Saturday, February 02, 2008

Notes on Pankaj Kapur and Dharm

I’ve been amazed by the quality of Pankaj Kapur’s performances in two very different roles – in Vishal Bhardwaj’s The Blue Umbrella (a post about that film here) and Bhavna Talwar’s Dharm. In both films, he achieves something that very few actors can aspire towards: when he’s on screen, it’s almost impossible to take your eyes off him. The characters he plays are about as varied as it’s possible for two people to be. In The Blue Umbrella, he’s a covetous, wheedling Himachali shopkeeper who becomes obsessed with a little girl’s pretty umbrella; in Dharm he’s an orthodox Hindu pandit, the head priest of a temple in Benaras, who lives by the strictest interpretation of his faith, and who finds that faith severely tested when it turns out that the little boy he has raised is Muslim by birth.

The one thing Nandkishor and Pandit Chaturvedi do have in common is that it’s difficult as a viewer to take either of them to one’s heart. (It’s possible to admire Pandit Chaturvedi – to respect the fact that he’s a sincere man, not someone who uses religion for his own cynical ends, and that he is dismissive of the jingoistic local Hindutva organisation – but it’s hard to like him. Even if you’re sold on the virtues of the caste system, you might be discomfited by scenes like the one where the pandit’s devotees beat up a lower-caste man for accidentally brushing against him and he quietly goes off to cleanse himself in the Ganga without intervening.) And yet the measure of Kapur’s performance is that he humanises both these characters brilliantly, which is something that not many other actors – working with the same script – would have been able to do. By the end of The Blue Umbrella, Nandkishor is a sympathetic figure, easier to care about than the villagers who have ostracized him. And in Dharm, when we see the hint of a knowing (almost worldly) smile on Pandit Chaturvedi’s face during a conversation with his wife (Supriya Pathak) and daughter, we see the human side of a man who can be unflinchingly harsh, even inhuman, in his role as an authority figure (such as when he refuses to bless a disconsolate girl who has fallen out of favour with her family because of her association with a tourist).

The character of the pandit, and many other things about Dharm, reminded me of one of the best films I saw last year – David Volach’s My Father, My Lord, about an orthodox Rabbi who sacrifices his son at the altar of literalist faith. Like that film, Dharm is a quietly powerful work. It’s beautifully shot (by Nalla Muthu) and manages, for most of its running time, to be thought-provoking without being strident. However, I had a problem with the ending where a rampaging mob driven by religious fervour is stopped in its tracks by the force of one man’s righteousness (complete with the annoying cliché of the righteous man taking the chief assailant’s hand in his iron grip). It’s possible that this scene was meant to be seen metaphorically rather than literally (Dharm as humanity trumping it over fanaticism; or, how it should be in a perfect world), but if that was the intention, the scene was too closely aligned to the realist narrative, and it didn’t work for me. It also caused an abrupt shift in the film’s tone, which up to this point seemed to be leading to tragedy.

I also thought the scenes between the pandit and the little boy could have been expanded a little - and simultaneously, the subplot about the girl and the tourist could have been shortened. But Dharm is still strongly recommended, especially if you’re in the mood for a gentle, slow-paced film powered by a superb lead performance. Or if you need a reminder about the dangers of unquestioning faith.


  1. It is strange that whenever u say blogging will be infrequent, u write more.

  2. I know! In my defence, the last two posts (not including the two-line one before this) have been versions of pieces I was writing professionally. Haven't stopped working yet.

  3. I agree... He is one of the most riveting and underrated actors we have today.. another really good performance, funnily enough, comes from a commercial film.. Dus.. where is the lead villain, as it were... I cant remember his name in that but he was superb and very eerily evil...
    Dharm deserved much more recognition than what it got.. though I was grateful that it made it to the theatres.

  4. Bluespriite: I don't agree that Pankaj Kapur is an underrated actor at all. In fact, I think he is respected quite a bit almost universally...

    In any case, Jai: Just wanted to draw your attention to a 'moment' in Parzania, a film I'm sure you've seen. Meant to blog on it, but didn't end up doing it.

    There's a little bit in the film where Naseeruddin Shah is at a police station and he has been told that Parzan has been found. Naseer is waiting for Parzan. A little boy comes out of the next room and the camera cuts to Naseer's face - a face of relief, joy, happiness, etc. The camera stays on his face. Doesn't move. A little muscle twitches around the bottom of the right eye. That's the only change on his face but the expression changes to one of utter despair again.

    Just a twitch. One little twitch. Almost unnoticeable.

    Camera switches to the boy and it's not Parzan. But we know that already.

    No aspersions on PK's abilities - he's brilliant. I'm not comparing. But catch Naseer in that one little moment...

    PS: The future's 'enahpejc'.

  5. Hey Jai, How are you doing? Love reading your reviews, only wish I could get these movies here on Netflix..... actually I probably could, only if the wife would not keep ordering TV shows but thats another story... Anyway, I totally agree with you on Pankaj Kapoor... remember him from the the Karamchand days when he would be munching on carrots like Bugs Bunny?... and as the crooked builder Taneja (or as Om Puri's uber-Punjabi charecter calls him-TaRneja) from Jaane Bhi do Yaaro... which of course was brilliant... He's always been a god actor but he's really been taking on some good meaty parts lately.... I thought he was pretty good in Maqbool too....

  6. Bluespriite: I don't think Dharm made it to theatres in Delhi, unless it was a blink-and-miss thing.

    Sumeet: thanks. Need to get my hands on some of the old Karamchand episodes somehow.

  7. Shamya: haven't seen Parzania yet. I wouldn't mind thinking about this for a while and making a list of similar little moments in great acting - the sort of thing that lasts barely a second but makes you sit up and take notice/get immediately involved with the character.

    There must be loads of examples, but two I can think of offhand:

    1) Spencer Tracy as the old judge in Judgement at Nuremberg. In one scene Tracy is gazing intently at one of the attorneys who's just finished speaking when another judge leans across to whisper something to him. Tracy cocks his head towards the other judge to listen, then realises he still has his headphones on and takes them off - it's a split-second thing. (It's the sort of moment that can't really be described adequately in words, because the very process of describing it makes it sound more elaborate and calculated than it really was.)

    2) Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates struggling with certain words, occasionally showing the sort of hesitancy you'd expect from someone who has rarely ever had a full conversation with another living person: at one point he starts to say the word "extremely" (context: she checked out extremely early in the morning) but almost immediately changes it to "very" (it's barely perceptible, definitely not something a first-time, or even second-time viewer would register). At another point he tells Janet Leigh, "The expression 'you eat like a bird' is a falsity, because birds really eat an awful lot." He stutters on the word "falsity", but what's more interesting is the tiny frown on his face after completing the sentence - as if he's confused between the words "falsity" and "fallacy" and not sure if he said the right thing.

    Of course, the example you've given is probably even subtler than these.

    Have you eaten any kangaroos yet?

  8. (Note to anyone puzzled by the last sentence of the previous comment: young Shamya is a fearlessly democratic eater and is currently reporting and repasting in Australia.)

  9. Don't quite remember 'Judgement at Nuremberg', but do know exactly what you're talking about when it comes to Norman Bates.

    Now you're right, I don't remember the little examples you're talking about, but I do remember him stuttering and fishing for words on occasions.

    Interestingly, I do remember the "she checked out extremely early in the morning" bit. I remember it very clearly. Plus a couple of other examples, which I'll have to watch 'Psycho' again to remember.

    Anyway...yeah, had a kangaroo risotto. And a crocodile something. The kangaroo was nice. Very nice. The particular preparation of crocs I had wasn't very nice.

    You get possums and wallabies (small kangaroos) and ostrich (which I did have in the Caribbean) and emus here too.

    Have a month or so to go, so I'm sure I would have enough to tell you afterwards.

    And 'vrtzow' to you too!

  10. There used to be a series called 'Neem ka Ped" on DD when I was a kid. Don't remember anything about it, except Pankaj Kapoor was in it, and I liked that.

  11. I never question 'faith' - I just state the 'awful facts'.

    Stay on groovin' safari,

  12. Regarding Pankaj Kapur's abilities , even at the risk of sounding jingoistic I would rate him as the finest actor in the country today. Starting from Maqbool, blue umbrella , Dharm and even the commercial potboilers like 'Halla bol' and 'Dus' you just revel in the man's ability to chew up the scenery in front of everybody else.

    If you evaluate some of his performances over the past five years , there is nobody who comes close to this kind of varied performance.The man is one of the real few gems of Indian cinema whom we must treasure till we have the pleasure of watching them.

  13. it did.. i saw it at that Nehru Place theatre.. the one in front of O Calcutta.. it had just opened that week... way back in June.

  14. And he has a rather delightful presence in this Vishal Bhardwaj short

  15. I watched Blue Umbrella and Dharm back to back and I would say I am impressed with Kapur's performance in both films, but then that would mean the brilliance is not completely expected. However, I was not very happy with the way Dharm was shot and its TV serial feel. Maybe budget was an issue. Not sure.

    I agree with you regarding Chaturvedi being a gray character initially, which simply heightens Kapur's performance in taking the character through the journey of change with the little boy.

  16. I took the liberty of appreciating your comments on Pankaj Kapoor and the movie Dharam. Your views reflected what I felt when I watched the movie. But I could not put it so nicely in words. Well written. Hope Pankaj Kapoor and the directors will get to see how much appreciation is felt for their movies.( though not in the box-office)


  17. I came across the comments here and wanted to contribute my 2 cents. I think Naseer is indeed a great actor and probably the most natural and subtle we have in the industry right now, but Pankaj Kapur is not far behind...and he has proved time and again from teh beginning of his career. All of you have higlighted his recent works but do not forget his earlier "Ek ruka hua faisla" and "Ek doctor ki maut" among many others