Chauranga is a metaphor for the illusory city which might have any name and might exist in any part of India. It is to this unknown India that debutant director Bikas Ranjan Mishra takes his audience unfolding layers of shock rooted in our caste system that sustains it strength nearly seven decades after Independence. Mishra veers consciously away from the common practice in Hindi cinema where issues of victimization, marginalisation and oppression of the Dalits are targeted mainly to fulfill the cinematic appetites of the dominantly upper class, urban and upper caste audiences.
Red is the colour of blood. Red is the colour of the ink in which a love letter is written. Red is the colour of danger and red is the colour of anger. Even the first rush of water from a newly built bore well is stained with blood. Red is everywhere in the village with its arid fields and the trains rushing through but never halting as there is no railway station. Chauranga spans a rural pocket of the country but covers a vast expanse as it opens on a dramatic note with a train rushing in as a pig is being captured for the kill. The train rushes across, veiling the gruesome scene and when it has passed, we find the killed pig being carried away on a stick probably for a good feast. This catches up later to express the role of a pig in the caste-ridden village. The pig is the only animal the Dalits are allowed to keep because goats and cows are considered to be exclusive to the upper castes. These touches are subtle but are sharp because they are subtle.
Chauranga is a metaphor for the illusory city which might have any name and might exist in any part of India. It is to this unknown India that debutant director Bikas Mishra takes his audience unfolding layers of shock rooted in our caste system that sustains it strength nearly seven decades after Independence. We do not see the city but we can feel its almost tangible presence in the minds of Bajrangi (Riddhi Sen) who comes on an unscheduled holiday to his village from the city and in his fourteen-year-old brother Santu (Soham Maitra) who begins to nurture vicarious dreams of this city where he desperately wants to go to educate himself like his brother.
But Bajarangi and Santu are sons of Dhaniya (Tannishtha Chatterjee) who is Dalit and can hardly feed her sons much less educate them. Bajrangi is able to go to school because his education is funded by Dhaval (Sanjay Suri) as price for sexually abusing Dhaniya after her work in his cowshed is over.
Dhaval is the village landlord who has fallen on bad days financially but wields his muscle power through his lost glory, his high caste and the two goons he feeds and supports to bash up and kill as and when and mostly, no one knows why. Dhaval has no compunctions sleeping with Dhaniya but he does not allow her son Bajrangi to touch his feet. When a Dalit boy falls into a well as one of Dhaval’s goons beats him up for wandering in front of the temple, Dhaval decides to seal the well and dig a bore well that spurts blood when the bore well is inaugurated with great pomp and show. No one utters a word and no one even asks what happened to that poor boy.
Chauranga is a scathing indictment not only on casteist politics that consolidates the power of the upper castes and the vulnerability of the Dalits but also subtly points out that it is not just the Dalit who is under constant threat to his life but also the woman, never mind her caste or status. Nidhi (Arpita Chatterjee) is Dhaval’s wife who hardly talks, goes about her chores like a robot but is anxious to have their daughter Mona (Ena Saha) educated so that she does not suffer the fate of her mother. Dhaval does not even touch his wife.
Dhaval’s mother (Swatilekha Sengupta) is another robot reduced to her rituals and to serving the blind priest who performs the poojas in Dhaval’s home. When Dhaval falls ill, Nidhi, robot-like, decks herself up and as if in a ritual, walks down to the priest’s small room to offer him her services so that her husband is cured and neither her mother-in-law nor her husband even blink. The other “Dalit” in this scary story is Motki, the pregnant hoe (she-pig) loved and nurtured by Dhaniya and her boys. She is beaten up so badly by the Brahmin priest who is terrified of all four-legged animals except his pet she-goat Kajri leaving Motki to wait for death that eludes her.
Dhaval’s and Nidhi’s only child, the beautiful Mona who rides to school everyday in her scooty is the only person in the entire village who seems to have a semblance of a life without fear. But is she really liberated? The fourteen-year-old Santu who watches her ride to school everyday, has a massive crush on the girl and persuades Bajrangi to pen a love letter to her. Bajrangi agrees after much persuasion and writes the letter with the red refill from his four-coloured ball-pen. When the sick Dhaval chances upon the letter, all hell breaks loose and the cheerful Mona is slapped and beaten and locked up in a room though she has no clue about why she is being tortured so. So much for her scooty rides to school!
Mishra makes no superficial attempt to mystify or glorify the caste schisms as they operate in reality. The two goons of the upper caste, beat up any child they chance upon for the simple reason that the child is a Dalit. The sick Dhaval calls Bajrangi to ask him about the letter because he is the only boy in his community who can read and write. But Bajrangi has a different agenda. He asks why his mother has not come back from work and is missing for two days. He is not only beaten up very badly but Dhaval sets his two goons after him till in a dramatically electrifying climax, Santu manages to run away by jumping onto a running train that might take him to Chauranga. Caste politics wears different colours and is not confined to red is what Mishra elaborates through the film.
One finds the two brothers eating from the same plate showing that the mother cannot afford to serve them fully and probably does not have two plates to serve them in or there is no water to wash the plates. Santu loves Motku and is more angry than sad when the hoe is beaten up badly and is determined to avenge the beating. He is a rebel and neither Dhaval nor his goons care for his rebellious nature
The acting is outstanding beginning with Arpita Chatterjee who lives the part with her silent anger followed by the two boys who engage in happy camaraderie on the tree-top and at home demonstrating a bonding that has coped well with poverty and hunger. The minimalistic music rightly plays second fiddle to the drama and the dialogue while the camera works its magic as we watch with bated breath, Santu peeping through the bushes to watch the goings on among the people he hates and then capture Bajrangi’s killing with a stone by one of the goons in a deliberately blurred and out-of-focus long shot.
The caste dynamics in Indian cinema began with Bombay Talkies Achyut Kanya consolidated many years later by Bimal Roy’s classic Sujata. Nearly 20 years after Sujata, Govind Nihalani shook us out of our sluggish complacence with Aakrosh which cut across class, education and status to unfold the brutal torture of even those who dared to back a wronged Dalit whose wife was raped and killed by the upper echelons who framed the husband for ‘murdering’ his wife. Prakash Jha’s Damul is another example. More recently, we have been witness to very big budget, lavishly produced films like Aakrosh and Aarakshan in which the shimmer and the glamour bit into the caste paradigm blunting it almost beyond recognition. These films get raving reviews and win awards at national and international film festivals but do not change the status quo of the upper-caste mindset about the Dalits in the slightest way.
Mishra veers consciously away from the common practice in Hindi cinema where issues of victimization, marginalisation and oppression of the Dalits are targeted mainly to fulfill the cinematic appetites of the dominantly upper class, urban and upper caste audiences and therefore, Dalit issues are designed to cater more to box office values than to expose realities of their existence where living itself is in constant threat and everything else comes later. This small, crowd-funded film has become big by virtue of its rich story and richer way of telling the story in the language of cinema. Thank you, Bikas Mishra for hitting the nail rightly on the head. But will it make a dent into reality? No one knows.
Read interview of Bikas Mishra – ‘I Consider Myself A Writer First’: Chauranga Director Bikas Mishra
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