The difference between false memories and true ones is the same as for jewels; it is always the false ones that look the most real, the most brilliant. Or so says Salvador Dali.
If you applied Dali’s quote to the context of ‘representation of caste in the Hindi film industry’, how many Bollywood films based on the caste divide in society are actually true?
You may name a few like Achhut Kanya (1936), Sujata (1959), Ankur (1974), Dacait (1987), Bandit Queen (1994) and the more recent Aarakshan (2011). But not all of them actually delve into the sordid details of caste division. In fact, the Hindi film industry is almost oblivious to untouchables.
Our films and most of their audience seem happy with upper caste Hindu heroes who achieve the unthinkable. Even the formidable Khans keep playing a Raj, Rahul, Prem or Ajay as treading the caste territory is dangerous business, almost literally.
However, Bikas Ranjan Mishra’s Chauranga has no qualms in showing it like it is and tells the tale of two Dalit brothers. Yes, it also tells of a mostly upper caste milieu and a fragile woman’s indomitable spirit, but the movie is more than this.
Bajrangi (Riddhi Sen) can go to school because Dhaval (Sanjay Suri), a village strongman, pays his school fees. However, Bajrangi’s younger brother Santu (Soham Maitra) can’t. Hope bubbles considering the boys’ mother Dhaniya (Tannishtha Chatterjee) is Dhaval’s mistress. As a pig breeder, Dhaniya has no other means to educate her children.
Other characters like Dhaval’s meek and obedient wife (Arpita Pal) and adolescent daughter Mona (Ena Saha) support the plot but are mute spectators. Priest Pandey Baba (Dhritiman Chatterjee) adds to the sordid context with his sexual fantasies.
Mishra employs crafty directorial techniques to keep the movie grounded yet intangible. The opening sequence of a young box beaten up for his lunch box by two upper caste bullies is relatable. At the same time, we are not told which time period the film is set in.
If you’re looking for a clue, Salman Khan is often referred to as a metaphor of the escapist fantasy mainstream Bollywood feeds us, including footage from Dabangg (2010). At the same time, mobile phones are conspicuously absent.
But it is the interesting character curves that hook one to the plausibility of the story. Dhaval appears like he is in love with Dhaniya, at least temporarily. He funds her child’s education and looks benevolent from the outset. Yet he is as evil as can be. This duality gives a great touch to Sanjay Suri’s character.
What works even better for the movie is the politics that mould the characters. The village has a democratically elected council, but one that works under Dhaval’s thumb. Discontent is brewing among the lower caste community of the area which forms the majority. The seeds are sown for an uprising.
A constant focus on the atrocities faced by the marginalized makes Chauranga a special film. It’s the process of finding a solution by magnifying the ugliness in a contemporary light that strikes a chord and marks Mishra’s cinematic skills.
With a brilliant theme, a narrative structure that flows, and social relevance that hooks the viewer, Chauranga makes for a powerful watch.
Watch Chauranga trailer