Chauranga: review; Director: Bikas Ranjan Mishra; Cast: Sanjay Suri, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Arpita Chatterjee, Soham Maitra, Riddhi Sen, Anshuman Jha, Ena Saha, Dhritiman Chatterji.
At the core of debutant writer-director Bikas Ranjan Mishra’s dark and disturbing Chauranga is an ordinary Indian village that, like many others in this country, conceals hideous tales of patriarchal oppression, caste violence and religious rigidity.
While the people of this unnamed hamlet go about their daily chores in a manner that betrays no signs of negativity, the realistic film’s narrative homes in on the shadowy nooks and crannies to reveal acts of horrifying brutality perpetrated by those that enjoy unbridled power.
Chauranga is a remarkably mature and sensitive study of a scary social order that condemns many to lifelong deprivation simply on account of an accident of birth.
The film takes an unflinching and relentlessly grim look at the marginalised and the exploited – hapless people who suffer the dehumanizing repercussions of the terrible ways in which the caste system plays out in rural India.
At the receiving end here is a Dalit family of three – a wealthy landlord’s maid and illicit lover Dhaniya (Tannishtha Chatterjee) and her two teenage sons, the sedate Bajrangi (Riddhi Sen) and the excitable Santu (Soham Maitra).
The zamindar, Dhaval (Sanjay Suri), who, pretty much like the village that he lords over, hides his volatility behind a genial cloak, is a ruthless man who brooks no opposition.
The younger of Dhaniya’s two sons wants to follow in the footsteps of his elder brother, who is enrolled in a school in the nearest town. But Santu’s mother does not possess the means to fulfil the boy’s dream.
His frustrations turn Santu into a little rebel who thinks nothing of not acknowledging the authority of the insensitive zamindar even as Bajrangi plays safe by genuflecting before the feudal master.
What’s worse, Santu develops a crush on the landlord’s comely daughter, Mona (Ena Saha), unmindful of the dangers that lie ahead.
Egged on by his school-going brother, the 14-year-old decides to write a love letter to the girl. That youthful act inevitably sets off a tragic chain of events.
What enhances the power of Chauranga as a story is Mishra’s subtle, measured directorial approach.
He steers clear of conventional melodrama while driving home the tragedy of people born outside the four Hindu castes. He constructs the narrative with unfailing restraint.
In creating the ambience and pace that lend Chauranga its searing quality, Mishra is aided all the way by cinematographer Ramanuj Dutta and film editor Irene Dhar Malik.
The adult actors in the principal cast – Sanjay Suri, Tannishtha and Arpita Chatterjee (who plays the landlord’s resigned-to-her-fate wife) – are first rate.
But no less effective is the younger lot – Riddhi, Soham and Ena. They inhabit their characters and convey their individual essences with admirable effortlessness.
Chauranga is an impressive achievement, a socially relevant film that articulates its concerns in a manner that is as austere as it is forceful.
In many ways, it harks back to the glory days of the non-mainstream Hindi cinema of Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani. At the same time, it is perfectly in line with the methods Mumbai’s contemporary independent films.
Bikas Ranjan Mishra is clearly a director to watch.