar fall in love was a little too fast to take seriously. Also, the amount of time Ranjit takes to storm the Thakur’s house for the ledgers felt unnecessarily delayed. Naseeruddin Shah’s character cuts somewhere in between the good and evil which was not something that I liked. This isn’t that type of film where the grey is ok. It’s a straight out black Vs white contest in which you are either for the white or for the black.

As a debut film, Ghulami is terrific especially considering the size of production that this film is and with as many big stars as it has. This film set up a format on which JP Dutta made his next few films all of which worked big time for me.

Rating : 3.75/5 (3.75 out of 5 Stars) 



5 Comments Add yours

  1. ahmdahc says:

    I think your scoring for his first 4 films need revisiting! Its way to Low! LOL

    My scoring for his films:

    Ghulami (4.9)
    Yateem (4.8)
    Hathyar (4.9)
    Batwara (4.8)
    Kshatriya (4.5)
    Border (4.4)
    Refugee (4.0)
    Umrao Jaan (2.5)
    Paltan (3.5)

  2. dinzmania says:

    Who played the young Ranjit Singh Choudhary?

  3. no idea…couldn’t find it online too…do you know?

  4. Tarun Kumar says:

    While reviewing JP Dutta’s Ghulami and Batwara, you missed a line or two about the lilting music given by Laxmikant Pyarelal. I am absolutely in love with the music of these two films and also Yateem.


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