The tone of Nipun Dharmadhikari’s Dhappa is set in the very first scene, when a schoolgirl tells an auto rickshaw driver not to use a mobile phone while driving. Soon after, the young protagonist, Akash Kamble’s Surhud, educates his driver about judicious fuel consumption. Early into the Marathi movie, it’s clear that the children in Dhappa’s universe are conscientious, informed, determined, and most importantly, innocently optimistic about the world.

This innocence is challenged when members of a local political party vandalise a Pune housing society on learning that a play planned by the neighbourhood children for the Ganesh festival has Jesus Christ as a character. The goons threaten the children and the director (Vrushali Kulkarni) and insist that a play for Ganeshotsav should only be about the Hindu deity. This baffles the teenagers – they can’t fathom why the inclusion of Christ would be contentious given how enthusiastically they celebrate Christmas every year.

Dhappa won the Nargis Dutt Award for Best Feature Film on National Integration at the National Film Awards this year and is being screened in the Indian Panorama section of the the ongoing International Film Festival of India in Panaji, Goa. A theatrical release is also in the works early next year.

Dhappa addresses topical themes such as unity and diversity and freedom of expression and so, “even though the story is told from child’s perspective, it is not a kid’s movie”, Dharmadhikari told Scroll.in.

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Dhappa.

Dharmadhikari started his career as an actor and director in Marathi theatre before branching into cinema as a writer (Nautanki Saala) and actor. His second film Baapjanma was released in 2017, before Dhappa. In the digital space, Dharmadhikari has written the Eros Now show Side Hero, starring Kunaal Roy Kapur, and co-hosts the popular Marathi mock YouTube talk show Casting Couch with actor Amey Wagh.

Dhappa came about when actor-director Girish Kulkarni approached him with the story, which in turn was inspired by a similar incident that took place in a Pune housing society. Dharmadhikari and Kulkarni had known each other since their theatre days. “We are always performing plays together or watching films together,” Dharmadhikari said. “Girish and Umesh [Kulkarni] are like our mentors. So, when he acted in one of my plays, we spent a lot of time together and one day he narrated this story to me and I loved it. And then the process started.”

Girish and Umesh Kulkarni have co-produced Dhappa, while Girish Kulkarni wrote the script with Dharmadhikari.

The film’s theme resonates with the country’s socio-political climate, Dharmadhikari said. “It’s just becoming very difficult to say something or to do something without offending somebody’s feelings,” he said. “This in a way is fine. I can understand somebody gets offended. But at the same time, I do feel that such attacks or condemnations happen even before a film is seen or released. I really don’t understand that how these people know beforehand.”

An example of this, he said, is Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat (2018), which faced delays, attacks and violent protests by Hindu groups based on the apprehension that the film’s depiction of the legendary queen Padmavati would offend the Rajput community. The makers were also forced to change the name from Padmavati to Padmaavat. “I really don’t understand, how this one ‘I’ suited them [the dissenters]. It makes no sense,” Dharmadhikari said. “This is not the sole incident, this happens every time. If somebody gets offended at least watch that thing first and then put your points forth. If it is valid, I am sure some action would be taken against it.”

Dharmadhikari is aware that his film addresses hot-button issues such as religious tolerance and censorship, but that does not concern him. “Of course we are making a statement on the current scenario but nowhere was it explosive or taking sides of one particular community or blaming one community,” he said. “So, I didn’t bother about it”.

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Casting Couch with Amey & Nipun.

Was it hard to direct children, especially on such a complex topic? Not really, Dharmadhikari said. “I had this notion in my mind it would be difficult, but the children were amazing,” he explained. “We auditioned 450 kids for main characters. But the other kids they came with their own character in the film. We really liked some kids and so we built the character around it. It was a quite a long process but fulfilling.”

The crew also tried to make the set less intimidating, “We never bothered to giving them marks or take three steps and stop,” he said. “We decided that let them do whatever they want and will just follow them with the camera. We won’t keep it static, but will keep it fluid like the kids.”

The writers drew references from their childhoods to write a script that reflected the worldview of the young protagonists. They also read a lot of literature about children. “There are such materials available to peep into the mind of the kid,” Kulkarni said. “That is what we tried to in the film. We knew in the very beginning itself that it is not a children’s film.”