Loosely based on a true incident, Chauranga weaves the dark colours that stain and scar the tapestry of a shining India by taking us into a very remote village which still lives in the dark ages into the story of a caste-ridden, guilt-free existence of the high-castes who believe it is their birth-right to oppress, torture and even kill the Dalits with and without reason and it is as if the police does not exist. Dalits are at the bottom of the Hindu caste system and despite laws to protect them, they continue to suffer from death threats from the upper castes everywhere in India.
The Khairlanji massacre case relating to the lynching of four members of a Dalit family in Maharashtra on September 29, 2006 is a case in point followed by the sad judgement that went against the victims. The July 14, 2010, judgment of the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court contended that the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 was not applicable to the Khairlanji case because, in their perception, there was no caste angle to the crime!
Chauranga marks the directorial debut of writer-journalist Bikash Ranjan Mishra and the film has been crowd-funded by Sanjay Suri, Onir and Mohan T Mulani including several co-producing banners including the NFDC. Santu (Soham Maitra) is a growing Dalit boy of the village who is angry because his mother does not send him to school while his older brother Bajrangi (Riddhi Sen) studies in the city. He is too naïve to understand that Bajrangi’s schooling is paid for by Dhaval (Sanjay Suri) who sexually exploits his mother Dhaniya (Tannishtha Chatterjee) who cleans the cowshed of Dhaval’s home. Dhaval is the zamindar of the village now fallen on bad days but who makes his presence felt through his past affluence and present power based on his high caste. He has no qualms about exploiting Dhaniya’s body but does not allow Bajrangi to touch his feet. He allows his beautiful daughter Mona (Ena Saha) to scoot to school everyday but erupts with brutal violence when he chances upon a love letter written to her in Bajrangi’s hand. He beats up the girl and locks her up. He hardly speaks to his beautiful wife Nidhi (Arpita Chatterjee) nor cohabits with her. He has two young goons from the upper caste who jump at every chance to insult, bash up and even kill any Dalit as and when they feel like.
The film is a scathing indictment on the power politics of caste played by the powerful upper-castes who dominate and exploit the powerless, landless and money-less Dalits and discards them when their use is over. The film is also a story of dreams of hopes, where Bajrangi hopes to get into the good books of the zamindar yet raises his voice to question him about his mother’s sudden disappearance. Dhaniya dreams of getting the younger son to school by servicing Dhaval, who is in no mood to send the second one also to a city school. It is Santu who rebels against everything that is happening to people of his clan. A small boy falls into the well and no questions are asked or answered. Santu’s pet pig, Motki, is killed brutally by the blind pandit (Dhritiman Chatterjee), who is terrified of all four-legged beings except his favourite she-goat, Kajari, and as Motki lies injured and hurt but refuses to die, Dhaniya goes missing. Santu has a crush on Dhaval’s daughter, Mona, and persuades his brother to pen a love letter to Mona.
Chauranga however, is not just an indictment on caste prejudice. It also shows the sub-normal anonymity women live within through Dhaniya, a victim of sexual harassment, Nidhi, Dhaniya’s beautiful wife who just exists and Mona, who is given the freedom to ride to her school but is forced to lead the blind priest to his abode late into the night by her father. Dhaniya sleeps with Dhaval in the hope of educating her son but spurns the molestation attempts by one of Dhaval’s goons. Nidhi almost sleepwalks through her life, as if in a trance, ironing her husband’s clothes like a human robot, yet, stripping herself in the mirror, slowly, in anger and in revenge as she prepares to walk into the priest’s den decked up in smudged kajal to offer sex to the priest in the hope of her ailing husband’s recovery. But is she forced to perform this ‘ritual’? Or, does she do it willingly to avenge her adulterous husband’s constant insult and oppression of her womanhood and her identity?
The woman, as the film shows, is a “Dalit” never mind the caste she is born into. Mona does not even know why her father bashes her up, threatens to stop her schooling and locks her up. Dhaval’s mother’s life is a straight line lived in a world of conditioned reflex. The third angle is that of Motki, the pig who seemingly is also a Dalit in practice because she caters to Dalits alone and no one bothers when she is beaten up brutally and left to die. Bajrangi does not have the right even to ask why his mother did not come back from work though we know that she died and her body was cast away somewhere on the railway tracks by Dhaval. The oppression, prejudice and violence runs across generations which comes across lucidly through the violence perpetrated by Dhaval’s two goons.
Bikas’s screenplay has a twist at every turn raising the suspense to a new high at every such turn aided and complimented by the brilliant editing strategy (Irene Dhar Malik) that cuts and sweeps and wipes and jump cuts without the jerks the story entails. The opening frames with a train rushing in from a distance across the horizon and a few minutes later, the rushing train overlapping the killing of a pig is one example. In the closing shots, we encounter a train moving away from the village with Santu on it moving away through a chance realisation of his dreams not knowing that there is no family to come back to.
Bikas dots his screenplay with tiny details that enrich the drama such as Bajrangi showing Santu the sketches from his biology book, or, Santu peeping at the goings on in the night through the network of the bushes and the thorns, or waiting on a branch of a jamun tree for Mona to pass by on her scooter, or, refusing to touch the feet of Dhaval and so on. The cinematography matches the screenplay and the editing frame for frame and one example is the out-of-focus killing of Bajrangi by one of the goons who loves to kill while his partner chases a running Santu along the railway tracks captured in the foreground. The music is muted, low-key and secondary to the action.
Among the actors, the top credit goes to Arpita Chatterjee who infuses her performance with a sense of alienation and aloofness she exudes in every movement, with every facial expression though she performs her duties with the commitment they demand. Following this are the two kid actors who play the two brothers and Tannishta Chatterjee who does justice to her naïve-getting-wiser character of Dhaniya. Sanjay slips under the skin of Dhaval but Ena and Swatilekha are wasted while Dhritiman invests his character with the sense of intrigue it is expected to exude. One disturbing question is – how is Mona allowed to escort the blind priest in the darkness of evening dressed in a sleeveless maxi by her very conservative father? And how is Nidhi permitted to watch the film with the rest of the village, mostly men?
One confusing element of the film is Bikas’s way of leaving things at the suggestive level without taking it to a definite closure. For example, we are left guessing why the priest closed the door of his room when Nidhi entered it in her ritual garb, or, what happened to Dhaniya’s body, or, why no one raised a question when the first rush of water from the bore well covering the well near the temple was tainted with blood, or, why the police is conspicuous by its absence, or, how is it that Mona is the only one in the village who rides a scooter. But then, most questions in real life leave suggestions to be explored and not answered because there are none. This makes Chauranga an extremely niche film.
Chauranga shocks you from the relative cushion of urban comfort you are used to and holds you by your hand to take you on a journey of discovery to a world you know little about. It is an extremely dark film, story wise and cinematographically where the conflict, the drama and the twists and turns bring no relief at all. But darkness is what defines the lives of the people who inhabit the world of Chauranga. Is Dhaval any less a victim than Dhaniya or Santu or his wife Nidhi? Find your answers by reading between the lines of the film.
Hindi, Drama, Color