In the film fraternity it is being considered whether Indian cinema is experiencing a ‘new wave’ of film-making away from mainstream aesthetics of box-office pamperingformulas. Directors such as Anand Gandhi, Ritesh Batra, Q, KanuBehl, Gurvinder Singh, Neeraj Ghaywan among many others are trying to explore a distinct cinematic idiom driven by certain depth of content and its presentation. While it is still early to conclude whether we have a comprehensive dialect forming, a thread connecting these varied projects is clearly noticeable: all of them emerge from keen observation of present social milieu. This imparts the characters and situations with profundity and a sense of realism (notwithstanding Q’s avantgarde approach).
Bikas Ranjan Misra’s debut feature Chauranga achieves this quality on many levels, the first being the director’s ambitious choice of caste politics and violence as the theme. Talking about the portrayal of caste issues in Indian cinema, memories of Franz Osten’s AchhyutKannya, Bimal Roy’s Sujata, Shyam Benegal’s Ankur or the more recent NagrajManjule’s Marathi film Fandry cross our minds. But while recent movies such as Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan and Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court do broach upon the matters of caste, the treatment is fleeting. Perhaps Indian cinema got too caught up in nation building issues post independence and class readily became the go-to topic for film making.
Misra presents caste based atrocities point blank, causing tremors in our conscience,to remind us that it is not something we can talk about as incidents of past but heinous present day malaise. For this Misra revisits his growing years at Hazaribagh in Jharkhand where despite hailing from an upper caste family, he was witness to caste discrimination and empathised with the alienated condition of the victims. Thus after toiling over the script under the mentorship of Marten Rabartsat Screenwriter’s Lab (2010)run by NFDC and several awards at different film festivals later, Misra offers a poignant and stirring work in Chauranga.
Taking off from a newspaper report about a Dalit boy in Bihar being killed for writing a love-letter to an upper caste girl, the story follows Shantu, played by Soham Maitra, in the trepidations he feels for the daughter of the local zamindar, Mona. So while an incident in Bihar triggered in the director the urge to write the story, he fell back upon his understanding of power politics in his native village in Jharkhand, went on to shoot in parts of West Bengal and Odisha and refrains from putting a name on the locale in the movie. The social relevance of his theme readily established at it cuts across space and boundaries, all that was required was compassionate handling of the story.
This is where Misra’s carefully chosen cast which is an exciting mixture of established names and promising youngsters step in. Tannistha Chatterjee as Dhaniya, the feisty mother of the protagonist, Ridhi Sen (popular as the Kahani boy) as the worldly-wise elder brother of Shantu and Maitra himself in the garb of the dreamy-eyed teenager aspiring for education to better himself, render a unique bond of love and camaraderie on screen. The exchanges between Bajrangi and Shantu, when he teasingly unfolds before him the wonders of a love letter are endearing, though the scene where Bajrangi enlightens Shantu about the development of breast seems annoyingly stretched.
This is in contrast with the affluent but broken lives of Dhaval (the rugged, rustic look undoubtedly becomes of Sanjay Suri), the atrocious and patriarchal zamindar of the village, his educated but hapless and neglected wife Nidhi (Arpita Chatterjee) and their docile daughter Mona (Ena Chatterjee).Dhritiman Chatterjee as the licentious blind priest and Angshuman Jha as Dhaval’sa assistant also play their bits quite fine. But as the film tries to focus equally on all the primary characters, the distribution may seem a little cluttered if not fully-explored.
Misra shows his flair as a writer through the rich texture of details and intricacies in character sustained throughout the span of the movie. The binaries of powerful and powerless, oppressor and oppressed are not watertight. So while Dhaniya must perform menial tasks in the cow shed if the zamindar to sustain herself and her two sons, she is a liberated woman in terms of the choice she makes. Living alone with two children without any husband or male protector, Dhaniyais engaged in an illicit affair with Dhaval and exercises enough control over him to ensure funds for his boys’ education. From the exterior she might seem as simply the oppressed but then she makes her way through the society, even among the Brahmins and exudes a certain sexuality. Dhaval on the other hand, is weak and hypocritical, himself oppressed as he exercises dominion over others. He tries his best to keep his autocratic rule intact through petty manipulation even as democracy has set in with the elected panchayat. Perhaps he was in love with Dhaniya, given his mental and physical collapse after her death, but must take the sacred thread off his body before the liaisons in the cowshed.
The film is laden with beautiful symbols accompanied by an evocative background score of folk tunes. The killing of the pregnant pig Motki serves as the greatest premonition of the tragic fate Shantu and his family would meet. It might seem that through the course of the movie, the action doesn’t culminate into any particular heightened climax and the plot abruptly rolls into the conclusion where Dhaniya gets killed by a snake while making out with Dhaval on a hay stack and Bajrangi gets bludgeoned to death. But that is perhaps because the real tragedies in the lives of the Dalits in India barely get noticed and that boys like Shantu simply disappear in the expanse without any commotion.