'Chauranga': Mumbai Review

Courtesy of Mumbai Film Festival
A bleak and intermittently powerful indictment of the caste system  

A boy from India’s untouchable cast sets tragedy in motion by sending a love letter in the winner of Mumbai’s India Gold competition

The last time Indian cinema dealt seriously with the shame of its much-abused caste system was in Nagraj Manjule’s furious, extraordinary Fandry, a call to revolution against the prejudice still leveled at the Hindi Dalit caste, a.k.a the untouchables. This anger is transformed into sorrowful, shocking tragedy in Chauranga (Four Colors) which depicts the horrifying treatment given to two bright young brothers and their mother who are scorned and humiliated in their village because of their lowly birth. The setting may be timeless but the drama is all too contemporary; in fact it’s based on a true story that happened in Bihar in 2008, here relocated to Bengal where first time director Bikas Ranjan Mishra grew up. The film took home the Best Film prize at its premiere in Mumbai’s India Gold section, forecasting a healthy festival life and the chance of some art house pick-ups.

While India’s ancient caste system originally referred to interlocking professions working for the good of society, it is now an inherited system of social exclusion based on birth. At its worst, as shown here, it is conveniently used to isolate a group of people as miserably underpaid servants, forced to do the dirtiest work and forbidden even to set foot in the temple because they are “unclean”. When the mayor is short on food for a festivity, he simply cuts off the bottom-rungers. There’s an eerie parallel to slavery in the American South when the local landowner claims sexual rights over his untouchable, unmarried and apparently compliant maid-servant Dhaniya (Tannishtah Chatterjee). Their dangerous, secret rolls in the hayloft have likely begotten two sons.

The rebellious Santu (Soham Maitra) is 14 and wants to go to school, but he refuses to humbly touch the feet of his mother’s benefactor Dhaval, played with controlled arrogance by actor-producer Sanjay Suri (My Brother…Nikhil.)  However, Santu’s slightly older brother Bajrangi (Riddhi Sen) does kowtow to this powerful figure, and goes to school.

The brothers have a touching relationship of mutual protection and together they confront a pair older bullies who turn out to be Dhaval’s legitimate heirs. In a generally nuanced film, these are ugly characters, mean and totally evil. Taking their cue from their elders, they express their sadistic impulses on the more malleable Bajrangi, while little Santu defies them. Every day he climbs a tree to spy on Dhaval’s daughter returning home from school on her scooter, and his innocent crush will trigger the tragedy that ends the film on a dark, anguishing note.

Some of the tension is dispelled in the film’s last half hour as the focus shifts from one character to another and tragedy piles onto tragedy. Ranjan Mishra’s screenplay clearly feels the need to follow the real events that inspired it, but in this case real life is practically unbelievable. Above all, it reinforces an image of the Dalits as victims, without that final fist in the camera that electrified Fandry.

Both young actors are naturals horsing around on camera. Chaterjee, a pro who has worked in British films like Brick Lane, cuts a figure as the saucy but resourceful mother, whose her grief over the cruel death of her pregnant pet pig foreshadows events to come.

The film’s title comes from a four-colored pen, a symbol of the four Hindi castes, which don’t even include the Dalits.

Production companies: Anticlock Films in association with Surya Ventures, NFDC
Sanjay Suri, Tannishtah Chatterjee, Riddhi Sen, Soham Maitra, Arpita Chatterjee, Dhritiman Chatterjee, Swatilekha Sengupta, Ena Saha, Anshuman Jha, Delzad Hiwale
Director, Screenwriter:
Bikas Ranjan Mishra
Producers: Sanjay Suri, Onir, Mohan T. Mulani
Director of photography: Ramanuj Dutta

Production designer:  Amit Chatterjee
Costume designer: Dev R Nil
Editor: Irene Dhar Malik
Music: Vivek Philip
Casting director: Nalini Rathnam
Sales Agent: Deborah Bennatar

No rating, 90 minutes