Director Shiladitya Bora tackles myriad subjects in his debut feature film, Bhagwan Bharose. Through its two impressionable and easily swayed young protagonists, this is a story about communal violence, misinformation, importance of education, blind faith and the loss of innocence, all dressed as a fable.
In a small village in North India, Bhola’s (Satendra Soni) grandfather encourages his grandson’s passion for flying kites. The young boy and his friend Shambu (Sparsh Suman) are constant companions. They hang around their village well discussing demons, hell, serpents and other mythological creatures. They occasionally show up at a makeshift village school, conducted by a priest uninterested in unbiased education.
At home, Bhola’s simple mother Radha (Masumeh Makhija) and his kindly and god-fearing grandfather Nanababu (Vinay Pathak) tell the boys stories drawn from the epics. These parables get form and greater credence when Bhola’s father Dwaraka (Sawan Tank) returns from Bomaby, where he works, with a black and white television set: The year is 1989, and the weekly episode of Mahabharata on Sunday mornings becomes a community gathering at Bhola’s home. When the electricity is gone for days, the boys pray fervently for it to be restored before Sunday morning. As Nanababu says, in the city, the government is responsible for the functioning of things, but in villages, everything is up to the Gods.
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Dwaraka is keen that his son get a formal education, but when they do go to the government-run school, the children are confused by the difference in lessons delivered by teachers versus those taught at home. Bhola’s explanation of a solar eclipse, drawn from the scriptures and not science, leads to punishment, much to the boy’s chagrin.
Time passes. Around north India, a different rallying cry is getting louder. Hatred is being fuelled. Communal tensions are on the rise. To Bhola’s untutored ears, the taboo region across the river is where the demons—now the enemy—live.
As the story unhurriedly unfolds, cinematographer Surjodeep Ghosh gently captures the village setting, with water bodies, fields and dusty roads. Bora extracts wonderful performances from the young cast, and the seasoned actors offer steady support. As Bhola, Satendra Soni is the standout act, capturing a range of emotions, from happy, carefree and unrestricted to anguished and remorseful. The interactions between Bhola and Shambu form the crux of the film, which lumbers along for a while, setting up several ideas that collide in an expedient climax.
Sudhakar Nilmani Eklavya (also story) and Mohit Chauhan’s screenplay touches on several issues, not least the dangers of ignorance and brainwashing, and the need to responsibly nurture and educate pliable minds.