For a good 20 minutes in the beginning of the National Award-winning, Punjabi film Chauthi Koot, you just stare at a few strangers on the screen who in turn, stare into oblivion.
The period is the post-Operation Blue Star 80s. The place is rural Punjab. The focus is on two men who don’t say much but look worried. The camera follows their every move, holds on their faces for long moments and seems to be keen on capturing their internal struggle. We see the two miss a train to Amritsar.
A troop of army men land up at a desolated station in Punjab. They supervise a freight train, shut the windows and declare it’s ready to go. A Sikh gentleman approaches the two men to find a way in. The two men introduce themselves to an army officer as ‘hum Hindu bhai hain'. The appeal doesn’t help much. The train starts moving.
In a bizarre move, the two men and a Sikh gentleman, find a way to jump into the train, past a guard at the doorway, who is protesting and not protesting at the same time. Inside, there are two other Sikh passengers, who seem to have found a similar route in. Now, the camera stays on these silent people, for what seems an eternity. Everyone seems to be in a half state of slumber; the chugging wheels — the only sound. Soon, the train slows down; the men are told to get off the moving train by a scared and irate guard.
Now you see the bunch of Hindus and Sikhs running together. And you wake up to the scene’s sheer brilliance: the unity of people at the political times of discord.
That was not just one sequence. It was one of the stories written by Waryam Singh Sandhu in his collection of short stories titled, Chauthi Koot. The scene’s length and quiet, non dramatic treatment, which tests your patience, turns out to be the most evocative scene of a tension filled Punjab in the early eighties, a mood leading to the horrendous massacre in the Golden Temple of Amritsar, unseen throughout the film, yet strongly felt.
The film shifts gears to a few months back. The camera follows another quiet journey on foot by one of the Hindu men seen earlier, equally closely. This time his wife and a little girl accompany him. He meets a Sikh farmer called Joginder (Vikky Survinder) who has a perpetual, suspicious look on his face.
Then suddenly, Joginder’s dog barks.
And another story begins. The story of fear. The story of the common man harassed by the army by day and the militants by night. A ridiculous demand is made. That of the death of Tommy — the dog who barks all night. While the idea, the theme and the over indulgent mood are impactful till here, the film’s structure which tries to combine two stories, does not quite make sense, especially in the end.
Chauthi Koot is a profound observation and comment on how a political and religious environment can impact the daily life of a commoner. Director Gurvinder Singh, a FTII alumnus, relies heavily on cinematographer Satyajit Rai Nagpaul’s evocative images to recreate the palpable and the unspoken violence. The isolated farmhouse, the lush, wind struck paddies swaying furiously on stormy days, the sweeping shots of villagers atop tractors, chanting and singing caught unaware by a sudden political disruption; are images that stay.
The irony of the situation is brilliantly captured in a long moment of a bowl of food being licked away hungrily by a dog who is the object of all attention and suddenly the cause of everyone’s trouble. It’s not the Khalistani separatists, not the Indira Gandhi assassination soon to follow, not the politicians or the army men or the militants; who can be faulted. It’s the cursed dog to be blamed for barking and exposing the presence of the militants.
That bloody dog. This remarkable film.