Why watch Chauranga when a lot of what it’s about – pig-herding, love across caste lines, the constant tensions between Dalits and the people who won’t treat them as equals, the young boy who decides enough is enough – was already seen in Nagraj Manjule’s Marathi drama Fandry? One reason could be the mood the director, Bikas Ranjan Mishra, conjures up. The film weaves a quiet, hypnotic spell. If Fandry was a volcano, Chauranga is an idyllic picnic spot that invites us to spend some ninety minutes with these characters. It doesn’t set out to grab us by the collar till we choke with indignation at what is still the reality in rural India. It just tells a story, which begins when Bajrangi (Riddhi Sen), a Dalit boy who’s studying in the city, returns home because his school has closed down for a few days. The reason for the school-closing is right out of a short story. The principal’s daughter is getting married. The guests need a place to stay, after all.
You’d think Bajrangi, with his books, is destined for a different life – but this is a film with a few surprises. One of them is that for some people, no matter what steps they take, there’s no guarantee that they will rise. Whatever happens to them, it’s just a matter of dumb luck – sometimes, it’s just being able to run fast enough to catch a train. This shot echoes an earlier one where a boy (Bajrangi’s brother Santu, played by Soham Maitra) attempted to board a moving vehicle but kept failing. There’s another effective echo. Early on, when Bajrangi falls at the feet of the upper-caste Dhaval (Sanjay Suri), the village headman, the latter moves backwards so that Bajrangi’s hands don’t actually touch his feet. But later, when he suspects Bajrangi of wrongdoing, his feet land squarely on the lad. Concepts like untouchability do not matter when you’re in the mood for a little oppression. Or a little extra-marital sex. Dhaval keeps trysting with Dhaniya (Tannishtha Chatterjee), mother of Bajrangi and Santu. But this isn’t just a Dalit thing. It’s a woman thing too. Dhaval’s wife (Arpita Pal) ends up equally exploited. Or maybe it’s worse. The man who exploits her is an old, blind priest (a ghoulish Dhritiman Chatterjee).
That the priest is blind is probably some sort of symbolism. Here’s another, having to do with the film’s title. Bajrangi whips out a pen that writes in four colours. Colour is varna, which also refers to caste. And when Bajrangi says he’ll write Santu’s love letter (to an upper-caste girl) in red, Santu replies, “Lekin woh to khoon ka rang hota hai na?” But none of these Drama 101 devices derail the movie. The director has a firm hold on the proceedings – and the volume knob. Someone dies of snakebite. The body is dropped unceremoniously into a lake. You expect a furore around the missing person. But… nothing. Sometimes, at picnics, people wander off. It’s like that. You’d think Dhaval’s wife might throw a tantrum or two about his infidelity. Again, nothing. The only time the film gets dramatic is towards the end. It has to do with that love letter. It also has to do with Udaan. Only, this flight to freedom doesn’t come with a crescendo on the soundtrack. Who knows what lies ahead?
With better casting, Chauranga may have been a vastly better movie. Suri isn’t bad, but there’s something missing. It probably has to do with the innate gentleness and goodness the actor always projects. Dhaval may be the first feudal chieftain in Hindi cinema who’d rather be watching Aastha TV. But casting, sometimes, is a question of who’s producing the film (Suri is a co-producer), and I was glad Chauranga got made – if only as a show-reel for the director. He gives us tradition, superstition, caste wars – everything that Benegal gave us in the 1970s. He gives us Katrina Kaif, Salman Khan, and a discussion about breast development in the most scholarly possible language – if sex education began airing on Doordarshan’s news channels, this is how it would be. And he sprinkles a bit of magic over all this. Water from a hand pump dries up, as if in punishment. And there’s a snake, which hasn’t been good news for humans ever since the first two encountered one. It all comes together – a little in the heart, a little in the head. You leave the theatre not educated, not whipped into righteous fury, but with the feeling that you’ve closed a book you rather liked.
chauranga = four-coloured