In June of 2007, Taran Adarsh wrote in his review for Bhavna Talwar‘s debut film, “An outstanding film in all respects, this one deserves the highest praise and of course, the highest award.” That film was the thought provoking Dharm, which starred the amazing Pankaj Kapoor, as well as Supriya Pathak, Daya Shankar Pandey, Krish Parekh, K.K. Raina and Hrishita Bhatt. Fast forward two years and the film was recently honored with the highest award in India, a National Award – The Nargis Dutt Award for Best Feature Film on National Integration. The citation read: “For powerfully bringing forth the message that humanity is of much greater value than religion. The transformation of an orthodox and superstitious priest is very beautifully depicted.” I got the opportunity to talk to director Bhavna Talwar and we had a wonderful conversation. I really wish you could have been on the phone with us to hear the passion that comes through her voice when she talks about Dharm and about making films! But instead you can enjoy her walk down memory lane about Dharm as she shares some great stories.
First, congratulations on winning the National Award. What does winning the award, especially the Nargis Dutt Award for Best Feature Film on National Integration mean to you?
It was an exceptional experience. Honestly, after what I had been through with the film, I was quite sure that, if this is an honest and fair jury, that we did stand the chance to win the award. When I was told that we won it I was ecstatic, I truly was! It was like a catharsis for me honestly.
Let’s talk about the film Dharm. What prompted you to make it?
The story was not written by me, it was written by this woman called Vibha Singh. Vibha had come to me with this story and the context of the story, the whole communalism is what really got me and the fact that such a large statement was being made through such a simple, basic story of a man and his son. That was what really excited me about the film and the moment she gave me a 2-line narration of the idea of the film, I knew that this was the film I wanted to make.
Wow! Since this was your debut film were you nervous to take on something that was risky or were you just ready to do this?
No, not at all. There was no element of nervousness in terms of the subject that I was dealing with. As any first time director, I of course was nervous that I hope I can do justice to a film like this, but I was not at all concerned whether this is the sort of film I should make. Is this a risk to my career? No, not at all.
What kind of research goes into making a film like Dharm?
The film makes a comment on communalism from the point of view of a Hindu priest. The fact that the priest is so staunch in his belief, he knows the Vedas, the scriptures inside and out, only enhanced what we were trying to say with the film. The biggest challenge for me in terms of research was to be able to get his mannerisms right. How does a priest’s day start and end, how does he pray, how does hold a diya, how does he ring the bell. All these details were something that were quiet alien to me. Honestly, the first trip I made to Benares in my life was when we decided to research the film, which kind of worked to my advantage because I looked at it from an outsider’s perspective. So, all the smaller nuances I might have taken for granted had I lived that life, you know, kind of stood out for me and I noticed those small details. That was one of the biggest challenges that I made sure I kept the pandit’s character, his mannerisms, his daily routine right.
In addition to that, I also wanted to understand from the context that we have been fed through the media – whether that context was right. So Vibha and I went out and we spoke to a lot of people and there is a an element of ghettoism in Benares. We went into the primary Muslim areas and we went into the primary Hindu areas to understand whether this animosity that we are constantly being fed – does it really exist? Just to get an idea of the reality of the situation. And I was happy to find that the average population in the country does not believe any animosity exists. They understand the fact that this is politically driven, ruled by politics. They understand all that. What is really unfortunate is even with a very intelligent electorate, that despite knowing that, it is very easy for people to incite us into violence. When I first learned that okay, we don’t feel any animosity – then I felt okay, do I really want to make this film and create an issue out of something that doesn’t really exist and then be giving it more importance than it deserves? But then when you evaluate the reality of the situation and you say yes, there are people who indulge in this violence. There is a reality to that. I must address it. I must talk about it. These were a few elements that went into the research of making the film.
You cast Pankaj Kapur in the main role. How did that come about?
You cannot go to Pankaj-ji with a half-baked story line, he’ll rip it apart. He is known for his short temper, and this is my debut film and I went to present the idea to him and I can never forget the visual when I walked into his office the first time. It was broad daylight, yet the curtains were drawn. There was this old wooden table, a large desk with a lectern on it and his was sitting behind it with a lamp turned on and smoke billowing out of his cigarette. He looked up through his spectacles. This could be a very, very clich