Movie stars, distinctive deities, and steadfast siblings propel the road-movie narrative of “Dhanak,” writer-director’s Nagesh Kukunoor’s slickly produced and pleasantly engaging fairy tale about the long-distance journey of two starstruck youngsters in search of a nondenominational miracle. Winner of the Crystal Bear Grand Prix for best children’s film at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival, this whimsical Hindi comedy-drama may be too contrived and grit-free for some viewers, but others likely will be captivated by a movie that somehow manages to remain light, bright, and family-friendly even while briefly raising the specter of child trafficking.
The plot pivots on the close relationship between Pari (Hetal Gadda), a spirited 10-year-old girl, and Chotu (Krrish Chhabria), her blind 8-year-old brother. Orphaned by tragedy years earlier, they rely on each other for spiritual support while living with their miserly aunt — whose tight-fistedness indirectly led to Chotu’s loss of eyesight — and her husband, a fellow who would need several more centimeters of backbone to qualify as henpecked. The youngsters are able to escape the day-to-day dreariness of their hard-scrabble lives only when they can attend outdoor screenings of Bollywood extravaganzas showcasing their favorite stars.
Chotu is wild about the action heroics of Salman Khan, who is represented here by a film clip in which he dispatches a bad guy by angrily tossing a motorcycle at him. But Pari is much fonder of hunky Shah Rukh Khan, the luminary known to fans as SRK. And she’s even more impressed by her dreamboat after she spots a poster promoting SRK’s campaign to increase eye donors.
When Pari learns that SRK will be filming on location 300 kilometers away from their small village in the desert state of Rajasthan, she’s inspired to run away from home with Chotu and seek out the superstar, hoping there’s some way, any way, he can help restore her brother’s vision. As they slowly but surely proceed to the faraway destination, they rely a great deal on the kindness of strangers — and, in at least two instances, sidestep threats that, truth to tell, appear far less scary than those Dorothy faced during her trip down the Yellow Brick Road. (“Dhanak,” it should be noted, translates as “Rainbow.”)
There are hints of magical realism in places, seamlessly coexisting with more down-to-earth, amusingly edgy scenes demonstrating that, while Chotu is sympathetic and vulnerable, he also can come off as a spoiled, patience-testing brat. At one point, even the fiercely protective Pari is moved to complain: “God, you took away his eyes. Why not his mouth?”
“Dhanak” is peppered with cheeky suggestions that manifestations of the divine can be found in the damnedest places. During a journey attractively rendered by Chirantan Das’ widescreen lensing, the siblings encounter worshippers praying to a festooned motorcycle revered as Bike Saint. Elsewhere, they meet a Holy Mother named Shira Devi (Vibha Chibber) who admits that, way back before she became a professional icon, she worked in a Delhi theater troupe (where she was, ahem, very friendly) with SRK. And while SRK isn’t, strictly speaking, a god, a production assistant makes a killing by allowing fans to snap photos of themselves with their choice of relics: A coffee cup once used by the movie star, or a selfie the PA took of himself and SRK. (Yes, that’s right: They take selfies of a selfie.)
Gadda and Chhabria evince unforced charm and appealing spunk as the two young leads, and they get strong support from well-cast co-stars in vividly drawn secondary roles. (In addition to the aforementioned, Flora Saini makes a strong impression as a nomadic woman who inadvertently saves Pari and Chotu from a fate worse than death.) Real-life Bollywood stars Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan aren’t active participants in the proceedings, but Kukunoor neatly finesses that detail in a satisfying fashion. Call it another bit of movie magic, and you won’t be far off the mark.