Nagesh Kukunoor’s Dhanak, set in Rajasthan, is the story of a boy named Chotu (Krrish Chhabria), who turned blind from malnutrition. His parents are dead. Dhanak is the story of his sister (Hetal Gada), who looks after him. She even fails her exams so that she can be in his class, helping him. Dhanak is the story of their kind but ineffectual chacha (Vipin Sharma), who brought them to his house when their parents died. Dhanak is the story of their chachi (Gulfam Khan), one of those women who have turned bitter because of a husband who thinks with his heart rather than his head. Now, there are two extra mouths to feed, and he doesn’t work. He makes matters worse by taking the kids to movies on quaint camel carts (you can sense international film-festival audiences making a mental note to call their travel agent) – movies cost money, money they don’t have. The chachi’s anger is probably the anger of being the only practical person in a family of dreamers. Which is why she wants Chotu to learn Braille. Which is why she wants the girl to give up school and work in a farm. It’s a grim tale.
Kukunoor turns it into a Grimm fairy tale. He names the sister Pari. The chachi, shorn of complexities, becomes the wicked stepmother. Pari and Chotu are besotted with Bollywood’s fairy tales, starring Salman Khan (Chotu’s favourite) and SRK (Pari’s) – and Pari begins to believe that SRK can engineer a fairy-tale ending, by restoring Chotu’s eyesight. When Pari and Chotu set out to meet the star, who is shooting in the state, they meet guardian angels, a blind witch with magic stones (“chaaron taraf jadoo hi jadoo hai”), an ogre in disguise, and a mad prophet who steers them (literally, for he holds a steering wheel) towards their destination, where the titular rainbow lies in wait. Kukunoor’s India, too, is a magical land, bursting with song and colour, even if many characters look like they’ve dressed up for a fancy-dress competition. The kids’ school has pillars painted saffron, white and green, and Chotu’s birthday falls on… October 2. Make of that what you will.
You’ll like this movie if you have a sweet tooth. I’m not just talking about the kid Pari and Chotu meet along the way – he starts a very funny conversation about a Gulzarian house whose floors and walls are made of jalebis and rasgullas. I’m talking about the cuteness of it all, beginning with the adorable Chotu, who’s shot in relentless close-ups, all the better to show off his two prominent wabbity teeth. His appetite becomes the basis of a running gag. A friend in school complains, cutely, “Dekhta nahin, par dabba saaf kar deta hai.” Everyone’s nicer than nice – the postmaster who allows Pari to mail letters without stamps; the Californian with the magical ability to prevent Snickers bars from melting in the desert heat; and Pari herself, who doesn’t scream at her chacha when she discovers what happened to her letters. There’s just a gentle rebuke. Even the bad guys are quickly dispensed with, waved off the screen with a magic wand.
The children – especially Gada – are so winning that we stay interested in their journey even when it begins to meander. They bring to life all the dimensions of sibling relationships: love, protectiveness, exasperation, leg-pulling. The scene after the operation, when Chotu toys with the long-suffering Pari’s expectations, is a gem. Kukunoor doesn’t milk Chotu’s blindness for sympathy – the boy is most matter-of-fact about it, and about his parents’ death, the story of which is parcelled out over several scenes. But after a while, I wondered about the wisdom of eschewing sentiment altogether. There’s a scene where Chotu complains that the earthen pot he’s fetching water in is too heavy. Despite his cuteness, this is his life. There’s no running water. But we don’t feel any of this because of the film’s determination to not bring us down. (Perhaps Kukunoor did not want a repeat of his earlier film Lakshmi, where he lingered mercilessly on a young girl’s suffering.)
But couldn’t the supporting characters have added other shades? We get a trucker who says he ran away from home when he was 14, a godwoman who says she acted with SRK in his drama days – but these characters come and go too quickly to matter. But it’s hard not to root for these kids, or for Kukunoor, who hasn’t really found his groove after his Iqbal-Dor phase. In the scene where the children watch a movie (Force, if you must know), we see posters of all the big stars. There’s one of Lagaan, one of Dabangg, Om Shanti Om. And somewhere in between, there’s one of Dor. The outsider who’s rubbing shoulders with members of the establishment – that’s a bit of a fairy tale as well.
- Dhanak = rainbow
- chacha / chachi = uncle / aunt
- “chaaron taraf jadoo hi jadoo hai” = there’s magic everywhere
- “Dekhta nahin, par dabba saaf kar deta hai.” = He may be blind, but he sure knows how to polish off the plate.
- Lakshmi = see here
- Dor = see here
Copyright ©2016 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.