Thursday, April 18, 2013


Dharm, like it promises to be, is a dissertation on the nature of faith. I call it a dissertation because it is academic in its approach, feels burdened with research and deals with the same things that have been dealt with before. It offers nothing new. I should have anticipated how it was going to end the moment I found out that it had won the Nargis Dutt Award for Best Feature on National Integration. But right after that, when I read that the film's director Bhavna Talwar had lobbied hard for it to be selected as India's official selection for Best Foreign Language Film, I let my raise hopes high. I don't know what made her do that, but seeing the standard of world cinema that gets shortlisted, I'm pretty sure she wouldn't have cleared the long list.

Don't get me wrong, this is not a bad film. But neither is it a great one just because it deals with a subject that is less portrayed in mainstream cinema. Its well crafted, and makes a rather good watch, but that's it. Dharm is the story about a Hindu Purohit, who is steeped into his religion, believes in his faith and is essentially, by all parameters, considered a holy man. He takes pride in his prowess, his abilities, but also is sensible enough to attribute them to the grace and benevolence of his gods. The film meticulously shows us his stature in society, his stoical belief in tradition, his rather conservative views and his relationship with his family. One day, his daughter brings home a baby and after a few unsuccessful attempts to send him away, at the behest of his wife and daughter, he fosters the baby. The next sequence becomes the emotional crux of the film and it is crafted lovingly. How the relationship between the foster son and father deepens is  dwelled upon for long and despite using standard cliches, it becomes a rather endearing passage simply because of Pankaj Kapur.

This film revolves around Pankaj Kapur. The story is about Pandit Chaturvedi, but Pankaj Kapur is so extraordinary in this rather mediocre film, that more often than not, his prowess overshadows the film. I had seen him in Blue Umbrella, and heard a lot about his legendary status among the pantheon of great Indian character actors like Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Nana Patekar but seeing him breathe life into a rather uninteresting, uni-dimensional character is an astounding experience. The film could have done so much more by exploring Pandit Chaturvedi's background and given Kapur more leeway, making his character more than just a plot device. The man packs so much emotion in just the way he looks; the look he gives his wife full of endearment, the look to the kid with pride, looking away from the widow with disgust and that phenomenal 2 second pause in the beginning, when an ascetic tries to talk to him about Dharma, before he smiles, just so mockingly, and turns away saying, "Mahadev". A pity so many of our actors have to resort to looking into the camera and recite their monologues.

Almost every other character is far more under developed and actors are made to recite lines like tape recorders. What is the whole point of casting good performers like Supriya Pathak Kapur and Pankaj Tripathi if you are going to give them lines that sound more like aphorisms and characters that are basically convenient stereotypes. The cinematography though eye-catching initially, soon plays itself out and reminds one of !ncredible india advertisements. The editing is inconsistent, and a few scenes are so oversaturated that they turn painful to the eye. Sonu Nigam's haunting background songs, though, are a solace and work really well at the dramatic junctures.

What is specifically needed to be addressed is the film's climax. I knew what was coming, but prayed otherwise, because despite all its shortcomings, the film seemed to be addressing issues that are shunned in the rest of the country, and I hoped the climax would end on a really high note. But it all ended in a whimper when the religious fundamentalists realised their folly after a one minute speech, quoting the meaning of religion from a dictionary, and telling them that non-violence is the path. When will filmmakers stop dealing with cliches? If they are so unsure of how to end a film, then why pretend that they are dealing with ground reality, when the climax is a simple form of escapism? How is it that people who have been screaming for blood till moments ago stop to listen to somebody they've hated all along, and then realise their mistakes, because he quotes Bhagvad Gita, or tells them that God is one and different religions are different interpretations of the ultimate truth? We live in a complex world, dealing with complex issues then why should we aspire for that simple solution?

Dharm would have been so much more had it chosen to be a brave, honest film, choosing to walk the untreaded path. Instead it is just a pretentious film that wishes to launch its director as a bold, serious filmmaker. I feel sad for Pankaj Kapur because despite his world-class acting, the film goes nowhere. The film is a decent watch but it leaves us the moment it ends.

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