The Bengali movie Dostojee takes its name from an invented word. But there’s nothing fantastical about writer-director Prasun Chatterjee’s very real exploration of friendship, loss and healing.
Dostojee (Two Friends) is set in the early 1990s in Bengal’s Murshidabad district, which shares a long and porous border with Bangladesh. Here, the honorific “jee” is often added to a form of address, such as abba jee (respected father), Chatterjee explained in an interview to Scroll.in. Dostojee, or dear friend, is what the film’s eight-year-old heroes call each other.
Palash and Safikul are perfectly coordinated buddies. They share a bench at school, dance in unison to film songs and look alike when seen from afar. Their bond is challenged first by circumstances that have nothing to do with them and then by an unbidden tragedy.
Faraway events damage the delicate harmony between the Hindus and Muslims in the village. The Babri mosque in Ayodhya has been demolished, and the retaliatory bomb blasts in Mumbai have taken place. As extremist sentiment shoots up in the village, Palash and Safikul become knee-high symbols of a shared culture that existed before Hindutva politics spread throughout the country.
The movie doesn’t idealise Hindu-Muslim harmony. “It’s never the case that Hindus and Muslims were brothers, but there was a balance until 1992,” Chatterjee said. “The Babri mosque demolition and the bomb blasts polarised the scenario to extreme levels.”
Dostojee isn’t just about the Hindu-Muslim conflict, but about rampaging majoritarian sentiment in India and the rest of the world, Chatterjee pointed out. “It’s a majority-minority issue, about power and vested political interests,” he said. “Villages far away from Uttar Pradesh and Mumbai felt the ripples. I have tried to see the breaking of the social fabric through two little boys. After all, this generation is the future.”
Chatterjee’s screenplay channels another kind of loss. He wrote the first version of the screenplay back in 2013. As he spent years scouting for money, resorted to crowdfunding, and finally found producers, a close friend, Pavel Dutta, died from cancer.
“That lost affected me too,” Chatterjee said. Some of that emotion leaked into the screenplay, making it richer and lending its later events greater poignancy.
An added factor was Chatterjee’s status as a “first-generation refugee” in India. His grandparents and parents migrated to India from what was then known as East Pakistan in the 1970s. In the movie, a kite flown by the boys lands at a distance, which is identified as Bangladesh. “In that moment, Safikul is me,” Chatterjee said – the Bengali with roots across the border grappling with the meaning of nationhood.
Even though the script for Dostojee was initially rejected by several producers, Chatterjee soldiered on. He wondered if he should direct his own screenplay or get somebody else to helm the project. He made a short film, Shades, to prove that he had the directing chops.
Dostojee finally took off in 2018 after Prosenjit Ranjan Nath and Soumya Mukhopadhyay joined Chatterjee as producers. A rough cut screened at the Film Bazaar market in Goa brought in a new producer, Ivy Yu-Hua Shen from Taiwan. The post-production process was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, and the movie was finally completed this year.
Chatterjee’s debut feature was premiered at the recently concluded London Film Festival. “The response was overwhelming,” he said. “People from the audience came up to me and hugged me. Some were crying.”
Only an adamantium heart would be unaffected by Palash (Asik Shaikh) and Safikul (Arif Shaikh). The talented boys were cast after a long search in Bhagiratpur village, where the film was shot. Like their fictional selves, Asik Shaikh and Arif Shaikh are from the same school, are friends and live in the same locality.
“They are both non-actors and are the first generation in their school to be educated,” Chatterjee revealed. “I had to overcome barriers to get to know them better. We didn’t do any workshops. Instead, I spent over a year building up a bond, helping them with their studies, and generally hanging out with them.” The film was shot chronologically as much as possible to help the boys ease into the arcs of their characters.
Chatterjee had previously spent several years in Murshidabad, which is why he could slip into the Bengali dialect that is spoken there and used in the film. A self-described vagabond, 35-year-old Chatterjee enrolled for a physics degree in Kolkata but dropped out after the second year. He spent the next six years in theatre, where he handled backstage duties, including lights, sound and costumes.
“I am an outsider to the film world, I am not a film buff,” Chatterjee said. “I had been writing scattered stuff but somehow, I felt the urge to tell stories that were not in the medium of theatre but had to do with audio and the moving image.”
Chatterjee and his crew strove to create an authentic portrait of rural Bengal. The neighbouring houses in which Palash and Safikul live were built by the production design team led by Chatterjee. “We gave the houses to locals to live in so that they would look seasoned,” Chatterjee said. “The visual pre-production along took more than six months.”
Cinematographer Tuhin Biswas, a still photographer who hasn’t shot a film before, alternated between wide shots that capture the location’s verdant charms and close-ups and tighter frames that reveal the escalating tensions.
“I wanted a contrast between communal undercurrent and the beauty of nature,” Chatterjee said. “When we see the world of the two boys, there are wide shots with blues and greens. Later, some of the frames become tighter and gloomier and more claustrophobic.”
Through rain and shine, tears in the social fabric and an uneasy peace, Palash and Safikul rarely lose their connection with one other. Some audience members at the London Film Festival interpreted the closeness in queer terms.
“I didn’t have that kind of intention, I merely wanted to show this kind of boyhood, this friendship,” Chatterjee said. “But if the relationship carries a different meaning on a different level, I don’t mind.”
The braiding of macro-concerns and a micro-focus on two boys is not always tidy. Had the boys been from the same faith, Dostojee would have been a completely different movie.
Dostojee gains in complexity and poignancy once the us-and-them rhetoric fades into the background. Palash and Safikul face new challenges, including a shattering loss that has nothing and possibly everything to do with preceding events.
The loss is individual, but comes after the rupture in everyday relations. It is as if Palash and Safikul are indirectly living the experience of countless Indians who have lost something or the other – people, property, equilibrium, peace of mind – to religious bigotry. The friendship is tested, and yet the friendship endures in wondrous and moving ways.