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.