After Chauranga ends, the statistics on screen inform you that two Dalits are murdered everyday. There are some more numbers on rapes and other atrocities on the Dalits. Director Bikas Ranjan Mishra’s debut film attempts to address the caste and gender disparity in India. Since the 2013 Marathi classic film, Fandry dealt with a similar subject of a low caste teenager falling in love with a high caste family girl, Chauranga comes across as a mere shadow in comparison.
The treatment is very self-conscious and more general. You see a village and dire poverty, water is scarce, pigs, goats and snakes are abound, a plate of boiled rice is shared by two teenage brothers. There is one divide; that of Zamindars from the higher Brahmin caste and labourers from the lower Dalit caste—the untouchables. Every time there is progress in the Zamindar’s household like the inauguration of a water pump or a tractor, coconuts are broken, a male guest’s feet are washed by a Dalit woman, arti is performed by the upper caste woman.
While at one level, a teenager boy’s crush on a girl unfolds, at another level, we see all sorts of sexual exploits by the upper caste. Sexual perversion is hinted at and sometimes takes away from the central teenage love story. The constant movement from the low caste household belonging to a single woman- Dhaniya (Tannishtha Chatterjee) trying to get her two children (probably the outcome of her compliance to the Zamindar’s sexual dictat) educated; to the upper caste household on whom she is dependant; shows the stark contrast in their lives.
The Zamindar’s (Sanjay Suri) reluctance to send his daughter to school and his wife, Nidhi’s (Arpita Chatterjee) existence as a mere prop to perform pujas or worse—Devi sacrificial act to bring down his fever, effectively display the male, rightful dominance over women, irrespective of caste. Interestingly, both the women understand this and try in their own way to overcome the situation by making sure their children get educated for future escape.
Dhaniya gets her elder son, Bajrangi (Riddhi Sen) to touch the Zamindaar’s feet at every opportunity so that his education gets funded. Her constant endeavor is to get her reluctant and rebellious younger son, Santu (Soham Maitra) to touch the Zamindar’s feet to help him get educated. The two brothers constantly face bullying from the two older sons of the Zamindaar. Santu falls in love with the Zamindaar’s daughter, Mona (Ena Saha) and asks Bajrangi to write a love letter to her. The plot so far, along with each character’s daily struggle against oppression, has great potential.
But when the story goes overboard in showing the Zamindar’s blind, old father’s sexual perversions, it mixes various subplots and leaves every thread half told by the end. The pace slackens along with old man’s slow walk and daily night trips to feed his pet goat. With insufficient time invested in the two brothers, Santu and Bajrangi, the film loses any real connect.
At best, Chauranga comes across as a typical art-house, festival film in its observation of rural Bihar and its grossly unfair social dynamics.