In debutant director Bikas Ranjan Mishra’s Chauranga there are so many scummy characters swimming in the tides of a debauchery and greed that you desperately look for ways to tell yourself that life is worth living after all.
Chauranga, set in an impoverished village of what seems to be Chattisgarh or Jharkhand, is so denuded of hope and goodness, you come away a little sickened in your soul and stomach. The frightening truth about Mishra’s plot is that the world of caste exploitation that it inhabits actually exists in many part of North India.
Sanjay Suri, trying hard to get the body language and accent right, plays a Zamindar who objectifies the women around him with such arrogance, he doesn’t for a moment see himself as the symbol of caste and gender oppression that he happens to be. Suri’s feudal character is shown copulating regularly with a feisty Dalit woman Dhaniya (Tanishtha Chatterjee, gloriously in-character) who encourages his amorous attention just so that she can afford her two growing sons’ education in the city.
The most despicable character in recent times is that of the village priest played by veteran Dhritiman Chatterjee. The blind character literally gropes at everything he can lay his hands on, man woman, child and animal. It is the most naked and unabashed portrayal of evil in the garb of religiosity seen in recent memory.
You wait for these characters to come to a suitably sticky end, but in vain. Nemesis is not an easy beloved to please in this village of the vile, populated by the scummiest specimens of humanity on the earth. To their credit these hateful are played by actors who don’t mind looking irredeemably corrupt and compromised.
Dhaniya’s two sons Bajrangi and Santu, played by Ridhi Sen and Soham Maitra, are the fulcrum of hope in this despondent scenario. Soham Maitra’s character Santu, an endearing mix of poverty-induced indignation and wide-eyed adolescence, anchors much of the film’s angst against injustice.
Tragically Santu is much too young and inexperienced to shoulder the plot’s theme of omnipresent exploitation. Most of the time we end up looking at monstrously compromised and unhappy creatures of the dark trying to create a rhythm to their utterly futile existence.
It is not an easy film to watch. Such is life.
There are constant and jolting reminders of how brutish life is at the bottom-most layer of existence. The debutant director knows his characters and their location well. But the plot is over-populated and under-nourished. In a playing time of merely 90 minutes, Chauranga crams in an abundance of derelict characters, each one’s eyes telling their own saga of tears.
Particularly ruminative in her poised stance of tragedy is the character of Sanjay Suri’s neglected wife (a distant relative of Meena Kumari from Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam), played by the expressive Arpita Chatterjee. She dreams of a better life for her educated daughter Mona(Ena Saha). Alas, dreams die hard in this heartless heartland of Hindustan.
Chauranga is a dark, cryptic and provocative look at cast oppression as seen through the eyes of a young innocent boy. This is the world of Shyam Benegal’s Nishant and Prakash Jha’s Damul. But a lot more murky and yes, clumsy. There is way too much fondling, pushing and touching, not all of it appropriate or even apt. Sanjay Suri’s love making scenes with Tannishtha Chatterjee show him copulating violently, with his pyjama on.
While Suri breeds his lust, Tannishtha’s character breathes her last. She probably died laughing.