Pari (Hetal Gada), 10, and her younger brother, Chotu (Krrish Chhabria), 8, live with their aunt and uncle after their parents were killed in an accident. Chotu is blind – though we discover as the film unpeels itself that Chotu wasn’t always blind, that he became that way after becoming ill after being badly nourished, something which could have been prevented. Pari, though, promises her brother that he will regain his eyesight in time for his ninth birthday, that they will see rainbows when he finally can see again. When she sees a poster of her idol, Shah Rukh Khan, encouraging people to donate their eyes, Pari decides to write to him, sure in the belief that he will help Chotu regain his sight.
The village postmaster is indulgent, at first, sending a few of Pari’s letters on. But then he tells Pari’s uncle that enough is enough, he must talk to Pari, and reveal to her what everyone in the village knows – that their aunt has refused to pay for an operation that would restore Chotu’s eyesight. At the same time that she discovers that many of her letters have been left unsent, Pari also learns that Shah Rukh Khan is shooting a film on location in Rajasthan. She and Chotu run away from home; Pari is determined to go find Shah Rukh Khan. She is sure that if she could talk to him, he would help Chotu.
What follows is an incredible journey for these two youngsters. At the heart of it all is the delicate and beautiful relationship between the two siblings. Pari is determined to do anything to help her brother. Chotu – well, Chotu has a fiery temper and a sense of independence, as well as a wicked sense of humour, but his one and only fear is that he will not have Pari’s hand to hold on to. The love of this brother and sister for each other is lovely; so, too, is their constant bickering and bantering. They are true siblings, there for each other, but also willing to scrap and argue, most especially over their choice of film heroes. Pari, as we have seen, is totally devoted to Shah Rukh Khan. Chotu is a die-hard Salman Khan fan, even wearing a replica of the silver and turquoise bracelet that “Bhai”, as he’s known to his fans, wears. In one of the film’s most delightful and enjoyable moments, each morning before they leave for school, Chotu flips a coin. Whoever wins the toss gets to start a story about his or her favourite star. Pari complains that a win for Salman stunts her creativity; Chotu bemoans the inevitable romance track that comes with SRK.
Their journey is filled with wonder and danger, and even a few miracles. On their way, they meet strangers who help them, who watch out for them, and who save them, for not everyone they meet is looking out for their best interest. And almost everyone they meet has a story about Shah Rukh Khan – adding to the film’s charm and humour (and it has plenty of both).
Dhanak is a film with a message – with several messages, in fact – but director Nagesh Kukunoor never allows it to become preachy or maudlin. He’s aided aptly by all the performances in the film – Pari and Chotu’s aunt and uncle could easily have been seen to be evil, but instead, the actors give us enough nuance, which, combined with the excellent storytelling, allows us to accept them for who they are, and to understand that they are not bad people, they just need to learn to do better for the children entrusted to their care.
In some ways, I’m not surprised I so throughly enjoyed Dhanak; Kukunoor also directed two of my most favourite films, Iqbal (2005), about a deaf and mute youngster who wants to play cricket – and there, the brother/sister relationship also forms a strong core; and Dor (2006), a film about the relationship that grows between two women, one Hindu, one Muslim, when they are brought together over a challenging issue.
“Magic is everywhere,” says dadisa (Bharati Achrekar, whose voice viewers may recognize as that of the upstairs Auntie in The Lunchbox), a blind old woman who Pari and Chotu meet on their journey. “Once you see it, all you have to do is reach out and grab some in your fist and swallow it. And then you will see the magic in you.”
Nagesh Kukunoor must have grabbed a whole fistfull of magic, for his film Dhanak is just cracking with it.
(Dhanak opens in India on June 17, 1016, after a strong run on the festival circuit. This review was originally part of the Bollyspice coverage of LIFF2015.)