Dharam Sankat Mein: Annu Kapoor, Paresh Rawal are the stars of this brave but flawed film

When you go to watch the first show of a not-so-big film at a multiplex, it’s difficult to predict what lies ahead. You could be the only one in the audience (been there, done that) or you could be rows away from a couple whose attention is on off-screen action (been there, ignored that). You may be surrounded by those friends and family of the cast who weren’t near or dear enough to qualify for a special screening, but are nevertheless fuelled by an intense sense of loyalty to watch the film.

At Dharam Sankat Mein’s first show in a central Mumbai multiplex, none of these scenarios played out. The auditorium was one-third full, which is a respectable enough showing, and the audience was neatly divided between thoroughly old people and absolute kids. What they had in common was their intention of starting Friday with a few laughs, which the film delivered. When the film got a little boring, the kids started having loud conversations and I’m happy to report that thanks to Rishabh’s intervention, Satish has apologised to Anahita and promised to not do it again (what “it” is remains a mystery that I don’t wish to solve).

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Courtesy: ibn live

And at the end of the film, when the laughs had more or less dried up and Paresh Rawal performed his version of John Lennon’s “Imagine”, the kids started clapping. Someone chirruped loudly, “Well done, Paresh! Awesome chhe!”

It’s not quite the reaction that most critics would expect because Dharam Sankat Mein’s end is distinctly predictable and post-interval, the film feels far less engaging. Yet, the bearer of the chipmunk voice was right on the money, which is why everyone joined in to applaud the film. Well done, Paresh Rawal indeed, because getting both teenagers and cynical 40-year-olds to cheer on your behalf isn’t easy.

Dharam Sankat Mein relies upon Rawal and Annu Kapoor to win over the audience and distract them from details like a weak supporting cast, uneven pace and loopholes in logic. Rawal plays Dharampal, a barely-observant Hindu who loves Bhangra pop, runs a catering business in Ahmedabad and is a happy, family man. His son, Amit, is in love with Shraddha, whose family are devotees of a Hindu godman named Neelanand Baba (Naseeruddin Shah). Amit begs his father to pretend to be a bhakt so that Shraddha’s father will agree to their marriage.

Just when this happens, Dharampal discovers he is adopted. Not just that, his biological parents were Muslim. Dharampal is shocked and although he wants to find out more, he can’t bring himself to tell his family. With the help of his neighbour Mehmood (Annu Kapoor), Dharampal learns his biological father is alive and locates the sanatorium where his father now lives. However, the resident imam insists that Dharampal learn about being a Muslim before meeting his father.

And so it is that Dharampal finds himself being given a crash course in Hinduism and Islam, all because of love.

As might be obvious, this is not a particularly realistic premise for a film. What makes Dharam Sankat Mein poignant, touching and engaging, despite the absurd plot twists, is Rawal’s performance. His Dharampal is an average, uncomplicated man —likeable, well-intentioned and just as politically-incorrect as the guy next door (provided your neighbour is an upper class Hindu). He doesn’t hesitate to make sweeping statements about how Muslims are unreliable or inclined towards violence, but even as he dishes these lines, you can see there’s little malice in him. They’re thoughtless sputterances, uttered because it’s considered socially acceptable to speak like this about Muslims. Too many of us have said such things and been as unapologetic as Dharampal because, like him, we don’t know how we sound.

Giving Rawal a run for his money is Annu Kapoor. His Mehmood is pompous, frequently ridiculous and articulate enough to point out what it feels to be a minority, and a Muslim. Mehmood and Dharam’s relationship is a charming, heart-warming bromance. The actors balance each other beautifully too. Rawal’s dry, sardonic wit is nicely contrasted by Kapoor’s more flamboyant portrayal of Mehmood. The best parts of Dharam Sankat Mein are Kapoor and Rawal’s scenes together.

Dharam Sankat Mein has many, many flaws, not the least of which are incredible plot twists (particularly at the end) and the ghastly performances delivered by the actors playing Dharam’s wife and son. While it keeps the audience hooked until interval, the second half of the film meanders into listlessness and struggles to keep up the energetic pace it had initially.

Yet for all its weaknesses, Dharam Sankat Mein is a bold film whose courage is particularly applause-worthy because the film doesn’t make an exhibition of it. Director Fuwad Khan has chosen to make a film about Hindus, Muslims, religious intolerance and minority status. He’s set it in Ahmedabad, and snuck in a few bottles of alcohol. So much for a dry state (though if this means having mosambi-flavoured Scotch, this writer may have to drown herself in chhaas).

And through it all, what you notice isn’t so much the rebellion as much as how much fun Dharam Sankat Mein is. There’s a lot being said in this film. Some of it is through suggestion and some of it is done bluntly. However, at no point (does Dharam Sankat Mein become either a manifesto. Khan doesn’t lose sight of the basic reason we go to watch films: because we’d like to have a good time. Perhaps that’s why the one time Dharampal does succumb to the indulgence of delivering a sermon, the audience is happy to not just hear it, but also applaud him.

Go and watch Dharam Sankat Mein. It’s not perfect, but it will make you face a few home truths and still leave you feeling happy. Cheers to that!

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