Chauthi Koot, the second Punjabi film by director Gurvinder Singh, is being released on August 5. Since his first film Anhey Ghorey Da Daan (2012), Singh has created a formalist aesthetic within the bounds of the narrative parallel cinema in India, sticking to the Punjabi milieu to forward the larger concerns of cinema.
Chauthi Koot was widely acclaimed after it was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015, and it received a commercial release in France later. The film is set during the wave of militancy that swept over Punjab in the 1980s.
Singh graduated in direction from the Film and Television Institute of India in 2001. After making several experimental short films and documentaries, he was invited by avant garde filmmaker Mani Kaul in 2005 to be his teaching assistant for a master class at FTII. This led to a close association with the filmmaker who became his mentor and served as creative director for Singh’s debut.
Both of Singh’s films depict Punjabi characters as occupying a dark space and marginalised from the mainstream culture. This allows him a number of cinematic techniques, mainly the use of non-psychological stylised acting that allows the repressed psyche to become a character, if not the protagonist, instead of being part of the represented actors.
Singh seems to imply that viewers think so that they feel. Emotions are produced by the mind and its workings are to be addressed first.
Cinema, on the other hand, is a medium of movement that occupies space and plays out in time. The frame isolates matter within this logic and keeps parts of it whilst removing others. The thinking subject witnesses this in a self-conscious way as the film unfolds.
In Anhey Ghorey Da Daan, Singh uses the actor so that he forms a cinematic head-space that moulds itself into this moving subjectivity. The framing is jagged, creating an affective film viewing experience reminiscent of some of the techniques used by Ritwik Ghatak. The camera is at times placed parallel to the spectator, staging the action through observation.
The Dalit protagonists conveniently cover their faces with shawls leaving only their eyes exposed, thus draining their faces of all expression so that what the audience instead witnesses is a body occupying a space. If the headspace is all that is important within the framing of the volume, then the actor is simply part of the image: more a posture than a face.
What one witnesses in Chauthi Koot, and hopes is nurtured in Singh’s forthcoming films, is the relationship between the partial objects – an arm, a foot or any other part of the actor’s body, and the face. This isolation of the actor’s body by nullifying the face re-emphasises the fact that performative bodies occupying space are more cinematic than expressionistic faces. In this cinematographic system, the parts, consisting of individual shots, form a mobile whole. Each shot forms a volume so that actors never centrally occupy the frame. Satya Rai Nagpaul’s camera is placed at a distance emphasising this volume. Singh’s mentor, Mani Kaul, may have pronounced this as an occasion to do away with the split between the sacral and the profane.
Camera movement occasionally occurs only to maintain this volume. A key example of this is the sequence in which the camera aerially pans over members of the Akal Takht protesting, stylised as though they are performing a sequence from Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar.
The stylised editing of the shots is elliptical in such a way that each shot forms a block in itself and is completely detached from the next – more poetry than literature. This approach of shooting completely detached shots was inaugurated by Kaul in his masterpiece Satah Se Uthata Aadmi and elaborated upon in his next work Mati Manas, in which every shot plays like an opening shot.
In Chauthi Koot, the shots form a solid block and plays and then vapourises once it is cut off from the timeline of the edit. Singh mentioned in an interview at the he Venice Film Festival that he either cuts off the shot before or after its denotative end point to emphasise its metre, much like the pre-emption and delay of notes that create a musical metre.
The solidified construction is randomised through mainly the introduction of animals that hover around the frame in unplanned ways. The dog in the film, which is also a kind of symbol, allows for a lack of construction within these solidified blocks.
Singh also uses insects, mainly flies and bees, to animate the tightly constructed frames, a detail explicitly reminiscent of Kaul’s Uski Roti and Duvidha. When this writer asked Kaul in a private conversation why he chose to film in this fashion, the master replied, “Flies exist on every location or film set; it’s just that I don’t do anything about them,” thus implying the randomness involved in an otherwise constructed shot.
Chauthi Koot is a significant achievement for Gurvinder Singh. He is attempting to create a cinema closest to music, with the idea of the shot-volume as the microtone, the story as the scale and the randomly divergent movements of the camera that emphasise the ornamentation.
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