Quite early in Bikas Mishra’s Chauranga, a young Dalit boy, Bajrangi (Riddhi Sen), bends forward to touch the feet of a village headman, Dhaval (Sanjay Suri). Dhaval — who is called “sahab” by the villagers — retreats his steps, so that the boy’s hands doesn’t touch his feet. It’s a moment of wonderful ambiguity, because we don’t quite know Dhaval till this scene. Is he a liberal, sensitive upper-class man who doesn’t believe in the caste system (which is why he becomes uncomfortable and steps back) or is he exactly the opposite: One who doesn’t want to be touched by someone of a lower caste, even if that gesture is a mark of respect? We soon find out that Dhaval is having an affair with Bajrangi’s mother, Dhaniya (Tannishtha Chatterjee), who works as a maid at his house. But this is not a regular affair, for Dhaval doesn’t wear a Janeu (a sacred thread of Brahmins) during his sexual escapades; he also doesn’t forget to take a bath after the act, so that he can figuratively get rid of the dirt and return back to his normal self. So Dhaval, as it turns out, is not an exception. He’s the ruler and the rule, privileged and petty.
But Mishra, both in that early scene involving Bajrangi and in the later ones with Dhaniya, doesn’t present Dhaval as the film’s villain; he doesn’t make him obviously ominous. In fact, Dhaval, till a certain point in the movie, appears dignified and polite (in sharp contrast to his uncouth underlings who constantly harass the village’s “untouchables”). And indeed, in this world, Dhaval is not a villain, because discriminating people on the basis of their caste in most villages of this country isn’t seen as a crime; it’s a way of life. It’s this indictment of caste system — quiet yet assertive — that’s the most memorable bit about this film. Chauranga, however, probes not only the inequities spawned by the differences in caste and class, but also the overall nature of oppression and misuse of power. Dhaval, for instance, treats his wife, Nidhi (Arpita Chatterjee), no better than an untouchable. He maintains a considerable distance from her as he lies beside her on the bed (not even facing her most of the time), talks to her in a dismissive tone, and expects her to just discharge the duties of a domestic help. He isn’t exactly gung ho about his daughter, Mona (Ena Sinha), going to school either (even though he’s given her a Scooty to commute). When he finds out that Bajrangi’s younger brother, Santu (Soham Maitra), has written a love letter to his daughter, he slaps Mona and forbids her from attending school any further.
It’s commendable that Mishra doesn’t shy away from the darker, disturbing truths of his film, but, at the same time, he also shows ample anxieties of a first-time director. For a movie revolving around two teenage brothers, Chauranga is largely bereft of mirth and innocence (something that Fandry, a 2014 Marathi movie, centered on a similar theme and story, expertly managed). Sure, there are a few scenes between the two brothers where Santu quizzes Bajrangi about his school in town (“do boys and girls really live in the same hostel?”), coaxes him to write a love letter to Mona, and, in return, gets playfully teased by his elder brother about being smitten and unlettered. But these moments, not as effective as the ones emphasizing the kids’ despair, don’t really lift the cloud of gloom that perpetually hangs over this film. Also, with the runtime of only 85 minutes, Chauranga feels overcrowded with characters and subplots; as a result, the constant intercutting between them keeps reducing the film’s dramatic impact.
Chauranga also needed a much-assured actor to play Dhaval (Suri, who’s also produced this movie, isn’t quite convincing as the immoral, sly village headman who can’t prevent his seamier side to surface), a role that’s pivotal to the film. And, finally, a crucial plot turn in the film’s third act demands a huge suspension of disbelief (not because of what happens but how) — one that’s so shocking, and seems so unreal, that it comes quite close to being manipulative. But in a country where, as recent as 14 months ago, a 15-year-old Dalit boy was burnt alive because his goat strayed into the paddy field of someone from a higher caste, who can really differentiate fact from fiction? Chauranga is earnest and simple (at times, even simplistic), but, at its finest, it is also a heartbreaking account of those whose destinies are permanently tied to, and shaped by, their last names.
Originally published in Firstpost