"Take movies, music, poetry out of life & its gone!"

How the experience of watching GHULAMI on the first day of its release in 1985 taught us a lot about Hindi cinema. (Those Cherished Moments of the Single Screen Era -10) - By Bobby Sing


The release of GHULAMI in the summer vacations of 1985 can easily be stated as an important milestone in the respective careers of its lead actors as well as my personal understanding of the medium without any second thoughts. I was still in my early teens and the explosive execution on screen was a novel experience for us, witnessing Rajasthan like never before amongst the action performed by the powerful cast led by Dharmendra, Mithun Chakraborty, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Naseeruddin Shah, Mazhar Khan and more.
Had recently found a new liking for Dharmendra in those years, post watching many of his hit movies of the past on VCR (thanks to our local video library owner for his timely guidance). And GHULAMI just hitting in between like a storm, made a rock-solid impact on the collective psyche of our group of young Hindi movie enthusiasts.

Honestly got to notice and grasped the importance of many important aspects of filmmaking through this project and its path-breaking direction by J. P. Dutta. For instance, apart from getting a more elaborate visual depiction of the exploitative caste divide and feudal system which we had vaguely read about in our school books, we actually got stunned watching the outstanding cinematography (by Ishwar Bidri) showcasing the desert and the breath-taking locales of Rajasthan. 

Watching our first multi-starrer film in the growing years as a group of school going kids, the most impactful sequences of clashes between various characters in GHULAMI actually made us realize the importance of an effective background score and slow-motion shots coming together giving you goose bumps. Particularly the shot of young Ranjeeta killing the eagle and Mithun jumping from the bus with his gun in order to help Dharmendra presented with an energetic background music, took us over in a big way and we kept remembering and enacting the scenes for months with the available props.

Another learning provided by GHULAMI came when we witnessed how dialogues of a Hindi film effortlessly get adapted by the people in their daily conversation so quickly. I saw the film twice on Friday itself (giving the details later) and by next week (Monday onwards) we personally saw people saying Mithun’s “Koi Shaque” and Kulbhushan Kharbanda’s “Thank You” while talking in their friend circle. The phrases became hugely popular in our locality too and everyone had a great time saying them in style. 

Till that time, we had actually only heard about similar experiences related with SHOLAY and its dialogues in the last decade. But witnessed the phenomenon happening right in front of our eyes for the first time, becoming a memorable experience of our lives.

Having said that, GHULAMI’s fabulous music and lyrics of its two cult tracks actually made a much deeper impact later when I started learning music. But at the time of its release, we got more connected with the least famous song “Peelay Peelay Sharaab Hai Peelay” for a reason (stated later in the article.) 

The music again came back to me, providing some precious musical lessons through my music teacher, who suggested me to study the finer details in its melodious compositions and arrangements by Laxmikant-Pyarelal along with the lyrics by Gulzar. 

So we eagerly studied the Indian arrangements in the two songs “Zihal-e-Maskeen” and “Mere Pee Ko Pawan Kis Gali Le Chali” giving them many repeated hearings. Especially it was a sheer musical treat to study the pieces of flute, sitar and other instruments’ individual progression in the track “Mere Pee Ko” in its three different versions conceived in distinctive tempos and scales.
For young listeners, just notice the way how the song and a train is used in the film to depict the change of times from childhood to youth by the team of lyricist, composers, cinematographer and the director together. Notice the way the racy progression of a Sitar has been used along with the train and a running girl turning into a young lady before the words,
“Waqt Beeja Tha Boya Tha Uske Liye,
Maine Pal Pal Piroya Tha Uske Liye,
Mere Din Raat Ki Roshni Le Chali,
Mere Pee Ko Pawan Kis Gali Le Chali”

The soundtrack also made us learn how at times the LP or cassettes released might be having more antras/verses and versions than actually appearing in the film. And how phrases taken from the works of eminent poets of the past, can be adapted to pen an entirely different and fresh song for a Hindi film. 

Our teacher thankfully enlightened us about the actual opening phrase of “Zeehal-e-Maskeen” taken from the poetry of sufi poet-mystic-musician Amir Khusro, and also gave another example of Gulzar’s song from the film MAUSAM (Dil Dhoondhta Hai Phir Wahi) taking the opening phrase from the poetry of Mirza Ghalib. However, I actually understood the meaning of those exact words of the song much later in my college days in the early 90s. 

The original verse by Amir Khusro is actually an amalgamation of Persian and Brij language and it goes as:

Zeehaal-e-miskeen makun taghaful,
Duraye naina banaye batiyan.

(Meaning: Please do not ignore the miserable state of this poor one….. by turning away your flattering eyes making excuses or some assumed tales)

Frankly, I still haven’t found the answer that why all other renditions of the Sufi verses by world renowned artists say it is as Zeehal-e-Miskeen, but Lata Mangeshkar in the film song pronounces it as Zeehal-e-Maskeen (with the difference of sound in ‘i’ and ‘a’ in the word Miskeen/Maskeen)
Making another contribution to our adolescent years, GHULAMI also made me more interested in reading literature through its strong reference to books, the library and world literature in particular. Though I actually got hold of the book MOTHER by Maxim Gorky many years later, but I did make a note of it (with the help of our English teacher) while watching the few related sequences in my repeat viewing of the film. 
Coming to our experience of watching it in the theater, GHULAMI was being shown in our neighborhood single screen theater MILAN (in West Delhi) and we were there to watch the first show itself, reaching before time around 11.30 am. To our surprise the entry began before time around 11.55 am and we heard the people speaking “Film Badi Lambi Lagti Hai”.

The prophecy turned out to be perfectly right as the film was around three hours of duration or may be more (as I faintly recall). And this kind of duration always used to disturb the four show timings of theaters in those days, because they also had a morning show before 12 noon and thus could only begin the main film post the early show and the routine cleaning.
The first show got a great reception with a few silent moments in its second half. But overall the audience truly loved it, cheering towards the climax, though it had a sad ending for the die-hard Dharmendra fans. 

To be specific, there is quite less written about the euphoria Dharmendra had in those years as the famous ‘He-man’ of the industry unanimously loved by one and all. Probably only those who have witnessed it themselves would be able to get what I am referring to about the audience reactions in the theater. Believe me, you might have heard about Amitabh Bachchan’s craze in the early or mid-80s mentioned in many books and articles, but it was Dharmendra who used to get much louder shouts, whistles and cheers from the crowd in his action sequences in particular, and it was an experience in itself to watch films like GHULAMI, HUKUMAT, LOHA and AAG HI AAG in the theaters sitting in the upper stall. Sadly it was also the last phase of Dharmendra’s career as later it all turned into an avoidable mess with many forgettable projects releasing one after another.

Coming back to the first show of GHULAMI, the word of mouth was out and praises were there for the film resulting in a bigger crowd at the advance booking window for the next few days. Luckily I heard about my cousin elder brother and his group going for the night show on the same day itself and started finding ways to ask them to take me along.
Thankfully he agreed after a few requests and I was once again there at MILAN around 9 pm to watch the film for the second time on the same day. As suspected, the entry didn’t begin till even 9.45 pm as the lengthy duration of the film had completely disrupted the show timings. Eventually we entered the hall around 10 pm and the film had already started as we reached our seats (this time in the balcony). The night show was again full of shouts and cheers in the action sequences. With a shorter interval than routine, the show ended quite late by around 1.30 AM and I could hear the conversations in the crowd, while walking out of the theater indicating the film’s success at the box office.

However, a bigger surprise was still waiting to surface the next evening, when we met another group of our friends who had seen the film on MILAN itself in the Saturday’s matinee show. During our passionate discussions, it got revealed that the film they saw shockingly didn’t have the “Peeley Peeley Sharaab Hai Peeley song in it in the second half. But the song was right there when I saw it not once but twice on Friday. This was really a serious shock for all of us as it was the first time we were experiencing such thing in a film’s screening and that too in the same theater. As school going youngsters we had no answer or reason for this unknown absurdity and an even more surprising answer came when we shared this finding with my elder brother and his friends.

Incidentally, one of them was friends with the projectionist in the theater and as he enquired from him, the revelation came that the projectionists themselves had chopped off the song to shorten the over-length of the film after the first day screening. Now since we had no idea that whether a projectionist was supposed to or allowed to do it or not, we thought, they might be having the right to do so. Anyway, the next week, when another friend watched the film, the song was back in the print and we again assumed that the projectionists might have added it back for their own reasons. 

Hence GHULAMI also taught us the lesson how the projectionist could edit out a song and may be a few sequences too for his own or the theater’s convenience (messing with the original print of the film without having any right to do so). Amazingly, that was happening in a Metro city which forced us to wonder what would be the state in the theaters situated in the smaller towns and the rural regions of the country.
Luckily in the later decades, working with the digital restoration and home video companies, I came to know all about this cutting and insertion of extra scenes in the print, which I will surely try to write about in a separate piece.

Summing up, here are some more interesting features related with the film which might be new for the young friends who still haven’t seen the cult film of the ‘80s.

The basic premise and incidents of GHULAMI meaning slavery were not fiction at all. Similar incidents were seen in Rajasthan and many parts of the rural regions of our country since many decades even post the independence.

The powerful dialogues of the film were penned by J. P. Dutta’s father O. P. Dutta and his association with JP’s films continued till the next two decades. (As an example of his impactful writing, watch out the dialogues between Smita Patil and Reena Roy in their sequence together post intermission, rising above everything else.)

GHULAMI was one of the earlier films Amitabh Bachchan gave his voice-over for. Later his voice became the key feature of many more films, particularly in the new millennium.
In its opening credits, a text slide says, “Our special thanks to a brilliant gentleman and a friend, without whose help this film would not have been made possible.” But it doesn’t disclose the name of that 'brilliant gentleman'.

J.P. Dutta made his debut as the writer-director with GHULAMI after many years of being in the industry and surviving a few shelved projects (including SARHAD). Even GHULAMI was earlier planned with Vinod Khanna in the lead many years before the project finally got made with Dharmendra.

J.P. Dutta began his career with Dharmendra and the collaboration continued in his next films as YATEEM with Dharmendra as producer and Sunny Deol in the lead in 1988, HATHYAR (1989), BATWARA (1989) and then KSHATARIYA with both Dharmendra, Sunny and his old time hero Vinod Khanna together along with Sanjay Dutt (repeated after HATHYAR) in 1993.
Moreover, post GHULAMI, the backdrop of Rajasthan or desert remained the major feature of director’s many more films including YATEEM, BATWARA, KSHTARIYA and even BORDER.

The script had an emotional sub-plot of a love triangle between Dharmendra, Smita Patil and Reena Roy. Interestingly the three actors had a similar relationship triangle in their BADLE KI AAG released in 1982.

Though GHULAMI deserved more nominations in the Filmfare Awards 1986, it only got nominated in the Best Film category and in the Best Supporting Actor for Khulbushan Kharbanda, but it didn't win any award.

Ghulami-In-New-Bobbytalkscinema.comLastly but most importantly,
made in the mid-80s’ GHULAMI pointed towards the ugly discrimination and exploitation of the lower castes in the region wherein the young teenager grooms were not even allowed to ride a horse in their baraat (the marriage procession). The film also had a sequence in which the young son of Kulbhushan Kharbanda is shot dead by the zamindars for riding a horse in his marriage procession openly on the road in the presence of a police officer.

The film depicted it as an incident happening in the early decades of the last century. But the sad truth is that even after more than half a century, our country is still fighting with the same issues of caste divide, untouchability and exploitation of the upper class, even in the 21st century, probably in a more severe manner than ever before.

To prove the fact, the picture shared is from a leading national newspaper THE HINDU dated 4th December 2019. And it reports of an exactly similar incident happening in Bhopal (Madhya Pradesh) strongly reminding the tragic sequence of the film after 35 years of its release.

Link for the news article:

So as a film GHULAMI continues to be relevant even after more than three decades, which has to be an eye-opener fact for the older as well as the present generation showing us the mirror.

Bobby Sing
(29th June 2020 – bobbytalkscinema.com)

(Note : At the time of writing this article, GHULAMI was available in different duration versions at Youtube with even the songs muted out in some of the uploads. The maximum duration of the film on Youtube was of 2 hours 51 minutes among all the versions, which still seems to be shorter than its original duration as I can faintly remember. Unfortunately, there is no surety whether the complete version will ever be made available at any online portal in the future or not. 

Sadly there are several other major films available in much shorter duration online than their original prints. But that’s how we treat our cinema of the past, not considering it equivalent to our cultural heritage.) 

Tags : The experience of watching GHULAMI on the first day in 1985 by Bobby Sing at bobbytalkscinema.com, Articles on Cinema by Bobby Sing, Those Cherished Moments of the Single Screen Era Series By Bobby Sing at BTC
29 Jun 2020 / Comments ( 6 )
John Doe

Such a nice article. Loved it a lot. Although you could have mentioned Anita Raj too in a line. She looked extremely beautiful and lovely in Zeehal-i-Miskeen song.

Bobby Sing

Hi John Doe,
Yes Anita Raj certainly looked great in the film and in the song in particular.
Thanks for visiting and writing in.
I will certainly add the mention in the next update.

Lt Col Qayum Khan

I got goosebumps when i read your article.I was in class 6 when the film was released. I heard ugly fights happened in the theatres when the thakur was asked to put his shoes on his head by Dharmendra.

I am crazy about the film. I dont remember how many times i saw the film. 
I am so crazy about the film that i stop thinking rationally when it comes to Ghulami.
I like a child believe that i might find Ranjeeta walking around in the dunes in fatehpur shekhawati.
I might see the three thakurs hunting for a game there.

I have requested the District Collector of Fatehpur Shekhawati to arrange for my visit to thakur's haveli and Ranjeet's school.

I wanted to recreate the intense face off between Ranjeet and the Thakur in the haveli. "Ranjeet Singh Chaudhary kaho thakur", it echoes even today not only in the haveli but my memories.

The undercurrent of purest form of ramance between Sumitra and Ranjeet is never seen in any of films ever.
The eyes of Smita Patil spoke more than anyone with a voice.

Ghulami is not a film. Its an icon. Its a person. A person who etched himself in the history like a super hero, a legend.
I am going to fatehpur again.

Thank You.

Bobby Sing

Thanks a lot Sir,
for your so passionate comment fondly remembering the classic GHULAMI.
I can truly relate to your expressions about the characters and the locations.
Thanks for writing in sharing your lovable thoughts.
Love and Regards

Joe martin

Ghulami was one of the most memorable movie. I used to bunk from college and watch it at Chitra theatre. Two of my favourite heros, Dharmendra & Mithun, with powerful dialogues was simply fantastic. The experiences cannot be described. I wished Sarhad too was completed with Vinod Khanna and Mithun what a treat it would be! Alas, nobody should remake it!

Bobby Sing

Thanks a lot for sharing your memories with us Joe Martin.
GHULAMI is indeed a film that has stayed with us in all these years and its issues raised are sadly still prevalant in our caste based Indian society.
Keep Visiting and Writing in.

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