Eye on the caste system

Actors Riddhi Sen (left) and Soham Maitra in a scene from the film Chauranga. They play brothers who are members of the Dalit caste, also known as “untouchables”.
Actors Riddhi Sen (left) and Soham Maitra in a scene from the film Chauranga. They play brothers who are members of the Dalit caste, also known as “untouchables”.PHOTO: ANTICLOCK FILMS

The film Chauranga deals with the dark, tragic topic of revenge killings by those against inter-caste interactions in India

The film Chauranga deals with an aspect of life in India still mired in tragedy - revenge killings for intercaste interactions deemed inappropriate by the community.

In 2008, a news report of a low-caste boy killed by a mob for handing a love letter to a woman of a higher caste gave writer-director Bikas Ranjan Mishra the idea for a screenplay. The result is the Hindi- language drama Chauranga (M18, 88 minutes), which opens on Friday at Golden Village VivoCity.

Speaking to The Straits Times recently, producer Anirban Dhar, 46, says caste discrimination is a problem that many in India, especially the urban elite, imagine has become a thing of the past, when in fact it is alive, especially in impoverished rural areas.

"We tend to forget that the majority of our country lives in another world. This film exposes them to that world, and it can seem like a foreign world to a lot of people," says the producer, who goes by the name Onir.

To publicise the film in India, his team approached people in the street to ask them if caste discrimination still existed and results showed that it was, but in urban forms.

"It's there in all forms. In high-rise buildings, there are separate entrances for servants and residents. It's disgusting. It's saying that servants are not good enough to take the same lift as you," he says.

In the film, a family belonging to the Dalit, or "untouchable", caste makes a living tending to the animal sheds owned by an upper caste landlord. Single mother Dhaniya (Tannishtha Chatterjee) knows her place and counsels youngest son Santu (Soham Maitra) to do the same if he wants to be sponsored at school. Older brother Bajrangi (Riddhi Sen) is more respectful of landowner Dhaval (Sanjay Suri) and so receives an education.

In big ways and small, the family is reminded of its place at the bottom of the village social ladder. Its lot stands in contrast to that of the landlord, who wields inherited privilege over the village, a privilege he does not hesitate to use on his female servants.

"It's about the use of power, of gender, economic class, religion, that is prevalent everywhere in the world. A boy who falls in love with a girl who's unattainable is relatable to anyone in the world," Onir says.

Chauranga is the debut feature of Mishra, who has made short films and is an active contributor to the Indian film community, having also founded the influential cinema news and reviews site dearcinema.com.

He shot the film on location in Bengal, in the eastern part of the country. Shooting in rural areas posed its own challenges, says Onir. Mishra wanted to show village life as authentically as he could and this involved showing animals, often as visual metaphors.

In one scene, Mishra wanted a snake to emerge from under a roof, scattering resting crows. The crew hit on a plan to scatter chicken meat on the roof to entice crows to gather and Onir found himself holding a cobra by the tail because no one on the team dared to touch it.

"Fools that we were, we city people didn't know that crows would stay away because they can see the cobra. To make matter worse, when I let it go, it could turn around and try to bite me," he says.

•Chauranga opens on Friday at Golden Village VivoCity.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 06, 2016, with the headline 'Eye on the caste system'. Print Edition | Subscribe