Dhanak unfolds in one of the country’s largest open-air film sets. This children’s film by Nagesh Kukunoor has all the colours and clichés associated with movies set in Rajasthan. The checklist includes dinky mud huts, bright costumes, bejewelled women, turbaned men, folk-inflected songs, and the other dusty charms of the tourist trap.
As incredible as the surroundings are the adventures of siblings Pari (Hetal Gada) and Chotu (Krrish Chhabria). Chotu lost his sight due to poor nutrition when he was young, and Pari is determined to restore his vision before his ninth birthday. The orphans live with their kind uncle (Vipin Sharma) and nasty aunt (Gulfam Khan), and some of the aunt’s sharpness seems to have rubbed off on Chotu. Like Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman, Chhotu has an unending supply of barbs and put-downs, especially when it comes to the choice of screen heart-throbs. Pari adores Shah Rukh Khan, while Chotu is the Salman Khan type.
Where would Indians be without movie mania? It’s Shah Rukh Khan who inspires a road trip across Rajasthan’s sun-kissed landscape. Chasing a poster for eye donation that has been endorsed by the actor, the kids set out on a road trip to a place where Khan is supposed to be shooting his next movie. En route, they meet their shares of angels (Vijay Maurya), good-hearted witches (Flora Saini, Bharti Achrekar), ogres (a child-trafficking gang) and one foreigner (Chet Dixon), who is the excuse for a fusion version of Dum Dum Mast Qalandar.
Kukunoor, one of our original indie talents, has not been able to hit his mark since Iqbal (2005) and Dor (2006). His new release, based on a story by Yusuf M Shaikh, is better realised than his other recent productions, but it is simply too cheerful and unconvincing to work as an Indian avatar of Iranian movies that feature adorable children grappling with adult problems.
Dhanak actually closely resembles the productions of the Children’s Film Society of India in its cuteness, the easy resolution of the occasional perils faced by Pari and Chotu, and its determination to produce the rainbow moment that the title has promised. As is typical in movies in this genre, all the adults seem to be barely out of their knickers, and only Vipin Sharma conveys the complexity of the situation.
If the movie works, it’s because of the casting and direction of the children. Hetal Gada is especially lovely as the protective yet strict older sister who knows more than she should for her age. Krrish Chhabria strictly follows instructions to convey his blindness by tilting his head to one side¸ keeping his eyes down at all times, and looking at his toes while he speaks. But his affection for Pari is unmistakable, and their bond guides the movie over its many bumps.