Once in a life-time comes a film that goes beyond a film - a film that touches one’s inner heart and moves one to tears, a film with its sheer simplicity and magic of story-telling absorbs the viewer into another realm, a film that is impossible to describe in mere words, but has to be witnessed and experienced. And for me that film is DHARM which in my humble view, is quite frankly one of the finest films Indian Cinema has ever produced and one of the best films I’ve ever across all realms of cinema.
At the core of every masterpiece, there is a simple and important message that the filmmaker is trying to portray to its viewers. While in most cases these films tend not to do well at the box-office, in recent years we have had a RANG DE BASANTI and LAGE RAHO MUNNABHAI which have though I consider these to be the exception rather than the norm. Now we have DHARM - a motion picture that in many ways, goes beyond what the angry rebels of RANG DE BASANTI and the not-always-practical satire of LAGE RAHO MUNNABHAI achieved. Even though, I consider both these films masterpieces in their own right, personally DHARM goes far beyond what both of these films have achieved.
The movie is about a Hindu priest Pandit Chaturvedi (Pankaj Kapur) who is one of the most highly respected priests in the entire city of Varanasi. A man who lives for his religion, soaked in years of ancient traditions, values and morals. He is a strict, yet lovable man. As any real priest would, Chaturvedi believes he is a disciple of God on this earth to spread God’s message and love as he goes about his rigidly ritualistic world of pooja’s and teachings. One day his daughter brings home an infant (Krish Parekh) and the mother of the infant has disappeared and cannot be found nowhere. Pandit Chaturvedi is hesitant to have the child around the house at first, and when it’s confirmed that the child has been abandoned, he then makes the decision that the child will be raised in the local orphanage. However the Pandit’s wife Parvati (Supriya Pathak Kapur) has by now developed a soft spot for the young child and requests her husband if they can keep and raise the child if as their own. Hesitant at first, the priest reluctantly agrees as his wife lies to him that the baby is the son of a Brahmin. Slowly, the child wins over everyone hearts in the house including Pandit Chaturvedi who finds a son, a disciple and a best friend in the child.
The story takes a turn when the baby’s mother returns to claim him back, and much to the shock of Pandit Chaturvedi, the lady is a Muslim. The child who they’d fondly named Karthik is in fact Mustafa. Pandit Chaturvedi is in a state of shock and utter despair as he feels he has done the biggest sin of his life and feel as if he has betrayed his religion and more-so God. In a state of recluse and regret, Pandit Chaturvedi decides to take a series of different vows and “vraths” to clear his conscience. However whilst his mind is telling him he has done a grave sin, his heart sorely misses his little son, and the words “babuji” echo in every corridor of the house.
In a series of events, riots break out in the city of Varanasi, Mustafa’s mum begs and pleads the Pandit and his family to take back the little boy as he is much safer with them. However the doors of the house are closed for the little boy. What follows next can only be only described as a journey as Pandit Chaturvedi defies what he has believed his entire life if “religion” and listens to his inner conscience in the rousing finale.
Singh has also written the screenplay for the movie which again can only be called a class apart, and undeniably outstanding. In today’s world of “excess drama” and “the louder the better” mantra, DHARM once again ranks completely aside as a film which lets it’s everyday, realistic turn of events speak louder than any over-the-top melodrama can. The movie can be broken down into three parts.
The initial scenes establish the tone of the movie from the word go and are viscerally eye-opening. Right from the moment we’re introduced to Pandit Chaturvedi pot-bellied, bare-footed and full of pride as he walks around going through his everyday routines. These scenes may seem long-drawn initially, though once one is comfortable with the pacing of the movie, the scenes all start together. As a viewer, we’re given a birds-eye-view in to the life of a Pandit, which in itself is an astounding watch as the level of authenticity that Singh has painted on celluloid is nothing less than a monumental effort.
With the arrival of the baby begins the films second act which simply has to be experienced. The bonding between a father and a child has been witnessed on celluloid countless times over the years. However never has the bond been depicted in such a hauntingly beautiful manner. These scenes work on such a simplistic, yet humane level as you watch the father and son relationship grow gradually and slowly. As Pandit Chaturvedi slowly starts warming up to Karthik and accepting him, one is overcome by such a gush of emotions which tug right at the core of ones inner heart. The strikingly silent yet amply rich scenes between Pandit Chaturvedi and his wife Parvati cannot be ignored either. These scenes on face value comes across rather casual, however once again the unspoken says a thousand words here, and how the eyes and mere body language convey to the viewer the relationship between the two is stunning.
The third act, and by far the darkest, most complex and certainly bravest is certainly a stirring watch. The entire act is almost without dialogues, with a series of “shlokas” and “bhajans” interspersed as Pandit Chaturvedi tries to “cleanse” himself of the “sin” he’s committed only to realise what the right path is. A standing ovation Vibha Singh, I sincerely look forward to any cinema you’re associated with in the future. Singh’s stunning poetic dialogues are a rare treat for the viewers, the chaste Hindi spoken in the film is rarely seen in Hindi cinema, and gels with the film perfectly.
The vast knowledge Talwar posses on the subject matter she is directing itself alone is quite a feat and her attention to details leaves the viewer in complete awe. However it’s that merged with her ability to tell a almost fable-like story with heart and soul is what catapults DHARM into something else. Ultimately DHARM is a humane tale, and though Talwar’s main aim is to send a message to audiences, it’s the manner in which the two are seamlessly sewn together which makes DHARM stand out. The final sequence, as Pandit Chaturvedi walks down the riot-ridden gully of Varanasi with little Mustafa clutching is hand is one that bought on a surge of endless tears streaming down my face as the sheer compassionate, honesty, beauty and humanity that was being portrayed. I bow to you Bhavna Talwar.
At the core of DHARM lies a performance so powerful, so evidently complex yet so effortlessly portrayed by a man whom in my humble opinion is the finest actor Hindi Cinema has ever produced; Pankaj Kapur. From the upright, pompous and arrogant Brahmin in the first half to the questioning and ultimately compassionate Pandit of the second half the man (yet again) delivers a performance that is so perfectly enacted it would be unfair to call it anything but an institute in acting. This film wouldn’t have worked without Pankaj Kapur, and he completely surrenders himself to the character by becoming Pandit Chaturvedi. Not once did I feel like I was watching Inspector P.K from RAAKH, the sly sleuth KARAMCHAND JASOOS, the Kashmiri “jihad” Liyaqat from Mani Rathnam’s ROJA, Pannu Technicolour from RAM JAANE, Mussaddillal from OFFICE OFFICE, Abbaji from MAQBOOL, Professor Tiwari from SEHAR or Jamwaal from DUS. The level of effort and understanding that Kapur puts in to his character is awe-inspiring. His get-up, body language, delivery, expressions and eye movements are heightened to a level of perfection rarely seen in Indian Cinema. Just witness his bonding sequences with his new son, or the entire finale. The gamut and range of emotions Kapur brings forth as Pandit Chaturvedi faces his extremely difficult dilemma caught between his commitment to society and religion and his heart; this is a performance that remains etched in one’s memory long after the final reels have finished. And as the tagline rightly says; ‘4 years of childhood challenge 4000 years of religion’. Standing ovation Mr. Kapur!
The supporting cast in the movie is in terrific form to say the least, despite Kapur’s extremely towering performance. Supriya Pathak Kapur is excellent in her part, be it the obedient wife or the doting mother, the talented actress gets a substantial role after a long time (RGV hardly did justice to her in SARKAR) and performs with aplomb. Krish Parekh delivers one of the most natural and heart-felt performances from a child artiste. The boy is simply adorable, and elevates the entire proceedings with the simplest of scenes and dialogues. His “Ssshhh, babuji pooja karr rahe hai” is as cute as it is heart-breaking in the latter sequences when he goes back to his original mother, or when the doors are shut on him. The overlooked K.K Raina makes his presence felt after a long time. Raina earlier played Sunny Deol’s brother in Santoshi’s GHATAK and Manoj Bajpai’s twisted and demented brother in Rakesh Om Prakash Mehra’s AKS but he will always be known for his award-winning dialogues in GHATAK, CHINAGATE and PUKAAR.
Hrishita Bhatt plays her part well, and though her entire track was relevant to the story entirely. It could’ve been juxtaposed into the proceedings more tightly. Pankaj Tripathi is fabulous and delivers a stunning performance. Daya Shankar Panday is very effective in his part.
Technically the movie is nothing less than a magnificent and opulent painting. Nalla Muthu’s camerawork gloriously paints a visual treat for the viewer’s eyes. Wasiq Khan’s art-work is award-worthy; Asif Ali Shahikh’s editing is spot-on. Sonu Nigam is at his best as he renders the film’s theme song (composed by Debjyoti Mishra) to utmost perfection. Dilip Subhramanium’s sound is excellent.
Bhavna Talwar, I can only pray that this review somehow gets to you as I would like to sincerely thank you for what I can only describe as a gift which I will cherish for a lifetime. In return, the least I can do is spread more awareness about DHARM.