Pari (Hetal Gadda) likes to tell stories. She’s a ten-year-old living in a small village in Rajasthan, a world unto itself, disconnected from what lies outside. Pari doesn’t have access to TV or newspapers; she watches films, sitting on a floor with other villagers, on a canvas illuminated by a projector. Her favourite hero is Shah Rukh Khan, who, as we soon find out, figures in all her stories. In one story, he’s a mustachioed Rajput prince, protecting India from the foreign invaders; in another, he’s a film star who, despite being rich and famous, is humble. Pari has no other option but to appropriate Khan and what he symbolises (seeing him as a charismatic actor and imagining him as a good human being), for the reality she inhabits is bleak. Her younger brother, Chotu (Krrish Chhabria), is blind; her aunt, with whom they stay, doesn’t care about them; her parents are dead. And Pari is just ten. Pari doesn’t need the crushing reality of life, Nagesh Kukunoor’s Dhanak seems to suggest; she needs the liberating gift of magic.
One late night, Pari secretly leaves her village, with Chotu, for Jaisalmer, where Khan is shooting a film. A few weeks ago, Pari saw Khan on a poster of an eye donation drive, and believes he can fulfill her wish: restoring her brother’s eyesight. Jaisalmer, however, is few hundred kilometers away and she doesn’t know the way to it. Worse, she doesn’t even have any means of transport. As Pari and Chotu – who is a fan of Salman Khan, and clever and funny beyond his age – keep walking, they bump into strangers who share two common traits with them: they’re pleasant and helpful, and they all have a Shahrukh Khan story to share. (A truck driver wants to meet Khan, but he can’t, as he’s supposed to deliver tomatoes in a few hours; a few villagers recall the time when the star ate their home-cooked food; a god-woman, who claims to have done theatre with him in Delhi, during their college days, asks Pari to say “hello” to him.)
The world of Dhanak keeps setting up curious intersections: the ordinary meeting the extraordinary. When Pari and Chotu meet a group of villagers on a tractor going in Jaisalmer’s direction, they don’t simply ask for a ride; instead, Chotu breaks into a folk song, complimenting a singing man on the tractor. In another scene, Chotu jams with “Douglas Adams”, an American walking the earth to spread the virtues of peace. Later, a madman, an erstwhile truck driver, who walks with a steering wheel held close to his chest, helps Pari and Chotu at a crucial juncture in their journey.
It is entirely possible for a certain kind of viewer – aware of world cinema, someone who values realism, cynicism, and ambiguity in films – to scoff at Dhanak. Because here, for the most part, everything is what it seems: a black-and-white world, devoid of grey. It’s quite clear that Kukunoor intentionally wants to depict a make-believe world, trying to find the larger truths in his story not through realism, but through tropes that teeter close to magic realism.
He doesn’t always succeed though. He seems to be aware of the fact that since Dhanak’s leads, Pari and Chotu, are kids, his film can’t be anything but cute, even in scenes that contradict reality. In an early scene in the film, when Chotu is stripped to his underwear by a high-school bully, he’s later seen through an old man’s avuncular gaze, which imbues the scene with a quasi-funny and cute mood, glossing over the young boy’s humiliation.
Around the same time, Pari posts a letter to Khan, with a one-line address: “Mannat, Mumbai.” For someone as young as Pari, whose only source of entertainment is through select films, it’s quite unlikely that she’d know the name of the star’s house. A board on a road undergoing construction has this: “Go. Slow Men. At Work.” These bits tell us that we’re watching a film set in a village (an ‘exotic’ setting), unfolding through Kukunoor’s – a city slicker’s – point of view. For these reasons, Dhanak, at times, finds itself stranded in no man’s land, trying to shun reality, yet being shackled by it, and, as a result, feels uneven and unfocussed.
Dhanak, however, finds its true rhythm and purpose when the film breaks free from what it should be, and settles into what it wants to be. And this is most evident in a scene in the second half, where an old soothsayer tells Pari and Chotu, “Yeh sansaar poora jaadu se bhara hai. Agar sahi mann se dekhoge toh zaroor dikhayi dega (this world is filled with magic; if you see it with the right mindset, you’ll definitely see it).” Dhanak is, overall, about believing what you want to believe in, finding your own rays of hope and clinging onto them.
At one point, when fortune smiles on Pari and Chotu, she attributes it to Shah Rukh Khan; Chotu disagrees, he says it’s because of Salman. Pari doesn’t argue or fight with him; instead, she says, “Tu apna maan. Main apna maanti hun (you hold on to your belief, I’ll hold on to mine).” It’s difficult to resist and resent a film like Dhanak, which, in these times of increasing cynicism, sincerely hopes and believes in greater good: that we won’t be denied our joys, that someday magic will touch us, too.