That caste remains one of the biggest scourges of modern-day India is worth repeating ad nauseam. And that is the burden of this debut feature from a director who knows where he is coming from. The trouble with ‘Chauranga’, despite its crucial subject, is that treads familiar ground without taking the tale too far.
Santu and Bajrangi ( Maitra and Sen, respectively) are constantly castigated as ‘chhut jaat’ in the village they live in with their mother ( Tannishtha). The zamindar ( Suri) lives with his neglected wife, elderly mother and young daughter in a run-down ‘haveli’, and rules with an iron hand-velvet glove policy : lower-castes are to be used, discarded and decimated, whether it is an attractive village woman who over-reaches herself, or a little boy who strays inadvertently into a `mandir’, sullying it. Of paramount importance is the `shuddhikaran’ ( purification) of the temple, rather than the boy who is injured in the flurry.
There’s also a blind priest ( Dhritiman) who stirs the pot every now and then. And trouble is bound to arise when the unspoken adoration of Santu for an upper-caste girl is rumbled, a plot point startlingly similar to the Marathi film, ‘Fandry’, which is also about caste and societal rigidities and how conflict arises when the downtrodden turn around and demand a shift.
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Why ‘Fandry’ works so well is that the story propels us towards a shift, and the turmoil caused by it. ‘Chauranga’, on the other hand, peters out. The power that a tale like this brings with it, especially as portrayed by the fresh-faced youngsters ( Maitra and Sen feel as if they have sprung from the soil; Hiwale is effective as an upper caste bully), and the casual brutality inflicted with frightening entitlement in this day and age on humans, doesn’t have enough impact.
I liked the way the two Dalit adolescents keep up their spirits : no excessive drama, no whining. They know their place, and though both react to the oppression differently ( one with a kind of acceptance, the other with a flash of rebellion), both come off as naturals. There’s something about the priest which makes you shiver, especially when he pats his pet goat : an intriguing character you wish there was more of.
What’s missing in between is a fluid narrative, which hobbles the film. Or is the choppiness down to cuts? Either way, this is a film which could have been more.
Chauranga star cast: Sanjay Suri, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Soham Maitra, Ridhi Sen, Anshuman Jha, Delzad Hiwale, Ena Saha, Dhritiman Chatterjee, Swatilekha Sengupta, Arpita Chatterjee
Director : Bikas Mishra
One and a half stars.