Anyone who makes therapeutic cinema in choleric times deserves a kudos. Dharm is a film that needs to be made mandatory viewing in all schools across India if we really want to build a secular nation, without giving up on our traditional heritage. More importantly, it needs to be screened — free public viewings — for each and every fanatic organisation that exists within our country and in every communally sensitive town, kasbah, colony. Finally, it should be made compulsory viewing for some of our political leaders — and we won’t take names — who have made a killing out of orchestrated communal frenzy and caste violence.
Dharm is not an ordinary film. Its power lies in the fact that it gives us a progressive interpretation of religion, straight from the head pontiff who has pursued a life of misconstrued religiosity. A respected Brahmin priest, Pandit Chaturvedi (Pankaj Kapoor) has dominated the spiritual landscape of Benares with his strict adherence to the traditional tenets of practised Hinduism. Like all conventional priests, he believes in caste and communal differences and his world almost falls apart when he realises he has adopted a Muslim child. The foundling who became Karthik for him was actually Mustafa, a child lost in the communal carnage that had ripped the city apart. When the child’s mother returns, the Pandit not only hurriedly gives him up, but also undergoes days of penance to purge his home, mind, body and soul, supposedly defiled by the presence of a non-believer.
Is this the true essence of Dharm? No, declares the Pandit, when the city begins to rage once again in the communal cauldron and his followers brandish their sharpened swords in half-burnt colonies. Set against the scenic backdrop of the Benares ghats, the film ends up equating Dharm with its true tenets: the world is one big family; any discrimination on the basis of colour, caste and community is anti-dharm. Pankaj Kapoor towers like a colossus amidst the dying social fabric and what could have been a didactic sermon on spirituality, turns up as uplifting soul curry.
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