Bikas Mishra’s debut Chauranga is set in a village that is straight out of 1980s parallel cinema’s rural outposts of exploitation and misery. The village is ruled by the dictates and whims of Dhaval (Sanjay Suri), a landlord who has clearly seen better days but insists on slavish deference just like those uncrowned potentates from the films of three decades ago. Teenager Bajrangi (Riddhi Sen) knows his place in the hierarchy (at Dhaval’s feet) but his younger brother Santu (Soham Maitra) is far more resentful. He chafes against Dhaval’s stranglehold and has the temerity to fall in love with Dhaval’s daughter, Mona (Ena Saha). There is only one way this can go.
Other characters crowd Mishra’s script – the boys’ mother, Dhaniya (Tannishtha Chatterjee), who is Dhaval’s lover, a family priest (Dhritiman Chatterjee) whose blindness does not come in the way of his unbridled lechery, Dhaval’s enforcers (Anshuman Jha and Delzad Hiwale), Dhaval’s long-suffering wife (Arpita Pal) and, most of all, Dhaniya’s pig that breaks free from her fetters and causes further havoc.
Pigs, inter-caste love, a coming-of-age tale, the writ of the upper castes, Dalit emancipation that emerges as a reaction to repeated violence and humiliation. If Chauranga’s world feels doubly familiar, it’s because this combination of elements has already been presented by Nagraj Manjule’s Marathi movie Fandry in 2013. Even though Chauranga has been in the making for longer than Manjule’s debut, Fandry beat Mishra to it, and for those who have watched both films, Chauranga feels like a milder and less adventurous cousin.
Not that there isn’t anything to savour in Chauranga. The village that Dhaval so badly wants to lord over is strikingly drab and impoverished, and its members feel as though they have been plucked right out of the poisoned soil. Mishra never leavens Dhaval’s bigotry with redeeming tendencies – he is a product of his environment but completely responsible for his actions.
Some portions of the movie feel overplotted, and Santu’s tendency to spy on everyone and everything is not so much character building as a contrivance to ensure that audiences follow him on his discoveries of the levels of depravity engendered by casteism. The performances are uneven too. Soham Maitra is not as convincing as Riddhi Sen, while Sanjay Suri takes a valiant bash at playing a rural villain, but is less effective than Dhritiman Chatterjee, whose thrill-seeking behaviour extends to the poor goat that is his pet.
The powerful climax brings together the film’s themes effectively. The movie’s most striking image isn’t that of dead pigs or Dhaniya’s plight or Anshuman Jha chucking a Dalit kid into a well only because he wandered into a temple by mistake. It’s of Santu in flight, leaving hell behind but heading into the unknown.