Chauranga Is a Flawed Film, But The Idea Was Never to Make a Perfect Film
Bikas Mishra explores the darker realities of life in a casteist, rural society through his debut film Chauranga that leaves much to imagination in a stroke of cinematic excellence. He takes us through his turbulent journey as an independent filmmaker trying to tell a story less told, in a different way, and elaborates on various milestones along the road:
The film deals with some pretty dark and disturbing realities of rural life with the various sub-plots. How did you treat this content, and choose the realities you wanted to depict in the film? How challenging was this for you?
From the beginning, the real protagonist of the story was the village. It’s not the story of just one person in the film, which actually made my job more difficult. It would have been much easier to stay with just one character and shown his or her world, and told a straightforward story — that would probably be more intimate, and maybe even more effective.But my idea was to not just narrate the incident — of a boy in the village brutally killed for writing a love letter — but also to look into the causes behind it. It was also a means to look at a society where such an incident can happen. It was that much trickier because I have lived that life in that society, so while thinking about the film, I was also thinking about my own upbringing from a distance.
It’s also important to point out that it’s not each individual perpetrator who is entirely at fault — not just Dhaval, the character who ordered the boy to be killed, or the one who killed Bajrangi — but the larger social system itself, that is to blame. The system makes everyone vulnerable. At the same time, there are nuances like Dhaval’s relationship with Dhaniya; there is a certain tenderness there despite him being a rather cruel character overall. You can see his anguish and guilt after Dhaniya is killed, and him trying to cleanse himself — the fact is, he is devastated.
It’s not a straightforward exploration of the perpetrators and victims of violence, it’s about the larger machinery at play.
In many ways, Chauranga is a flawed film, but the idea was never to make a perfect film in the first place. A perfect film follows a perfect structure; there’s a beginning, middle and end, and all the characters have their personal motivations for the things that they do and say. I had this unique advantage of having an insider’s perspective, and I was never seeking objectivity.
The film never crosses over into melodrama while still painting an evocative portrait of the oppressed. How conscious were you of this while writing the script?
I was trying to look back at my past and tell it in the most dispassionate manner — that was key. It’s probably because of how I am as a person as well, because I didn’t want to overwhelm the audience with emotion. It was a deliberate choice that I was very conscious of, I always wanted to maintain that distance from the audience. At the end, when Santu manages to catch the train, I could’ve showed his face and made it more involving, but I wanted to show the train tracks as he watches the village falling away from him.
It’s a very restrained film, and there’s a certain note that all the performances follow — note in the musical sense, or frequency — that lends it a sense of cohesion in tone. It was about doing little, to show more.
Would you say that things are changing in the country when it comes to the scheduled castes, with government schemes like NREGA, rapid urbanisation and reservation?
Everything plays its part but the unfortunate thing about the way things work in our country is that although the government offers certain schemes, they’re not always accessible to the communities that need them the most. In the film, Dhaval sends Bajrangi to a government school generally called a Harijan Hostel, and his mother Dhaniya is so grateful for it. It’s not that Dhaval is paying any money from his own pocket to make it happen — it’s just that he has access, and Dhaniya wouldn’t be able to navigate all the steps of getting Bajrangi admission into the school as easily as he could, being an illiterate, Dalit woman.
In the film, there’s also the hand-pump that’s installed for the village, but it’s in Dhaval’s courtyard. Why is that? Issues like these have been at the back of my mind for a long time, and I’ve tried to express some of these through the film.
Tell us a little bit about the sexually repressed, blind priest in the film and how his character evolved? How was the process of briefing Mr. Dhritiman Chatterjee?
I sent him a script in 2012, when I had started casting, and I didn’t have an actor in my mind for every character yet. Several senior actors were reluctant to play the role. Since this is the kind of response I was getting, I was quite hesitant about approaching Mr Dhritiman Chatterjee. The role I remember him best for is the role of the protagonist in Pratidwandi by Satyajit Ray, and this is one of my favourite films.
I emailed him the script, and he wrote back to me within a few days saying that he had never done anything like this role before, and that’s why he was interested. The shoot got postponed for quite a while, and I eventually ended up meeting him in Calcutta while I was working on pre – production for the film. He’s done some memorable roles in mainstream Bollywood films like Agent Vinod and Kahaani, and my producers were quite apprehensive about the payment part of it, since he is such a renowned and established actor. Our first meeting happened in the basement of his building in the post-monsoon balmy Calcutta heat, and he was very courteous and great to talk to. He explained that he was interested in a more introspective look at the character than a retrospective one, and we took it forward from there. We talked about references for the character — similar, blind characters in other films and it fell into place.
Dhritiman Chatterjee plays the nuances of the character to the hilt — he’s a very warm, nice elderly man on the surface, but he’s deeply cruel and very violent, and also sexually repressed. It’s so desperate to seek an outlet, and you find yourself pitying the character ultimately.
How did you go about training the adult members of the cast – Arpita Chatterjee, Tannishtha Chatterjee & Sanjay Suri?
I initially met Sanjay Suri as the producer of the film. It was much earlier on, when the agenda was to raise funds for it. Sanjay and I travelled a lot together, we went to Goa for the Film Bazaar, and to Cannes. We had a lot of time to discuss the script and we started developing a clear understanding. I’m very fond of him as a person, very warm and he often lifted my spirits when it seemed impossible to raise a penny for the film. I also admired roles he’s done in the past. The first time I saw him get angry was when I knew he would be great at playing Dhaval, because it reminded me of the character of Dhaval. Gradually, our roles (creative and marketing/distribution respectively) started merging and eventually, I asked him to play the part.
Tannishtha read the screenplay and agreed to do the role — it was as simple as that. We knew she looked the part, and that she could pull it off, she needed some training when it came to the local accent for the role, and I think she has ended up sounding the most authentic.
I had been auditioning many women in Bombay and Calcutta for Dhaval’s wife’s role, and I wasn’t convinced until we came across Arpita. She had done some roles in the past and had a really promising start to her career before she went on hiatus for a little while. Luckily her latest film at the time, Satyanweshi by Rituparno Ghosh, was in theatres at the time, and I managed to catch it. I was convinced that she had the grace and restraint to pull of the role, and approached her for it. I was slightly apprehensive because of her status and beauty, but she was very approachable, down-to-earth and open to suggestions. After reading the screenplay, she commented that it had all the elements needed for a hardcore commercial film — sex, love, violence. (laughs)
You’ll be stunned at the range of performances that she can offer — she used to give me options for different scenes.
Who helped the actors with the diction, and how easy was it for you to communicate the nuances of rural life to them?
I was working with all the actors myself on their dialects and accents. I also had an assistant who was from Ranchi, so he helped them with their diction as well.
What was working with the child actors like, and how did you prepare them for their roles?
I did a long workshop with both the kids. I had cast a different actor for Dhaval’s daughter’s part but she backed out one day before the shoot. I had auditioned Ena in Calcutta, and I gave her a desperate call to come for the shoot. She didn’t know how to ride a bike, so shooting the scenes where she rides to school were hilarious as she couldn’t start the scooty and there would be people waiting to support her quickly before the cameras started rolling and after shoot. (laughs) She did her part really well, especially considering the limitations of time and preparation.
I cast Bajrangi in Calcutta, although I had to convince Riddhi Sen quite a bit to cut his long hair. He read the script (even though I didn’t want the kids to, because they tend to mug it up) and came completely prepared, his hair oiled to his head. He talks like a theatre veteran, and commented on things like how he loved the use of animals, and how it brought out the animality. (laughs) He’d be talking about Camus and Kafka, and was great fun to work with. He would actually keep track of continuity himself — that’s how well he understands cinema.
I had finalized another boy for Santu, and when that didn’t work out I thought we’d have to shelve the film, before I found Soham. He had a scar on his eyebrow and this pre-puberty voice and he was 13 years old. I celebrated his 14th birthday on the set, so I think this boy was probably meant to play Santu in Chauranga.
The litmus test of the child actors’ was rehearsing in the streets, to see whether they got noticed — this is how we tried to create performances which were subtle and convincing. We collectively devised this, and worked on it.
Tell us a little bit about the animals in the world of Chauranga and how were they used?
I think my 15-year-old actor Riddhi Sen nailed it when he said – the animals work as animals, and are also metaphors for the animals in people’s hearts. The villagers are also very dependent on the animals, they’re almost like family members. You don’t keep a pig how you keep a dog, though, because eventually it might get killed and eaten, that’s the horrible part.
Dhaval, an upper-caste Hindu man, has plenty of cows, and the blind priest, of course, has a goat. Dhaval’s ‘animal’ side also comes out in the cowshed, interestingly, and the goat helps the blind priest reveal himself.
The ending was a pretty classic, cinematic ending with Santu managing to catch the train. How did you approach the scene?
I had to be true to the ending of the real incident that it was based on, when this boy got killed for writing a love letter in 2008. It would have been very heartbreaking to kill Santu, though, so Bajrangi was the character who was killed — the wrong boy. Santu had to escape, because he was the one who never agrees to succumb to the rules of a feudal, casteist society, the way Bajrangi still accedes to it to a certain extent. Santu is the true rebel, and he is very defiant.
I didn’t want to settle all the scores in the film, and I wanted the audience to feel vulnerable and scared the way Santu feels at the end. So I decided to show the world he was leaving behind, instead of where he is headed to. He has lost everybody and what he considered home, but there is a ray of hope. This was very reserved optimism on my part, I didn’t let him look ahead, but just to accept what he’s leaving behind. I thought it’d be a more realistic ending than any other.
Chauranga also got an A certificate; are you planning another cut for television?
Yes, we are thinking of doing that because one revenue stream would shut on us altogether. We made 5 cuts, and we still got an A certificate, so I don’t really know how it’s going to work.
How do you feel will the introduction of Netflix change the game for independent films like Chauranga?
I think the enthusiasm around Netflix is great, but it’s never been the first choice for an independent filmmaker, because of the number game, and because they pay filmmakers a fixed fee. I’m happy to see many independent films on the medium, but I think I’ll wait a while to figure out how it’s working in India. It could be interesting reach-wise, because it could make our films available to newer audiences, but it’s also crucial to recover investments, especially for small independent filmmakers (for their next production).
Tell us a little film about your short film Naach Ganesh, and its premise.
I made the 13-14-minute film back in 2011, and it’s based on a day in the life of a Chhau dancer. Chhau is a folk art form in Orissa, Jharkhand and Bengal, where they wear different masks to depict different deities, like Durga, and Ganesha and so on. The protagonist of the film is one such dancer, and he loves dancing, but his day job is working in an automobile factory to earn his living. I shot it in a real village with real people, that is, non-actors. It’s a small and intimate film. It might look as though it’s a documentary film, but it’s not. The story also came from my personal life, when I was torn between working in a factory and pursuing my creative passion for filmmaking.
What’s in the cards for you next?
I have been working on a few scripts, one in particular that I would like to make. I want to make something that is light, effective and deeply political, which is a weird combination. It’s set in a city, and I hope I’ll be able to go back to the script soon, after taking a short break. Right now, I’m focusing on not going into depression when the numbers for Chauranga come in (laughs). The film is also going to be screened in Gothenberg in Sweden.
I’ve also got really positive responses from Ranchi, where it was quite difficult to get the film released, but that’s my primary audience.