Nipun Dharmadhikari’s Dhappa is very hard to resist. The Marathi-language movie fires its dual-toned message of inter-faith tolerance and the need for free speech over the shoulders of children. This approach has advantages and disadvantages. The film is spilling over with the kind of knee-high talent that leaves the grown-ups in the room far behind. But by choosing non-adults as the vehicle of progressive values, Dhappa runs the risk of reaching for simplistic solutions to the deeply complex realities that have riven India in the recent past.
Despite this, Dhappa often hits home in minor and major ways. Dharmadhikari’s talent shines through in his superb handling of his child actors. Girish Kulkarni’s screenplay has patches of avoidable earnestness but also vast tracts of conversational wit and wisdom. The feel-good drama persuasively recreates an idealised vision of childhood, unspoilt by adult prejudice and intolerance and filled with tenderness and hope.
The 115-minute movie is set in a posh housing society in Pune, where the closest thing to an act of violence is the unsanctioned plucking of a custard apple. Like the adorable terrors who ruled the stairwells in Mani Ratnam’s Anjali (1990), the children in Dhappa are firmly in command. In a winning opening sequence that sets up their camaraderie, a ride from school to home becomes an excuse for a water bottle fight.
Other sweet reminders of school days are the discreet eyerolling that greets adult shenanigans and the creation of a secret language that isn’t meant to be understood by grown-ups. But the snake soon wriggles in to disrupt this Garden of Eden, where even the watchman’s son is welcome to play with his wealthier counterparts. A resident’s attempts to stage a play about the importance of conservation for the annual Ganpati festival attracts the wrath of the Right-wing Mahashakti party. The stage production during a Hindu festival will not do since it features Jesus Christ as an early advocate of ecological protection. The party’s goons breach the housing society gate and brutally bring along with them the problems that have been facing many other Indians.
As the adults shrink back in fear, the children are distraught, especially the one who has been cast as Christ and sees the role as the one thing that stands between anonymity and fame. Led by the wheelchair-bound and preternaturally wise Suhrud, fondly known as Hawkya (a tribute to Stephen Hawking), the children get to work, producing a solution that causes both lumps in the throat and creases in the forehead.
Dhappa is ambitious in its attempts to prepare the young for the world that they will find outside their gates, but equally timid about confronting the full blast of the consequences of the violence unleashed by the Mahashakti goons. The movie gets unwieldy and unconvincing in its later portions, and could have benefitted from hard-hearted trimming of ome scenes. Yet, the momentum is carried along by the superb ensemble of young actors (Akshay Yadav and Sharavi Kulkarni are especially impressive). Every one of them seems unaware of the camera, and they collectively contribute to numerous fuzzball moments.
Like the children in To Kill a Mockingbird, who can see the world for what it is and what it needs to be, the young ones in Dhappa have no places in their innocent hearts for hatred and divisiveness. It is never as easy as Dhappa tries to show, but there is no harm in dreaming either, the movie recommends. This fairy-tale suggests that childhood is the best place to purge the soul of ugliness. The argument is as hard to resist as the parade of cute kids who never fail to split the sides or warm the weary heart.