What is that big machine for, wonders the man with the snow-coloured beard. He gets his answer when the mechanical digger demolishes an abandoned house within seconds.
Everybody has left the village – everybody, that it, except for Shoukie and his dog Kheru. The coal mining company that has bought their land has rehoused the lot of them, but Shoukie is still holding out. An eviction notice has landed at Shoukie’s door, and Siddharth Tripathy’s A Dog and His Man traces the final hours of the elderly villager and his beloved canine before the demolition crew come for the house.
The film is set in an abandoned village in the mining belt on the border of Orissa and Chhattisgarh. The cast comprises non-professional actors, all of whom once lived in the village, Tripathy told Scroll.in. “These people were displaced from here, and we brought them back for the film,” he said.
Tripathy has personal connections to the story. He grew up in Raigad in Chhattisgarh, not too far from where A Dog and His Man was filmed. His family, which is originally from Orissa, has deep roots in the region. His grandfather, Kishori Mohan Tripathy, was a freedom fighter and noted politician, while his father is the award-winning Hindi poet and translator Prabhat Tripathy.
Siddharth Tripathy studied cinematography at the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, and worked in the social development sector. Among his employers was a mining and power company, which prompted questions about the impact of infrastructure projects on people, their surroundings and their ways of living.
“I have seen the landscapes of Chhattisgarh change – I have seen the forest cover disappear before my eyes, and the homogeneity that development brings,” Tripathy said. “We are losing songs, the way we dress and make special dishes.”
A Dog and His Man will be screened at the Mumbai Film Festival (October 17-24) in the non-competitive India Story section. In keeping with Tripathy’s training in cinematography, the film contrasts the derelict, dust-laden villages with the looming coal factories. Tripathy especially concentrates on Shoukie’s weather-beaten face in an attempt to explore his psychological state.
“For me, Shoukie and the place are one entity,” Tripathy said. “I have used hardly any reaction shots, it is completely focused on Shoukie. There are two planes in the film – one is the actual displacement and the other is the world within Shoukie’s imagination. The rhythm of the place is very slow, nothing happens there for a long time, but there is so much happening within his mind.”
Balu, the actor who plays Shoukie, completes the intimate connections between the director and the movie – he happens to be Tripathy’s uncle. “He knew this story from when I first wrote it ten years ago,” Tripathy said. “He got interested in cinema because of me, and we bonded over films, especially Robert Bresson.”
Directing his uncle was a bit easier than steering the other actors, who had similarly never performed before the camera. The characters include Shoukie’s wife and son and his friends. “These actors were not there in my original story,” Tripathy said. He met them while setting up the shoot, and they wrote themselves into the movie by advising the filmmaker on the character types he needed to be exploring.
“It was a participatory process,” Tripathy said. The song in the opening credits was sung by a man who had moved several miles away from the village used as the location for the shoot. He returned to pay a tribute to his home, which now exists only in memory and in the obduracy of people like Shoukie and his loyal dog.