Bathrooms play an important part in Dharam Sankat Mein. There is a joke on ghusal-khana – the place and the Urdu pronunciation – between Dharam Pal (Paresh Rawal) and Nawab Mehmood Shah (Annu Kapoor as a lawyer) when the latter is teaching the ways of Islam to the former. Bathroom, like for everybody, is also where you see Dharam Pal in his most uninhibited self – dancing to his favorite song Manchala, free of his family’s religious ways – and it is also where he rehearses his speech to his wife explaining to her the alarming detail he has unlocked about himself a little too late in his life. This discovery too happens, where else, but in an abandoned restroom. Dharam Pal has 5 decades worth of cleansing to do.
Fuwad Khan does some interesting things with this official remake of The Infidel. He situates it in Ahmadabad or to be more in point, the state of Gujarat that’s not been out of the newspaper front pages in more than a decade. For a range of reasons. This makes the whole Hindu-Muslim angle feel very organic even if some situations appear contrived. There is even a great comment on the dry state of affairs. Just when you think Khan is a little too short sighted by bludgeoning in the minority angle, he comes up with the imam character of Murli Sharma who’s trying to forcibly convert Dharam Pal before he could meet his biological father. I can’t remember the last time a film was crying out for a “bad” Muslim character.
The scenes involving Paresh Rawal and Annu Kapoor are among the best ones in the film. They may not be laugh out loud funny but there is an earnestness in these scenes thanks to both the performances that shines through and overcomes the middling material. The first time they both take a drive Dharam Pal only keeps repeating things he’s learned and fixates on Shah’s mention of biological father. The lawyer just listens and offers an invisible shoulder acknowledging the myriad feelings running through Dharam’s mind.
As for the laugh out loud funny ones, look no further than Rawal at his sarcastic best and Naseeruddin Shah at his most theatrical. We have seen Rawal in this role before. The difference is now he’s not the smug guy asking intelligent questions but just a family man caught in a scuffle he did not sign up for. It’s tough to choose his best moments. His rants, him belittling his son to be more forthright, his monologue in a temple where he says his non-vegetarian and drinking habits were just that – habit or hobby – and not his culture. Shah though is a different beast playing the godman who enters in a bike, counts white women among his security guards and has an illustrious past. He towers all over the screen even when he’s simply entering a house and Shah makes it all work. Wonder if Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh could take some lessons from Neel Baba in the charisma department.
Fuwad Khan though meanders towards the end. Suddenly we don’t get those funny one liners, the minutiae involving two well written characters. It’s now a message movie. About religion. About how all of them ultimately lay out the same sermons. The film’s politics were always simplistic but the characters and the dialogs made it work. A film about Dharam Pal and his biological father becomes a film about Dharam Pal and his estranged family. The film ultimately is thirty minutes too long.
(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)