Vibrant Vinay was very keen that we watch another film with Naseeruddin Shah in it, so we jumped straight into what turns out to be an Indian remake (or…version, let’s go with version) of David Baddiel’s The Infidel. Neither of us had seen the latter, which is about a British Muslim who discovers he was born a Jew. It’ll have to wait. We basked in the proper joy that is Dharam Sankat Mein, in which a middle-aged Hindu discovers he was born Muslim. Oh yes.
It’s a comedy and played as such for most of the story. It also dips into religious drama, family drama and musical. It’s a tad too long and flags in the middle, but I had a great time watching it. Old Jack isn’t remotely religious (my parents were a mix of Church of Scotland, Anglican and indifferent), so much of the tension was lost on me: not least the jokes about similarities and differences between Hindu and Muslim traditions. But the film is bright, tellingly comic and not shy of making its points.
The star is Paresh Rawal as Dharampal, middle-aged and crusted up in his dislike of Muslims in the world. This extends to petty battles with his Muslim neighbour… Dharampal has a wife and grown-up kids (his boy is looking to marry…) and a shock coming. For it turns out that he was adopted. A comedy trip to the local records office (including a lovely tug of war over his files) and he discovers his birth father was Muslim. More searching and he finds the old man is at the end of life, but the hospital’s Imam thinks the shock of a non-Muslim son could kill the old boy and won’t let Dharampal in until he is convincingly Muslim.
Cue comedy embarrassment and a set of lovely scenes with the neighbour and lawyer, Nawab Mehmood Nazim Ali Shah Khan Bahadur (Annu Kapoor giving good comedy pedant – not least in announcing his name). Rawal, not wildly religious in the first instance, creeps out at night to get trained by the neighbour, donning a cap, learning greetings, heading off to the mosque to test himself and, in my favourite sequence, being mistaken as an impossibly wise old man at a wedding.
The film starts to go awry when Dharampal’s son wants to marry Shraddha (Auritra Ghosh), whose family follows a nut job spiritual baba called Neelanand. Up pops Naseeruddin Shah in full-on character actor mode, twitching (there’s a plot point ahoy) and presiding over his followers in all the accoutrements of a stage musical. With one song. It’s catchy and fun, but, boy, does it go on…
And you can see where the plot’s going, right? Dharampal’s attempt at being Muslim goes accidentally public, things get serious, Neelanand Baba pitches up to condemn the marriage and Dharampal’s family leave him.
I know! Didn’t see that last bit coming.
Anyway, that’s enough plot. Will they come back? Will he be convincing enough to see his Dad? Why do they all go to court? The rest of the film is entertaining if not brilliant. Some serious points land, but rather on the nose, as Rawal is asked to drop the comedy and deliver some do-the-right-thing-whatever-your-religion guff. He gets away with it, but mostly because his performance is warm, accessible and comically bemused throughout.
Dharam Sankat Mein is on Netflix. It has a sensible subtext, but the fun is in the characters, religious contradictions, and crushing of a bigot’s expectations of the world. And how he fights the evil baba… Supported by a lovely cast of urgent character actors, Paresh Rawal gives the film a grace and an energy that makes the final shock well worth waiting for… because middle-aged moments keep on coming…