Punjabi machismo is much a cliche as bhangra and two-foot glasses of lassi. Anmol Sidhu’s Jaggi turns the stereotype on its head through a provocative and nightmarish tale of rape and stigma in rural Punjab.

The slender-looking Jaggi becomes the target of repeated sexual assault by his seniors at school and beyond it. A product of a dysfunctional family – the father is alcoholic, the mother is largely absent – Jaggi later seeks solace in his fiance, the only one who empathises with him.

Sidhu based his debut feature on actual incidents, including a case in which a student killed himself after he was set upon by a gang of older pupils. “In Punjab, girls and boys don’t mingle very easily,” Sidhu said.

The larger context for Jaggi is a culture of severe gender-based segregation, sexual frustration and a communication chasm between the generations.

“Lots of boys can’t protect themselves and become prey to violence,” Sidhu pointed out. “I have myself seen five boys picking up a boy after school and taking him. They are psychologically affected by this [violence], but we are such a closed society that we simply don’t want to talk about it.”

Jaggi (2022). Courtesy Yeh Lo Entertainment/365 Smart Network.

Jaggi’s ordeal is heightened by a tense and spare narrative style. The young man’s trauma unfolds in the rolling fields and open landscapes of rural Punjab. The film opens on a seven-minute uninterrupted sequence of a distraught Jaggi days before his wedding, seemingly unable to extricate himself from his situation.

Sidhu clarified that Jaggi doesn’t equate homosexuality with violence. “The film isn’t homophobic, nor am I,” he said. “I have many gay friends who are open about their sexual orientation, and some of them have seen the film. Jaggi is about the trauma of men who feel misunderstood and exploited and can’t protect themselves.”

Jaggi will be premiered at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (April 28-May 1). Eight other features will be screened at IFFLA, including Natesh Hegde’s Pedro, Faraz Ali’s Shoebox and Abdullah Mohammad Saad’s Rehana.

Also in the feature line-up are Irfana Majumdar’s Shankar’s Fairies, Pan Nalin’s Last Film Show, Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s Once Upon a Time in Calcutta, Nithin Lukose’s Paka and Ritwik Pareek’s Dug Dug.

Jaggi (2022). Courtesy Yeh Lo Entertainment/365 Smart Network.

Sidhu originally intended Jaggi to be a short film, but later expanded it into a full-length feature. “It’s a personal story that I wanted to make, and I didn’t care of what people thought about it,” he said.

Jaggi continues a modest but proud strain of Punjabi arthouse cinema, whose representatives include Gurvinder Singh and Ivan Ayr. “We wanted to make a different film,” Sidhu said.

Jaggi has come out of a place of frustration, the 27-year-old filmmaker added. Having seen independent features from other states as well as Iranian and Romanian cinema, Sidhu was keen on exploring a reality of Punjab that is neither reflected by mainstream Punjabi cinema nor by Hindi films.

“Ninety-five per cent of Punjabi cinema is comedies or gangster films,” Sidhu pointed out. “There should at least be 10 per cent that is about the issues that all around us. Films such as the ones made by Gurvinder [Singh] vanish because there isn’t an audience yet. We have to create an audience and keep making films.”

Anmol Sidhu.

It’s easier said than done, as Sidhu realised with his own project. The low-budget production, made with mostly new actors and shot in Sidhu’s village in Punjab, took over a year to be completed.

Among the easier casting choices was Ramnish Chaudhary, who slips under Jaggi’s skin. It’s a deeply challenging role, but Chaudhary, who is a part of the theatre group Alankar, was game.

“He agreed immediately – he could relate to the subject since he too has grown up in a village in Punjab and seen this,” Sidhu said.