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‘Chauranga’ – review: Crossing barriers

‘Chauranga’ – review: Crossing barriers

March 18 2016

Released earlier this year in India, it got a mixed reception – for some the subject matter, caste aspiration and oppression might have been a bit raw, but underneath it is a film of genuine substance and merit as our critic found at a screening during the London Asian Film Festival (March 4-13) 2016…

By Sunil Chauhan

BIKAS RANJAN MISHRA’S directorial debut has come up against some harsh criticisms. It doesn’t deserve them.

Chauranga” (‘Four Colours’) is a feature that shines a compelling light on a part of Indian society often ignored or misrepresented. You wonder if the Indian critics who found “Chauranga” so deficient had a genuine problem with Mishra’s helming skills, or if seeing an aspect of the country they find easier to disassociate from, made them wish it simply hadn’t appeared at all.

For “Chauranga” is no easy watch. Fourteen year-old Dalit boy Santu (Soham Maitra) dreams of going to school like his elder brother Bajrangi (Riddhi Sen), but instead he is the family’s pig-handler (his fondness for the animal actually provides some of the film’s most touching moments).

When Santu confides in Bajrangi that he has a thing for Mona (Ena Saha), the daughter of the village zaminder Dhaval (Sanjay Suri pictured above right), they write her a love letter, not realising the inflammatory impact of the act. That might make Chauranga sound like a tale of forbidden teenage love, but Mishra’s exacting eye can’t help but look beyond.

Bajrangi (Riddhi Sen) and Santu (Soham Maitra)

Sustaining a quiet air of dread and rage, there’s a dark cloud looming over every frame (symbolic shots of snakes recur), with violence – verbal or physical – threatening to bubble up at any moment. The threat of attack is ever present. Residents either take their frustration out on each other, or if no one is available, an animal will bear the brunt.

The exact location of the village is never clear, but it works to the film’s advantage. Mishra isn’t as interested in site-specific authenticity as he is in caste and class-determined social structures, delivering a panorama of rural life that’s free of urban projections – neither idyllic simplicity or ‘backward thinking’ apply here, and also works as a doomed coming-of-ager.

Scenes of the two brothers are some of the film’s most endearing, whether they’re looking at biology books, talking about girls, or just roaming the local railway tracks, which remind of a world outside the hermetic village (one that Santu only seems to consider in Chauranga’s closing shots), though outside forces rarely intrude.

The brothers provide the film with its most empathic characters, Maitra in particular, though equally impressive are a fierce Tannishtha Chatterjee as Dhaniya, the razor-tongued matriarch who gives up sex to give her elder son an education, and Suri, imposing in his turn as the domineering Dhaval.

Chauranga” is a first film, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that it isn’t an out and out masterpiece. Mishra never condemns or patronises, but has a slightly eager penchant for cycles of cruelty, presenting the village as an often pitiless place, one where characters represent much, but don’t often get to come alive as individuals.

The film is too muted to ever get too far beneath its clever ordering of disturbing power plays. But that’s also where it works best – as a microcosm of wider, modern Indian societal hierarchy (at least you assume it’s modern – there are no mobile phones on screen).

Middle class, urban India might think it a world long passed, but inspired by a news story of a 12 year-old Dalit boy killed for writing a letter to an upper-caste girl, Chauranga‘s relevance is too searing to deny.

ACV RATING:**** (out of five)

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture