On a day like any other, 17-year-old Kosa Muchaki leaves his home to sell one of his goats. But he doesn’t return. He has been picked up by a police unit on suspicion of being a fugitive. It’s actually a simple case of a mistaken identity: the police are looking for another Kosa Muchaki, aged 30.

But since we are in the Bastar region in Chhattisgarh, deemed to be a hotbed of Maoists, and the other Kosa Muchaki is a wanted Maoist commander, the school-going teenager enters a Kafkaesque nightmare, one with seemingly no end in sight.

Mohit Priyadarshi’s harrowing debut feature offers a sharply political perspective on disappearances, police high-handedness, and the travails of Adivasis living on land rich with mineral deposits. Priyadarshi’s screenplay maintains that the law enforcement agencies and the judiciary are stacked against innocents like Kosa, who are viewed with suspicion and given shoddy treatment because of their marginal status and their location.

Kosa’s lawyer Saira struggles to have her client, a minor, moved to a juvenile facility. The fearless local journalist Keshav, who tries to get the news of the detention out, is fobbed off as well as threatened. Kosa is presumed guilty unless proven otherwise.

Kosa (2020). Courtesy Whispering Walls.

The movie’s dystopia has been inspired by newspaper reports. Priyadarshi began writing Kosa nearly three years ago. During visits to Bastar, he had met a bunch of boys who had been randomly picked up during police sweeps. The normalisation of a clear violation of rights jolted Priyadarshi. “These boys told me, we have moved on with our lives,” he recalled.

The screenplay was initially larger in scope, but Priyadarshi eventually whittled it down to its essence: a farcical trial that raises questions about the administration’s ideological view of Adivasis and the seriousness of its crackdown on Maoists. Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court (2014), in which a radical poet is arraigned on a questionable charge, was one of the inspirations for 30-year-old Priyadarshi.

The Third Cinema movement from Latin America also influenced Priyadarshi, who studied at the School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University and took a year-long course at the Film and Television Institute of India. Some of the principles of Third Cinema – films oriented towards Marxist and socialist values, a realistic and no-frills approach to storytelling, the exploration of ordinary lives through political and social frameworks – have found their way into Kosa.

Kosa (2020). Courtesy Whispering Walls.

The 84-minute movie offers a documentary-style view of the court proceedings and the efforts of Kosa’s father and his two sisters to combat the might of the State. The progression of Kosa’s case and the events that emanate from it – the impact on the lawyer and the journalist, the actions of the insensitive police officers, a nexus between a paramilitary officer and corporations – create a palpable sense of tension about the fate of the teenager.

“We didn’t want to put the blame on any one person – it is about an entire system,” Priyadarshi said. “Kosa is kind of doomed from the moment he is picked up. Even though the Adivasis are protected under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, their land happens to be mineral-rich. Due to militarisation to counter the Naxal insurgency and the presence of corporations, a feeling of fear is ingrained in the people so that they cannot fight back. They don’t get involved and yet they get sucked in. The Adivasis have phenomenal resilience.”

As for the dreaded Maoists, because of whom Kosa gets arrested, we don’t see them at all.

Kosa (2020). Courtesy Whispering Walls.

Except for a few professional actors – such as Vitthal Nagnath Kale as the journalist Keshav – the cast is made up mostly of Adivasis. “We scouted for actors among theatre groups in Bilaspur and Raipur and Bhopal,” Priyadarshi said. Kunal Bhange, who plays Kosa, is the son of an actor with the Indian People’s Theatre Association. “We cast the entire film that way,” Priyadarshi said.

The movie was produced with Priyadarshi’s own money and through crowd funding. Although Kosa was filmed in Madhya Pradesh and Orissa in 2017 and 2018, Priyadarshi took a year to shape the material with editor Davis P Manuel. Delays in finding funds meant that Manuel, the cinematographers Ashok Kumar Meena and Anantha Krishnan, and other crew members moved on to other assignments in between.

“We had a lot of limitations, and we wanted to turn them into the language of the film,” Priyadarshi pointed out. “We had barely any equipment – only grips and a handheld camera. We didn’t have cranes or jibs or dolly tracks, so there was no point in taking tracking shots. We thought, why not turn our disadvantages into advantages? We could not wait for better equipment.”

The crew members waived their fees to allow the production to be completed. “It was a lot of hard work,” Priyadarshi recalled. “I think that honesty is there in the film. It is Third Cinema in that way too – whatever you have, you make do with it.”

Kosa (2020). Courtesy Whispering Walls.

Kosa was premiered at the Raindance Festival in the United Kingdom in October. It will also be screened at the Kolkata International Film Festival in the Indian competition section in January. After Kosa has completed its festival run, Priyadarshi hopes to organise screenings across India, rather than opting for conventional distribution.

“The aim behind the movie is to talk about the issue and bring it out into the open,” Priyadarshi said. “We are not concerned about whether or not the film will make money. The intention is to show it to as many people as possible. We are talking to some small-scale distributors, but given the politics of the film and the issues it is dealing with, I don’t see it being shown in traditional cinemas. I’d love for it to be shown at colleges and universities, in working-class neighborhoods, and by collectives.”

The movie is likely to spark off a debate about the illegal detentions of minors and the larger abuses of power that are frequently reported from troubled zones in India.

“The worst thing you can do is show security personnel in a bad light – they are sacrosanct,” Priyadarshi said. “I am not saying that they are the problem, but there is this politics of fear, and we need to talk about it. We do live in a democracy, and we should be able to talk about everything. If we cannot even have a conversation, then what kind of a democracy are we?”

Filmmakers in the real world have not been able to escape the fear of reprisal that surrounds Kosa and his people in the movie. “I am not worried about myself, I only worry about the film,” Priyadarshi said. “If it doesn’t get shown and dies a slow death, then I would be worried. The difficulty is that people don’t have a conversation any more. I just hope people have a conversation.”

Mohit Priyadarshi.