Caste discrimination has been rearing its ugly head in a very good way in the movies of late. Movies such as Fandry, Masaan, Court and even Titli, in its unstated way, are all about individuals straining against the constraints and injustices imposed by an accident of birth.
Bikas Mishra’s debut film Chauranga is set in a village that is ruled by the dictates of an upper-caste landlord whose daughter has set the heart of Dalit lad Santu on fire. Chauranga won the top prize in the Indian competition category at Mumbai Film Festival in 2014, and the Anticlock Films production will be released in cinemas on January 8 courtesy indie cinema sponsor Drishyam Films. Mishra spoke to Scroll.in about stepping into the shoes of a Dalit teenager to convey the realities of rural life.
Why did you choose to make your debut with a caste-themed drama set in a no-name village?
The answer lies in who I am and where I come from. I was born and spent my early childhood in a village in Jharkhand’s Hazaribagh district with a very different upbringing from my generation of filmmakers. I had a complex for a long time when dealing with English-speaking big city people.
I had read this story in the newspaper about a boy who was killed because he wrote a love letter to a girl in Bihar in 2010. I started imagining the incident unfolding in my village – how would it have taken shape? I had vaguely wanted to make a film about my village, but I could not find a thread that would hold the village together.
You had an idea but it took some time to become a screenplay.
I knew of the characters, but I didn’t have a story. I was also struggling with the craft of writing the script, and fortunately, I got selected for the scriptwriters’ lab run by the National Film Development Corporation. My mentor was Marten Rabarts. He spent days trying to understand where the script was coming from, who I was, and why I was trying to make the film.
Marten’s main feedback was in terms of structure. My first draft was structurally flawed and a mess, but Marten liked the strong emotions and anger in it. He said, stay angry, don’t let it go away. My script had no first act, it got directly into the action. Marten taught me the basics of script writing, and that helped me a lot. I shot the tenth draft of the script.
You are from an upper-caste caste family but your protagonist is a Dalit. What were the points of identification between you and the character?
At a personal level, I identified in the script with the boy. Even though I have not lived his life, the emotions you feel when you think you are not being treated the way you should be are universal.
I had a friend from my village who was a Dalit. When he came to my house after school, the family would have a problem if he shared a meal with us.
I try and bring out what I have seen in my life. I understand the upper-caste family in the movie very well. That is the kind of family I come from. I try to talk about the sexual behaviour of the men. This comes from the stories I grew up on, the things I was not supposed to have seen.
The story is set in contemporary times, but the village in your movie seems straight out of parallel cinema in the 1980s. It’s not a nice place to be.
The village is of my memory from two decades ago. The power equations have stayed the same. There is a sense of nostalgia in the film, and I wanted to shoot in my own village, but it looks very different. The houses are more concrete, the roads are paved, and there is electricity. I have tried to create that village externally.
I know that I am not the first filmmaker to deal with caste. I am very aware of this tradition of Hindi cinema, which we refer to as parallel cinema. I admire Adoor Golapakrishnan a lot, and the way I introduce the Dhaval character [played by Sanjay Suri], in which he is looking at himself in the mirror, is straight out of Elippathayam.
I don’t have this idea of a nostalgic village where you breathe pure air and eat fresh vegetables from your garden. Village are rotten places but they play a major role – in a country like ours, what you see at a national level is a reflection of the village mentality. We need to reform our villages if we need a better country.
Since you could not shoot in your village, where has Chauranga been shot?
We shot in villages in Bengal and Orissa. We found a haveli near Santiniketan, while the temple and the railway track are in Orissa.
Was casting the movie a challenge too?
Casting was a long struggle. Even production was a nightmare – I needed a drill rig, trains, animals, snakes, cows and pigs.
We found the kids just one month before the shoot. I tried casting in Bombay and Pune, but I ultimately found all my kids in Kolkata. Soham Maitra, the kid who plays Santu, is in the Bengali movie Chaplin. In hindsight, this was an ambitious film to make for a first-time director, since we had eight principal characters.