A couple of years ago, within a post about the song “Lal Meri Pat,” I included a delightful version from a then-upcoming film Dhanak (which had not yet been released widely although it had won some awards in festivals). This version consisted of a duet between a small Indian boy (who appeared to be blind) impressively belting out “Lal Meri Pat” and what appeared to be a stereotypical American hippie singing “Let’s Give Love A Chance,” which obviously was John Lennon’s “Give Peace A Chance” with just slightly different lyrics. The clip (which I have posted again above) was not strictly a video of the scene where this song occurred – although it included some of that – but also a trailer that contained some other vivid moments from the film. When I wrote about this song and video before, I said that the film looked very sweet. And now that I have finally gotten to see the whole movie, I can say that I was absolutely right. It’s the sweetest movie that I have seen in quite a while.
Dhanak is a heartwarming and lively tale of a journey taken by two children, ten-year-old Pari and her eight-year-old brother, Chotu, who are played superbly by actors Hetal Gada and Krrish Chhabria. We can assume, from looking at these actors (and from an interview I glimpsed) that they are just about the same age as the characters, but, remarkably, the performance by these two children is widely agreed to be the best aspect of the film. But Dhanak is also carried along well by good writing and very smooth direction on the part of Nagesh Kukunoor, a lot of magnificent-looking scenery shots in Rajasthan (cinematography by Chirantan Das) and some wonderful music (by music director Tapas Relia, who also wrote the lyrics for “Let’s Give Love A Chance”).
The plot of this movie may at first seem somewhat familiar, but in ways it also turns out to be highly original…
Chotu is blind from an (unspecified) illness that he suffered at the age of four. Pari desperately wants her brother to be able to see again, but everyone knows that the aunt and uncle who are raising them will never pay for the necessary operation. Part of the reason is that the uncle is unemployed and they are poor, but also, the aunt has always deprived the children and probably wouldn’t want to pay for the operation even if they had the money, because she never wanted to inherit these children from her husband’s brother. The real parents died in an accident several years ago (apparently, shortly before Chotu went blind). And since their present guardians aren’t going to help, the children have to find another way, and Pari is the one who comes up with that other way (peculiar though her idea might be)…
Their plan (which I’ll get to in a minute) certainly is different, but I’m sure everyone reading this post who is familiar with Hindi films has been reminded by this point of the basic plot of something else. Speaking for myself, I instantly thought about Nanda’s first movie, Toofan Aur Diya (1956). In that film, it is the older sister (played by Nanda) who is blind (or rapidly on the way to becoming blind) and the younger, child brother (played by Satish Vyas) who takes on the task of getting money to pay for the operation that will cure her. (Mainly, he does this through a ridiculous amount of work and sacrifice.) And these children are orphans too. I seem to recall that in this film there was also an evil aunt who didn’t want to be burdened by them…or it could be that my mind is now drifting to Boot Polish. As I was saying, there are a few old films that Dhanak could bring to mind, but for me, Toofan Aur Diya seems like the closest – which isn’t such a bad thing, actually.
But I think Dhanak does have better actors and more nuanced characters, and it features a strange twist of plot that couldn’t have been seen in such an old movie, because it involves Shah Rukh Kahn… Not, that is to say, a character played by Shah Rukh Khan, but Shah Rukh Khan as a character in the film (whom we never actually see) who provides motivation for the journey.
Shah Rukh Khan is Pari’s favorite cinema hero (while Chotu prefers Salman Khan). And one day, after the siblings attend a movie, Pari spots a poster of Shah Rukh Khan asking for people to donate their eyes (which I would assume – though it’s never specified – is for some charity for the blind that enlisted him as a representative). Pari takes the poster off the wall, contemplates it, and decides that she will write letters to Shah Rukh Khan, asking him to help cure her brother’s blindness. She cannot afford stamps, so she asks someone else in the village to stamp and mail them, and of course, most of the letters are never mailed but actually end up in her uncle’s possession – which she discovers eventually. Other bad things happen in her household – e.g., her aunt tells her to stop going to school because her help is needed at home. Meanwhile, word gets around that SRK is filming somewhere a few hundred miles away from them, so given everything else that is going on, Pari decides to run away with Chotu in tow, in order to reach Shah Rukh Khan and talk to him directly. And so the journey begins…
I don’t feel a need to go into the progression of the journey in too much detail, because it is basically just a road trip – via a few different people’s vehicles and lots of walking – in which they meet various people, most of whom are a bit crazy, and suffer various setbacks, all of which are overcome in one way or another. They do finally reach their destination, where things do and don’t turn out exactly as they had hoped – though whether SRK actually helps them remains something of a mystery. (And let’s leave it at that, because I don’t want to spoil the ending too much.)
Most of the journey is fun and sometimes it is enchanting. It is also refreshing for its lack grimness – especially considering that they are two children wandering across a big area all by themselves and this is the 21st century. There is a moment during the film when they are briefly kidnapped by a child trafficker (who has actually been told by a contact to focus more on the blind boy because he could be a “gold mine” – maybe via lucrative begging?). We in the audience know that this bad thing is going to happen a bit before the main characters do, and when this information came out, I thought it would ruin the film, because the suspense about the impending peril could be dragged out, and then we might have to suffer through a depiction of the peril, itself, and its consequences. There are reasons why, at this point, it brought to mind another somewhat contemporary film – only a British one – called Slumdog Millionaire. But thank goodness, none of that happens. The children are rescued from the trafficker in a very amusing scene involving a woman from a nomadic Rajasthani tribe, who stops the trafficker’s car in high dacoit style by pulling a shotgun out from under the side of her dupatta. And then the two children end up sleeping in a Rajasthani nomads’ camp, get some helpful minor prophecy from an interesting old blind woman (who of course understands Chotu in a special way), and then embark on another leg of the journey.
By the way, there is also another scene in the film in which the children end up interacting with a matriarchal figure who has somewhat religious or spiritual significance to a surrounding community. This makes for an interesting side theme in this movie regarding local matriarchal cult leaders (who perhaps also function briefly as maternal figures that substitute a little for the motherly love and/or guidance that the children have been deprived of). More generally speaking, Dhanak does seem to focus at least somewhat on India’s impressive variety of religions. And of course, not all the religions covered by this film are matriarchal, considering that the best scene involves a popular prayer to the great Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar.
Let’s rewind now and look at that song scene again… The “Lal Meri Pat” scene occurs shortly before the trafficking incident and basically exists apart from every other phase of the plot. It doesn’t really progress the journey aspect of the plot much; it could almost be an item song. But it also happens to be (at least from my perspective) the most enjoyable scene in the film.
And unlike the first time when I posted that song on this blog, now I have a little more information to give about it. The hippie is played by a Louisiana-born actor named Chet Dixon. He is a comedian who does some singing too, and in Dhanak, he sings for himself. The impressive playback singing for the boy’s part comes from Devu Khan – formally known as Devu Khan Manganiyar because he is from the Manganiyar community of traditional folk singers in Rajasthan. He learned all of his singing skills from his parents, who were also folk singers. He probably comes from a very long tradition. But because he has gained praise for his role in a Bollywood film, he most likely will end up with a following well beyond his traditional audience. So, that makes three children whose lives have probably been changed – at least for a while – thanks to the well-deserved praise they received from their roles in this film.
Dhanak is known and praised as a children’s film. It has won several international awards in the children’s film category. But while watching it, I never thought to myself, “Oh, this is pretty good for a children’s film.” Curiously, judging by what I’ve seen, this film displays more maturity in terms of acting, writing, and direction that one might find in many contemporary films made for grownups. I would give it an award for being a very good film, period.
[Above is a complete version of the song “Let’s Give Love A Chance”/”Dam Mast Qalandar” (“Lal Meri Pat”) and the corresponding scene, separate from the other material shown in the trailer. The video is defective, as it includes the entire scene twice, the second time around without sound. Of course, you can stop it in the middle. Or, you can play it again if you want to look at the splendid picturization again and re-read the lyrics. At some point or other, all of the lyrics are subtitled in English, including the English ones.]