I mostly watched Dhanak, because the one sentence description made me think it would be a good Shahrukh fan watch. And it was, certainly. He comes off very well in it. But most of the movie is just about the two small children we are following, and their performances are so delightful, that’s what really makes the film. If you have access to American Netflix, it is streaming now, and I highly recommend it.
This movie is about the search for a miracle. Our “pilgrims” just happen to be two small children. And the goal of their pilgrimage, the source of the miracle, is a movie star. But otherwise, it is like any other pilgrimage story, with those who help or hinder them along the way, and the possibility of virtue being rewarded in the end.
It is such a little story. It’s not about trying to be saved from a flood or winning a war, it’s just two little kids who want to go to school together. And they need a miracle to keep her out of the fields and to give him back his eyes.
The whole film hinges on us wanting these two kids to succeed, so it’s a good thing they are such wonderful kids! Good kids without being boring perfect kids. They eat too much, they fight with each other, they are disrespectful to their aunt. But they also are incredibly loyal to each other, and accept cheerfully all the burdens that fate has put on them. And they aren’t contented to just sit around and do nothing to fix the situation either, they are ready to take action and work to achieve their little plans.
All of that is in the script, the backstory and so on. But what really sells it is the child actors, Hetal Gadda and Krrish Chchabria. Both of them manage to look like normal funny kids, not shockingly cute or beautiful, but they also have just this glow that comes out of them that makes you love them. I could see them, either of them, going on to be big stars. Or, I could see them going on to get degrees from good schools and live long happy lives and never appear onscreen again. They were just that right combination of normal and star quality that could go either way.
(I watched this song and I KNEW this little girl was going to grow up to be a star)
That “normal” quality also helps us to accept all the tragedies of their lives without making them feel like melodrama. A different director, and different children, could have played “our parents died, we were sent to live in poverty with our unloving aunt and weak uncle, and the little brother went blind through malnourishment while his big sister was pulled from school at age 12 to work in the fields” as just misery piled on misery, to the point where the audience loses the ability to care. But instead, this was all handled with a very light touch. Much the way children approach these things, as facts of life with no need to agonize over them or live in the past.
And, unfortunately, as they are probably treated in many places in India. I looked up childhood blindness through malnourishment, and it is way more common than I realized! It doesn’t even come from, like, starvation. It’s just not getting enough vitamin A in your diet. You can still be feeding your children enough food to keep them active and energized, but if it isn’t varied enough, they will be knocked down by sickness, and eventually may go blind. And of course the education rates for girls are pretty horrible in basically the entire 3rd world. Well, for all children really, but girls have it harder.
“Pulled from school to work in the fields” sounds so doom and gloomy, but actually we do get a little glimpse of her time in the fields, and it’s not that bad! Her aunt is gently encouraging, teaching her how to do the work. She is surrounded by other women and girls doing the same work. And we don’t see her exhausted at the end of the day or worked to death or anything. The tragedy isn’t what she is doing, it’s what she is missing out on, the chance to spend a little longer learning and developing, a little longer with options open to her, before she is limited down to just the same manual labor she will do the rest of her life, first for her aunt and uncle, then for her husband’s family, then for her son’s.
Nothing is really THAT bad. Her uncle is a little weak and a little lazy, but he has his little jokes with the kids and he takes them to movies. Their aunt is cross all the time and underfeeds them a little. But she doesn’t hit them, she doesn’t throw them out of the house and, as I said above, she doesn’t ACTUALLY starve them. Not, like, trying to kill them by withholding food. Just not going that extra mile.
It is only bad because Hetal Gadda has promised her brother that she will make sure he can see again before his 9th birthday. And, for both children, if she breaks that promise it will be the end of their little world. Hetal could not survive if she admitted that she was unable to do everything she has promised her brother. And Krrish’s whole belief system rests on Hetal being able to fulfill everything she promises him.
For that promise to fail is the worst disaster within their own little world, the one they have built together. This little world that they share seems completely reasonable to me. These kids are, if anything, LESS close than I am with my big sister (for instance, see the whole post I did for her birthday!). We’re adults now, and we still drop into our own little world as soon as we talk on the phone. I know not all siblings are like this, but I don’t think it is that uncommon, to come up with your little games and in jokes and practices as you spend everyday all day together through out your childhood.
(Yes, this sibling closeness does make me a bit of a sucker for Rajshri films)
The bigger disaster, they one they can’t really grasp as children because it is beyond them to fully conceive of it, is what it means for Krrish to stay in school while Hetal goes to the fields. It means they are being wrenched apart for the first time. But this is just the first wrench of many. Hetal in the fields will turn into Hetal being married into another household. And Krrish in school will turn into Krrish in a professional life, moving to a higher class, while Hetal stays back, unable to conceive of his life. It is this break that they can only vaguely see coming towards them, which, I think, provides the final impetus for them to go off and make a final push to arranging that miracle.
And I want to talk about the people they meet along the way and what it all means (I think this is where the importance of the movie fandom really shines through), but that means spoiling for you what happens. So, SPOILER SPOILERS SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER
Hetal and Krrish live with their aunt and uncle, as I mentioned. The opening scene establishes that their home life is less than ideal. Their uncle sits and pulls on his hookah, while their aunt gives them a small breakfast and a tiny lunch, ignoring their complaints. But once they get through the gate of the house and start off for school, they are happy again. They play a game that they clearly play every morning, Krrish flips a coin while Hetal calls heads or tails, Krrish feels the coin to tell where it landed, and whoever wins gets to tell a story about their favorite movie star. Well, they tell the story together. The winner starts, and goes as far as they want, then says “and…..”, and the other continues the story.
Right away, we see that their little games and routines shared between them are the saving grace of their little lives. And that a big part of these games is their relationship with their respective movie stars. Really, Salman Khan and Shahrukh Khan, in this way, are more a part of their “family” then their own aunt and uncle, more let into the secret places of their lives and hearts.
(And if you don’t think kids can build deep connections to onscreen heroes, and the heroes respond, let me just remind you of how Salman’s Sultan daughter was cast!)
It’s good that they have some outside source of strength, because poor Hetal has a lot of balls to keep in the air. She has to get her brother his sight back within the next few months. And she has to manage to fail down two grades so they are in the same class and she can help him. Which is what lands her in the fields, when her bad grades make her aunt decide she is wasting time in school.
But Shahrukh is there for her, she spots a poster of him encouraging eye donation (I think?), and decides that the best solution for her problems is to write to Shahrukh for help. Letter after letter, confidently handed over to the village postman sans stamp with a request for him to send them on. Until the postman has finally had enough and hands them back to her uncle.
This could have been the end. Hetal could have found out that the letters never went off, had a crying jag, and given up. But that would mean her promise would be unfulfilled, and that would be the end of the world. She promised him he would have his sight back, there was no other option. So, instead, she decides that the two of them will walk miles and miles to the film sight where Shahrukh is working and ask him for help in person.
This is their pilgrimage. And it is also the pilgrimage for their bigger family, their aunt and uncle. When they awake to find the children gone, it also wakes them to their bigger responsibilities. Again, they were never cruel before, but they seemed to be holding back from fully embracing the idea that they had to think about their children first, and themselves second. It took a sign that the kids were more trusting and relying on a complete stranger movie star than on their own relatives for their uncle to stop sitting around and go off walking to find them, and for their aunt to cook and pack the very best good for them to eat once he found them.
As is usual on a pilgrimage, most of the people they meet are good people. The sweet merchant who takes them home and feeds them until they get sick, and lets them play with his little son. The local female saint. The white hippie who sings with them. The wild gypsies who tell their fortune. All the way to the hanger on at the film site, selling photos and traces of Shahrukh.
And most of these people have a little connection to Shahrukh. It’s a talisman that lets them make friends of strangers. A way to draw others into their quest and get help along the way.
Well, most of the time. They do run across one source of evil. And, again, it is handled in such a lowkey sensible way that it doesn’t feel melodramatic, even though on paper it is super exciting and also very very evil. One of the saint’s assistants calls ahead and tips off someone that there are two children traveling alone “the girl will bring some money, but the blind boy is the real prize”. Which would have seemed odd to me, except that I happened to have just read a newspaper report on a study which showed that male child slaves are much more valuable than female.
It takes a very stressful long time before they are actually kidnapped. It appears that the white hippie will be the threat, but in fact it is the nice middle-aged traveler with a car who approaches them at the tea stall while the hippie is giving them lunch.
He uses Shahrukh’s name, having been tipped off before, and it has the effect of making the children trust him. They quickly agree to ride in his car and drink his water while he drives them all to Shahrukh’s filming location to meet him. And then they pass out. (this, by the way, is when my sister called me to ask what she should have for lunch, and we had to talk about that for half an hour, while the whole time I was wondering what happened to the poor drugged children!)
And this is the first sign that a higher power is watching over them. Possibly Shahrukh (the ending is a little unclear). A gypsy stops the car, holds it up, scares the kidnappers off, and finds the kids and brings them back to her camp. Is there a “gypsy kidnapping children” legend in India? If there is, I kind of love the subversion here, that the respectable type is the one kidnapping, and the gypsies are the good ones.
There is already a bit of a subversion, because the gypsy was sent by a vision, her grandmother had a dream that there was a reason for her to stop a car coming down the road the next day. Meanwhile, the kidnappers were sent by the corrupt servant of a saint. Clearly, the formal religious figures are corrupted and forgotten by God, while the free living gypsies are the blessed ones, chosen as instruments of God.
Or, of Shahrukh? All along, as I said, this has been treated as a pilgrimage. Not just by the children, but by all they meet. Everyone accepts as completely normal that two little kids would be walking to meet Shahrukh so Krrish can get his sight back. And at the very end, they do get a true miracle. They don’t just meet Shahrukh (or send him a text or a tweet or a message) and ask him to pay for the surgery, which is a real thing that happens to Shahrukh (and Aamir and Salman) on a regular basis. No, they need him, and he appears.
They reach the film site too late, and are told by the hanger on selling photos of Shahrukh’s footprints and cup that Shahrukh has moved on and is filming a few kilometers away, across the sand dunes. They start off walking, only to discover too late that they have left their water bottle behind. Hetal collapses, Krrish walks a little farther and collapses also.
And then, miracle!!! A figure suddenly appears across the dunes, and reaches down and lifts them up. They are whisked away in a car, brought to a hospital where they get the best treatment they want, their uncle shows up too, and Krrish get’s his eye operation! They only see the figure who saved them from the back and a distance. But Hetal finds one of her letters, stamped and processed, lying on a chair in the waiting room.
So, it was Shahrukh. But, it was also a legitimate miracle. How did he know how to find them? How did he carry them back to civilization? How did her letter reach him if the postman refused to stamp it? The way it is filmed, we are definitely meant to see him as a mysterious power that appears when needed.
Clearly, that is how Hetal sees him. Her little child’s mind finds it completely reasonable that the movie star she loves would sense her need and appear when she wanted him, and then give her everything she needed. Sure, an adult could argue that the postman softened and sent off at least one of her letters. That one of the many people they met along the way told Shahrukh of the two children searching for him. That his money and influence could easily arrange a last minute surgery at a hospital. But then, how did he come to find them in the dunes just when they needed him most? There is no explanation for that. Whether it was “Shahrukh-Movie Star God!”, or actual God sending someone to help them, it truly is a miracle.
That’s why this film isn’t for Shahrukh fans only. It’s not saying that Shahrukh is magical and powerful and can fix everything. It’s just saying that you have to have faith that SOMETHING will come, something will help you, and if you work towards that, it will.