It is rare for the Delhi audience to applaud loudly at the end of a film. However, even the most blasé film goer clapped along at the conclusion of “Dharm” in New Delhi recently. The film, which negotiates the tricky question of communal harmony, saw great direction, superb acting and wonderful music.
Says director Bhavna Talwar in a note: “In India, animosity has been infused amongst Hindus and Muslims, two communities that have co-existed here for centuries. Militant Hindus are being created to fight back the 'Jihad' or Islamic religious wars that certain Muslims seem to be fighting the world over.”The film zooms into the world of Pandit Chaturvedi (wonderfully played by Pankaj Kapur), his wife (Supriya Pathak Kapur) and young daughter. Chaturvedi is an erudite Hindu priest in Varanasi (earlier known as Benaras) who spends his entire day in prayers and rituals. One day his ordered world is disturbed when his daughter brings home a little baby who has been abandoned by his mother. Chaturvedi keeps an arm's length distance from the child initially, but later develops a deep affection for the boy, who the family names Kartikeya.
The idyll comes to an end when his Muslim mother comes to claim him. The shocked family returns the little boy to his mother. Chaturvedi immerses himself in stern penance and rituals to cleanse himself from the 'sin' of having given refuge to a Muslim boy. Finally at the end, when riots break out between the two communities, he realises that religion is not just a matter of rituals but of “unity and brotherhood”a message that he conveys to the militant forces. In the final frame he walks back home hand in hand with Karitkeya.Talking about her debut film in her note, Bhavna goes on to add, “ The Vedas (Hindu scriptures) prescribe 'Manavta Paramo Dharma', which means that humanity is every Hindu's prime duty. It can also be interpreted asHumanity is the only religion.”Hard to believe but “Dharm” is Bhavna's debut film. While not a box office hit, the film has received rave reviews from critics and film media alike. In fact the film won accolades overseas as wellwhen it was screened at the closing ceremony of the World Cinema Section at the Cannes Film Festival (2007).
The film is remarkable also for its study of the status of women and narrowminded views to keep them in a state of subjugation. A young woman (ably played by Hrishita Bhatt) is severely treated for her 'misdemeanor' in falling in love with a foreign photographer. The man is badly beaten by her brother for his relationship with the girl. When her tolerant, but religious father consults Pandit Chaturvedi on what he should do next, the latter suggests that she should be married off quickly to a suitable Hindu boy. Eventually she elopes with her boyfriend and the two get married. But their travails do not end there as communal frenzy takes over and the photographer gets killed. The distraught daughter comes home but is never allowed to forget that she is a widow and is relegated to a dark, dingy room in the house.
At the end of the film we are pulled out of our comfort zone and straight into the violence ridden world of today where deep schisms on caste, religion and gender lines have torn apart the very fabric of our society. More films like “Dharm” need to be made to drive home the message of communal harmony.