Dharm Sankat Mein: Weak writing ruins a potentially powerful film

Dharam Pal (Paresh Rawal) is intelligent enough to see the warts on religions of the world. We are not sure whether he’s agnostic or atheist, but he holds a modern, liberal worldview: he’s okay with his son choosing a bride for himself; his sense of humour borders on the irreverent; and he lives and let others live. But we soon see a hitherto unknown side of Pal when he gets into an altercation with his neighbour Nawab Mehmood Nazeem Ali Shah Khan Bahadur (Annu Kapoor); Pal shouts, “Why don’t you live with your Muslim brothers in a different locality?” This is just one of the many troubling implications in Dharam Sankat Mein: you can be “Islamophobic” and yet, in a way, be liberal.

Pal’s relationship with Islam acquires a new meaning when he gets to know that he was adopted by a Hindu family; his biological father (a Muslim) — whom Pal never met — gave him for adoption when he was four years old. When Pal tracks him down at an old-age home and tries to contact him, he bumps into a cleric who tells Pal to first get acquainted with the intricacies of Islam before meeting his father, because he is a devout Muslim. Pal then solicits Bahadur’s help in order to understand Islam better. Pal, you see, is now no longer indifferent to religions; he becomes strangely protective of his faith (Hinduism) when he discovers the story of his origins. You wonder what triggered such a drastic change in his behaviour: he being a Muslim, or he no longer being a Hindu.

What’s really troubling about Dharam Sankat Mein is that it not only takes Pal’s everyday Islamophobia very casually, but also uses it as a crutch to poke fun at Islam: whenever Bahadur introduces himself via his longish name, we are supposed to titter; Bahadur teaching Pal the nuances of Islam are, again, materialised through lines that seem to scream at us, “This is a gag; you are supposed to laugh now”; worse, Pal continues profiling and insulting Bahadur just because he belongs to a different religion.

Movie characters need not be likeable or correct, they just need to be consistent with the film’s world. Pal is not, which is why this unexpected, peculiar aside of his appears designed to fulfil a rather unsavoury end. These scenes could have been funny and, hence, worked if Pal and Bahadur weren’t merely acquaintances or if the film treated them as equals — but that’s not the case here. Moreover, in most of their exchanges, Bahadur is strangely deprived of an agency, almost never reacting to Pal’s gratuitous taunts. Most “jokes”, in that case, appear to function outside the film’s narrative — they don’t aid our understanding of the characters but take comfort in trite, juvenile observations about a particular religion masquerading as trying-hard-to-be-witty one-liners. It’s only a little later that Fuwad Khan, Dharam Sankat Mein’s director, begins taking digs at the many idiosyncrasies inherent to Hinduism as well. In fact, if the intention was to show the pointlessness of all religions as opposed to point out the whims of a religion — and given the film’s climax, it’s clear that Khan was aiming for the former — Dharam Sankat Mein could have benefitted from Pal and Bahadur’s banter but, instead, a strange power equation between the two deprives the film of sequences that could have made this movie an unsparing, relevant satire.

Dharam Sankat Mein, however, does touch on a lot of pertinent issues: the interplay between identity and religion, our deep-seated fears of accepting anything unfamiliar and the importance of independent, reasoned thinking. But the film’s let down by an inconsistent protagonist, really bad acting (Rawal and Kapoor do shine in parts, but Naseeruddin Shah is embarrassingly loud and bad, so is Rawal’s onscreen son) and uninspired writing that lacks detail and just fixates on being funny. Films like Dharam Sankat Mein can further the discourse on religion and tolerance in our country — something that’s much needed — but not by being contrived or preachy.

An edited version of this review was published in The Sunday Guardian.

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