What happens when religion and love appear irreconcilable?
You need no background knowledge in Hinduism nor an elaborate understanding of Hindu-Muslim conflict in India to appreciate the profound spiritual exploration depicted in the Indian film Dharm (WSG Pictures, 2007). (Though difficult to translate, the word dharm can be understood as supreme law, divine order, or the conduct that conforms to the principles of this order.)
Set in the holy city of Varanasi, the film revolves around Brahmin high priest Pandit Charturvedi, who lives a life of study, meditation, instruction, and counsel. He has a dutiful wife and a lively though obedient daughter. You learn early on that he has no qualms with the traditional understanding of women’s secondary status or the validity of his elevated status, especially as it relates to his own purity.
A telling scene depicts an untouchable – understood traditionally as the lowest of the low – inadvertently bumping into the priest while sweeping steps that lead down to the Ganges. Though the priest shows no anger and simply returns to the river to purify himself of the defilement, he also pays no mind to the lowly sweeper’s being pummeled by onlookers.
Meanwhile a wandering holy man intervenes to stop the abuse and then confronts Charturvedi, inquiring as to why he did not defend the poor man. The scriptures say, the holy man points out, that “The divine light created by the Lord is the genesis of all mankind." And he asks Charturvedi, "Then how can one man be different from another?” Serene yet resolute, Charturvedi, who is beyond contemplative debates of this kind, gives a gesture of respect, and moves on, saying only that he’s been “blessed ... with the knowledge of the scriptures."
The priest's world of routine and ritual – and of apparent supreme confidence – is interrupted by the appearance of an abandoned baby boy brought into the priest’s home by his daughter. The priest’s wife assures her husband – though this is unconfirmed – that the boy is from a Brahmin family. The priest is hesitant, yet authorities can find no trace of relatives and have no reports of a missing child. And so the baby stays.
Eventually the wife asks her husband for minor assistance, keeping the baby occupied with a rattle for example. The wife effectively cajoles the priest: “You don’t need to touch him.” And in a pivotal scene, realizing no one else is nearby to console the crying baby, the priest picks him up. Things are never the same.
Four years transpire, the baby growing into an adorable boy who is obviously an object of profound adoration by the family, in particular the priest. And the boy, whom they have named Kartikeya, even develops a precocious loyalty and respect for the priest, sitting next to him during rituals and taking pains that the rest of the family is quiet because “Father is praying.”
But the real mother eventually emerges, having been separated from her son in the confusion of a Hindu-Muslim riot years earlier. The mother is Muslim. The boy’s name is Mustafa. Not surprisingly the scene of Kartikeya's separation from the family he's been with for four years is a painful one. And yet the scenes that follow, of the priest, his family, and the entire household requiring ritual “purification,” are equally painful. And for the priest a lifetime of acquired wisdom is brought into question by his experience with the boy, unleashing for him an existential crisis of meaning, a tumultuous internal struggle with experience, duty, reality, and truth.
The spiritual drama within the priest is matched by the milieu of conflict within the city. Hindu nationalists are on a rampage through a Muslim village, and it is into this scene that Charturvedi emerges with new insight.
Through a daringly written screenplay and powerfully acted parts, especially by Pankaj Kapur as the priest, Dharm transcends mere notions of religious tolerance. It penetrates the veneer of cultural differences through what could be called the “divine light” of love. The film’s relevance reaches far beyond the Indian subcontinent.