‘The Fourth Direction’: Cannes Review

An Indian indie with more atmosphere than narrative suspense

The tense stand-off between Sikh militants and Indian authorities in the 1980s is reflected in the story of a farmer and his dog

Offering an insider’s glimpse into the rural Sikh community in India’s Punjab, The Fourth Direction (Chauthi Koot) takes a very roundabout route in portraying the fear, paranoia and violence of the 1980’s. Through the story of a farmer whose family is under threat by both Sikh militants and the police, director Gurvinder Singh describes the atmosphere of tension leading up to the massacre at the Golden Temple in Amritsar in June 1984. Like Bruegel's painting of the Fall of Icarus, the crucial moment in history takes place off-screen, somewhere in the background, while ordinary life goes on.  Yet even they feel the fallout from the stand-off between Indian authorities and the militants.

Singh, who made his directing bow in 2011 with the award-winning drama Alms for a Blind Horse, conveys this very well in the tale of farmer Joginder (Suvinder Vikky), who is ordered by a gang of armed militants to put down his barking guard dog because he raises the alarm when they are in the vicinity. His reluctance to kill Tommy, who has become a family pet, fuels the small-scale drama, while the larger hostilities between Indira Gandhi’s army and the Sikhs heads toward the boiling point in the background.     

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Working in miniature this way, the film pays a steep price in terms of a drama that involved thousands of violent deaths and lead to the assassination of Indira Gandhi. But the trade-off allows Singh to paint both sides in dark colors:  the militants are depicted as heartless terrorists ready to kill anyone who refuses them shelter, while the police burn down the homes of farmers who collaborate. There is even a suggestion that the two sides may have a common agenda, when the police chief orders an officer to shoot the dog. (He misses.) But like many things in the film, this is not really clear.

One gets the feeling that the script may have been through too many project development workshops, which have left it toothless and emasculated and a bit puzzling. The long opening sequence, for example, introduces two Hindi characters who are traveling to Amritsar. Their heavy silence and furtive exchange of glances hint that something is afoot, but what they are after is left dangling. Perhaps they are meant to illustrate the prevailing atmosphere of suspicion, when they end up traveling with two young turbaned Sikhs. But they themselves seem awfully suspicious. Then there is a young couple with a small daughter who get lost in the fields at night. Joginder opens his door to them, but it’s hard not to wonder if they ever reach their destination safely. Even the peasants' march on Amritsar on horseback and tractors after the massacre has occurred is hastily sketched and unclear.

Apart from Gurpreet Kaur Bhangu in the role of the devout, outspoken grandmother, the cast of non-pros is not overly expressive in their bare-bones roles. Communicating more strongly are cinematographer Satya Rai Nagpaul’s images of dew-speckled Punjabi fields glistening in the moonlight and seas of grain whipped by the wind.

Production companies: The Film Café, NFDC, Handmade Films, Catherine Dussart Productions
Cast:Suvinder Vikky, Rajbir Kaur, Gurpreet Kaur Bhangu, Kanwaljit Singh, Harnek Aulakh
Director: Gurvinder Singh
Screenwriters: Gurvinder Singh, Waryam Singh Sandhu, Jasdeep Singh
Producer: Kartikeya Naeayan Singh
Creative producer: Olivia Stewart
Director of photography: Satya Rai Nagpaul
Production designer: Priyanka Grover, Navjit Kaur
Editor: Bhupesh Micky Sharma
Music: Marc Marder
Casting: Ashish Varma
Sales:Elle Driver
No rating, 115 minutes