Movie Review: Dharm - Unfairly Snubbed

February 22, 2010
Aditi Nadkarni

Dharm, a Sanskrit word that for some means duty and for yet others signifies religion. We often hear this word used by religious preachers and at other times by leaders of political parties looking to pander to the majority Hindus in India. This term was heard when a mob needed some sort of a philosophy to bind them as they went about adhering to no scripture, driven by fury alone.

This film tells the story of Pandit Chaturvedi (Pankaj Kapur), a well-respected and stringent Hindu priest who adheres strictly to the writ words of Hindu scriptures. The pandit provides key religious advice to the families residing in the holy city of Benaras, at the banks of river Ganga. The touch of a low caste prompts him to bathe in the holy waters and his wife (Supriya Pathak) has to cleanse herself before she prepares his meals. Then one day an orphan left at their doorstep makes his way into their lives and warms the heart of the otherwise stoic and unyielding priest. Little Kartikeya grows up, his adoptive father's pet, performing religious rites, reciting verses alongside his beloved "babuji". His innocence remains untouched by the mounting communal discontent that occasionally disrupts into religious riots between Hindus and Muslims in the city. Amidst these tensions, Kartikeya's birth mother shows up to claim her son. As she walks into the pandit's door clad in a burkha, neighbors and patrons gather to watch, aghast. The boy is sent away with his Muslim birth mother in a heart wrenching scene, his cries are drowned in the enormity of the religious calamity that has fallen upon the priest's family for having adopted a Muslim child. The pandit's home is promptly cleansed, severe religious penances are performed and yet the priest's inner struggle continues, eating him up inside. He is torn between the love he feels for the child he sent away in a heartbeat and his duty towards the religion he represents. As the self-proclaimed protectors of Hinduism crazed with vendetta unleash violence through the city, this Hindu priest defies all that he has valued and reaches a revelation that changes not only his own life but of those that surround him and revere him.

When watching the film, the sensitivity with which each scene had been conducted immediately suggested the touch of a female director. Bhavana Talwar's handling of the characters is remarkable. She seems to have identified real people rather than characters for her film. Whether it be the staunch Pandit, his obedient wife or the child that tugs at your heartstrings, Talwar takes her time with each persona. Pankaj Kapur's performance is a testimony to the neglected and yet prodigious talent our film industry houses. An actor who has given us films like Ek Doctor Ki Maut and Ek Ruka Hua Faisla continues to loyally work in the shadow of a giant, the all consuming commercial film industry that allows little to no platform for performers like him. Hrishita Bhatt, stands out in the role of a young girl who falls in love with a foreigner seeking spiritual guidance under the tutelage of Pandit Chaturvedi.

This film is excruciatingly moving. It forces one to empathize with characters who in our every day lives we could never relate to. The religious discontent juxtaposed with the innocence of a child offers a stark contrast that leaves one emotionally and spiritually exhausted. The blood shed and the inciters of these harrowing incidents that swallow our cities are all revealed, their intentions, insecurities and motives scrutinized. The upholders of religion are exposed and so is the true character of those whose spiritual awakening finally leads us out of darkness. This film is not about the chaos that hatred leads us into but of the humanity that pulls us out of it, unscathed.

I found this film on Netflix after I searched for films starring Pankaj Kapur, one of my favorite actors who I have not seen since the Blue Umbrella. Having watched this film, I was so overcome with curiosity at never having heard about it before, that I did some quick online searches for it and found out what sounded like a joke, an April Fool's prank. How I was not aware of this blunder committed almost three years ago is beyond me. Apparently, this spectacular film about religious relations in India that is especially relevant in today's times was passed over as India's Oscar submission in favor of, get this, a mediocre film called Eklavya starring Amitabh Bachhan and Saif Ali Khan.

Eklavya had all the makings of a commercial film and a story with as many holes in it as Swiss cheese. It was a glossy entertainer with great cinematic visuals and the beautiful backdrop of Rajasthan and yet was most certainly not a moving film with a global appeal. All it had was an established and commercially viable star cast. Yet it beat out a film like Dharm which won our National Award and the Nargis Dutt Award for a film promoting national integration. It is even more shocking that our media and our audience does not create adequate hue and cry over such blatant unfairness by the subcommittee that decides the film that is submitted for an Oscar. In a film fraternity that goes weak in the knees at the mention of the name Bachhan, local awards are hard to come by for such films as well. In the year that Eklavya was sent in as India's official entry to the Oscars, brilliant films such as Dharm, Vanaja and Black Friday stood as major contenders and were duly ignored. I wonder how these filmmakers must feel when their masterpieces are dismissed in this manner by their peers in the arts and performance industry which should ideally define a haven for nurturing talent and relatively devoid of political corruptness. Who are these people on the committee that send out films on behalf of an entire nation? Year after year they send out stories, that to a foreign audience represents us Indians. I do not know enough about the process that goes into nominating a film for Oscar submission but the selection of films such as Heena, Jeans, Devdas and Eklavya would suggest that these members are not qualified to be making decisions about what kind of a film would be appreciated by a universal audience and that at times their decisions seem to be motivated by inexplicable political derivatives. Have of them watched an Oscar winning foreign film?

An Oscar may not define our successes in cinema, but the submission process and the errors, political gaffes or unscrupulous actions committed during the submission process sheds light on why the largest film industry in the world has still failed to make it's mark as far as world cinema is concerned. In Ek Doctor Ki Maut, Pankaj Kapur plays the role of a doctor who through years of hard work comes upon a major medical breakthrough. His elation at having made this groundbreaking discovery however is short lived when he realizes that his jealous and less talented peers have decided to snub him and are making every effort to ensure that he does not receive credit for his work, much like the committee that decided to ignore Talwar's superb effort.

Aditi Nadkarni is a cancer researcher, a film reviewer and a poet; her many occupations are an odd yet fun miscellany of creative pursuits. Visit her blog for more of her articles and artistic as well as photographic exploits.
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