The cleverest thing about Dharam Sankat Mein, directed by Fuwad Khan, is that title. The plot kicks off when Dharam Pal (Paresh Rawal), a sacred thread-wearing Brahmin in Ahmedabad, discovers he’s really a Muslim. So the obvious meaning of the title is that Dharam is in a sankat, crisis. But reduce his name to a common noun, and it means religion. Hence the other dimension of the title: religion is in a crisis. The film, thus, riffs on the many ways in which both Dharam and dharam are in trouble. Along with Dharam’s attempts to get a grip on his situation, we are given lessons on the communal madness that surrounds us. We are given glimpses of the us-versus-them distrust that exists between Hindus and Muslims. We are told what it’s like to be a member of a minority community, especially whenever there’s a terrorist attack. On the flip side, we are shown how intolerant some Muslims are, how they try to convert people from other faiths. To succeed with all this within the framework of a broad-strokes, Censor Board-friendly comedy isn’t easy. At times, you may feel a more appropriate title would have been Fuwad Khan Sankat Mein.
But first, it’s important to acknowledge the need – today, in an increasingly insane nation – for films like this one, or OMG: Oh My God! (whose DVD is visible in an early scene), or pk. These films use comic frameworks to push forward their sobering agenda – and this is the best approach. Ask Karan Johar, who mainstreamed homosexuality through comedy and did what more earnest-minded dramas like My Brother Nikhil couldn’t. Today, no one bats an eyelid when a gay character shows up on screen, and some of this acceptance has spilled over into real life too. If something similar happens with religion, thanks to these films, then more, please.
Dharam is, in the initial portions, this film’s Kantaben. Despite that sacred thread, he’s not really religious, and when his son falls for a girl whose father is a member of a godman’s cult, Dharam, discovers, like Kantaben thought she did, what it’s like to get buggered by people from the same faith. Is there anyone better than Rawal at playing the lovable cynic? Even if he’s played this role before, he’s so good that he almost convinces us his lines are funny. But they aren’t. This film’s idea of a joke is to name a psychiatrist Dr. Choonawala. Fuwad Khan has no idea how to stage comedy. There’s an attempt at a slapstick chase in an orphanage. We get a man standing in his undies when his pants are pulled down. It’s painful. There’s a bit where Dharam’s wife suspects he’s gay. A director with better instincts would have made this a running gag, letting it build before letting it explode. Here, the whole thing is resolved with a couple of lines of dialogue. I wonder if The Infidel, the British film whose adaptation this is, made these gags work.
The worst scenes are the ones in which Naseeruddin Shah plays that godman. He makes an entry more suited to Rajinikanth – on a motorbike, to the cheering of thousands of fans. But game as Shah is, this is a terribly contrived part headed in the most obvious direction – and the resolution of this subplot is an embarrassment. This is what I don’t get, whether here or in pk. Our godmen are already jokes. Every day you open the papers, and there’s some this-can’t-really-be-happening news about them. How can a movie expect to top this? How can you spoof something that already looks like a spoof?
And when it decides to get serious, Dharam Sankat Mein isn’t dramatic enough. A wonderful Annu Kapoor, who speaks as if rehearsing for a local production of Mughal-e-Azam, plays Mehmood, Dharam’s Muslim neighbour and eventual confidante. We are given the sense of a long-running feud between them, but when Dharam reveals to Mehmood that he is a Muslim, there is instant empathy. Perhaps the point is that Mehmood is so aware of what it is “to be a Muslim” that it doesn’t take much time for him to realise what it must be like for a Hindu “to be a Muslim.” Still, this doesn’t help the character, who ends up somewhat colourless, a little more than a comic sidekick, a lot less than what you’d expect from him as this film’s sole, sane Muslim.
But he does get the film’s funniest stretch, when he begins to school Dharam in the ways of his dharam. Dharam knows little about Islam, and he doesn’t know too much about Hinduism either, so he gets a Hindu tutor too. He keeps mixing up what he learns, which is just another way of saying that there’s not much difference, really, and it doesn’t – and shouldn’t – matter. That’s pretty wonderful coming from a movie whose leading man is a BJP MP.
- Choonawala = con man
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