Bikas Mishra has a love-hate relationship with his village Salgawan in the Hazaribagh district of Jharkhand. His memories of the place are filled with warm childhood images but they aren’t all idyllic. There are dark shades, too, significantly class oppression that runs deep in the village. He recounts how during Sahiya — a local tradition where families from different castes form a communion as an example of equality — the lower-caste children would touch the feet of the elders.
However, kids from the upper caste were not allowed to touch the feet of the elders of the lower caste. Once when Mishra, a Brahmin, did so, it enraged his uncle. In another incident, he incurred the wrath of his cousin for sharing food off the same plate with a lower-caste classmate.
“When I moved out of my village to study and work, I started thinking about these instances. When I saw them from a distance, I realised how inhuman they were and it enraged me,” says Mishra about the origins of his debut feature film, Chauranga, which won the Golden Gateway of India award for Best Film in the India Gold Section at the recent Mumbai Film Festival.
The film’s protagonist, 14-year-old Santu, a Dalit, falls in love with a 16-year-old upper-class girl. He embodies Mishra’s angst, frustration and innocence and is Chauranga’s heart, soul and conscience. “I have never lived the life of a victim. I have always been the privileged one, born in a Brahmin family. But the rebel in me connected with Santu. I became the character,” says Mishra. He has not received any formal training in cinema, and his education came from watching movies as part of film societies.
The idea of the film was sparked from a newspaper report six years ago about a Dalit boy, barely in his adolescence, who was brutally killed for writing a love letter to a Brahmin girl.
Mishra’s script was developed over four years. Starting from the NFDC Screenwriters’ Lab in 2010, which took place at Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, to the Göteborg International Film Festival, Sweden, in 2012, it finally culminated into a film that went on floors in 2013. Mishra found a guiding force in Marten Rabarts, a script consultant with NFDC Screenwriters’ Lab, who helped him find the soul of his story.
“Writers are insecure. On the first few days, he just let me speak. All he did was create a list of questions that he kept adding to. There was substantial time spent on understanding who I am and why I decided to write this script,” he says, adding, “He is from New Zealand and has a Maori connection. It is amazing how someone from another part of the world understood my story so well without being judgmental about it.”
Partly crowd-funded, Chauranga has a formidable cast of actors playing grey characters who are products of the caste system. The film stays loyal to the news report it is based on but Mishra takes creative liberties to give his own twist to the final outcome. “Had I killed Santu, it would have probably killed me as well,” he says.