A film with universal appeal…

One of my first articles for Influx was an article about Indian films.  I am certainly no expert, but have long enjoyed these films for a number of reasons.  Here, I am reviewing one that struck me today as having a lot of appeal to audiences both within India and abroad.  It’s rather atypical of the usual Bollywood romance film, as it lacks the usual formula and mood—but it is exceptional from start to finish.

In Dharm, Pandit Chaturvedi (Pankaj Kapur) is a Brahmin priest in India.  As a Brahmin and Hindu scholar, he’s greatly respected by the Hindu masses, as the Brahmins are the highest of the castes (a social class to which you are born and cannot change).  Members of this caste have been considered by many to be next to God–just one or two reincarnations away from reaching Nirvana (perfect enlightenment).  In this position as a scholar, he obeys all the structure and rules of Hinduism–and dedicates himself to being holy–like God’s own agent on Earth.  However, while obeying the letter of Hindu scriptures and being a shining example to his followers, he is a cold and rigid man–with little understanding of the spirit of religion.  For him, it is all rules, regulations and ritual.

Into the VERY ordered house of Chaturvedi comes a big surprise.  His daughter is asked by a stranger in town to keep watch over her baby just for a moment–and the mother never returns to get the boy.  Chaturvedi is initially angry–this child cries a lot and disrupts his meditations and rituals—and his life revolves around these things.  However, he soon grows to like the child and agrees to let his wife keep it.  And, due to the young boys’ influence, over time Chaturvedi begins to loosen up and smile and see his religion in such a rigid manner.

While the home seems quite ideal with the boy, there is a HUGE surprise is in store.  Although Pandit Chaturvedi was told the child was, like him, from the Brahmin caste (and that is why he agreed to adopt it), his mother eventually returns.  This isn’t the only surprise, as he is shocked to learn that she is a Muslim!  Considering how strict, dogmatic and unsympathetic he has been, this really throws this holy man for a loop!  Now he must clean his home, his temple and himself, pray for forgiveness and go on a strict fast to get the gods to forgive him for having an ‘unclean child in his home’!

Although Chatuvedi is able to complete all these tasks to purify himself, he is still very uneasy.  While as a Hindu and Brahmin he SHOULD care nothing about the boy, he cannot help but remember him now that he’s been removed from the household.  And, with religious riots breaking out in his town, he begins to worry about the child’s safety, as many ‘good Hindus’ are on a rampage to rid their town of the hated unbelievers.  What is Charuvedi to do?

This is a wonderful film for anyone—whether they are Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Atheist or whatever.  It has a wonderful universal message—one that is taught without being preachy or heavy-handed.  It also gives the viewer wonderful insights into Indian society today, as it wasn’t that long ago when perhaps a million or more people were murdered after the partition of India into India and East and West Pakistan (now known as Bangladesh and Pakistan respectively) in 1947.  Religious intolerance and anger simmer beneath the surface there—just like in some other parts of the world.

In addition to the great message, the film has excellent production values—with nice acting, music (it takes a little getting used to—but it is fitting) and cinematography.  It’s well worth seeing and would be especially good viewing if you watch it with your teens.  Give this one a try.  And, fortunately, it is available now through Netflix!

Grade: A

Review by Lead Entertainment Writer and Film Critic, Martin Hafer