The first Friday of August 2016 saw a range of releases lined up for Indian theatres. Among the choices available to viewers were a biopic on Oriya marathon runner Budhia Singh, who famously ran from Bhubaneswar to Puri at the age of four. There was also India’s alleged first ‘thrillex’ (thriller + sex) called Fever. Among the seven Hindi and two Hollywood releases was also director Gurvinder Singh’s remarkable second feature, Chauthi Koot, or the Fourth Direction. That the film managed a theatrical release is something of a triumph – a process that took over a year. After a debut at Cannes in 2015 in the ‘Un Certain Regard’ section, the Punjabi-language feature won several accolades which includes the India Gold at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival last year. It also had a French release before it found takers within India. It has been released in about 80 screens across India, in Punjabi with English subtitles. Subtitled films have worked to great success in the recent past, notably in the case the Nagraj Manjule-directed hit Sairat, that was released in Marathi with English subtitles across India. Videos show audiences dancing to the film’s songs in cities like Delhi and Bangalore, and the film raked in around INR 60 crores at the box office. Similarly, the charming Kannada drama Thithi was relished by audiences across India, after an initial run in Karnataka. All this suggests that the audience for such ‘alternative’ films is larger and more heterogenous than assumed. And while subtitling does restrict the film’s reach to those who can read English, or those who are used to the idea of watching a ‘foreign’ film, it has (in my opinion) several advantages over dubbing. For a film as quiet and rooted in its milieu as Chauthi Koot, certainly, the idea of its characters mouthing lines in a dubbed language is jarring.
Already appreciated by audiences abroad, the subtitled version makes it accessible to Indian viewers who will certainly find much to connect with. The film is above all a portrait of a feeling. It evokes the widespread uncertainty that marked the Punjab of the 1980s, at the height of the Khalistan insurgency and its violent suppression by the Indian security forces. The plot weaves together two short stories by writer Waryam Singh Sandhu, one of them titled Chauthi Koot, the other Hun Main Theek Haan (Now I am Fine). A range of characters make their way across the screen – a group of passengers desperately trying to find a train to Amritsar on a cold winter night, a farmer named Joginder in a village trying to protect his home and family – this is the stuff of which Chauthi Koot is woven. The pace is deliberately slow, and the emphasis is constantly on the minutiae. The train rattles on its way, the family in the village goes through the mundane motions of routine. Even the catacalysmic events before and after Operation Blue Star (when the Indian army stormed the sacred Golden Temple, unleashing a wave of resentment against the state that included the assassination of Indira Gandhi) happen off screen, allowing the director to focus on the impact of these upheavals on the lives of ordinary people.
The film opens with two men attempting to board a train that is shuttered up by the army. They are joined by a Sikh passenger and they half-cajole, half force their way into the guard’s cabin. Once inside they freeze as they see two other young Sikh men already seated there. From their uneasy journey, we move into the countryside, following one of the men on a journey a few months ago, as he tries to find his way to a village wedding. Lost in the dark, accompanied by his wife and their young daughter, he stops for directions at Joginder’s house. The camera follows them to the edge of the village, where faintly, the sound of women singing can be heard. Then the audience returns with Joginder to his tense home, that he shares with his wife, two children, his mother and a dog called Tommy.
Unfortunately Tommy has the habit of barking at strangers, whether they be militants or soldiers. Both groups demand that the dog must die. At a time when human life is cheap, this may seem to be a trivial dilemma. But Singh manages to use the family’s affection for its pet to demonstrate their own cruel vulnerablity. Caught in the crossfire, they are threatened by all those who pass through their courtyard. In one scene, Joginder’s son watches the militants troop into the house late at night. In another, his daughter interrogates her mother about Tommy’s fate as she gets her hair braided for school.
Others films have negotiated the theme of insurgency-hit Punjab, like Gulzar’s 1996 Hindi feature Maachis. There is also the documentary In Memory of Friends by noted director Anand Patwardhan, that explores the violence and resistance across the state in the 1980s.
While Chauthi Koot is a welcome addition to this list, it is set apart by its ability to keep you on the edge of your seat, a film that is both low-key and terrifying. The moments of drama are created by the viewers themselves, who watch the action alongside the protagonists. When very little happens that is out of the ordinary, there is the perpetual fear that anything may happen. Singh plays this ominous note with finesse and masterful control. The buzzing flies, the sound of gunfire, the whistle of the wind in the lush fields, are all elements that evoke a sense of tense expectancy. Much of the credit also goes to the camerawork by Satya Rai Nagpaul, which moves slowly and invisibly along with the action. The restraint that is evident in the background score by Marc Marder and sound design by Susmit Nath add to the precision of the film’s crafting. This is Punjab like it is rarely seen, with poetry and protest, faith and folklore all embedded effortlessly into the canvas of the film. Most of the cast are either drawn from theatre or are non-professionals, doing an impressive job at inhabiting their characters.
While making a powerful statement on innocence caught in the thrust and pull of larger forces, Singh does not shy away from more nuanced, hard-edged realities. In a good year for Indian cinema, Chauthi Koot manages to stand out for its masterful control and exploration of complex themes. It is a worthy successor to Singh’s National Award winning debut, Anhey Ghorey de Daan, and establishes him as a bold and original talent to watch.
~ Taran N Khan is a Mumbai-based journalist who writes on cinema, Islam and gender. She has been traveling to Kabul since 2006 where she worked closely with Afghan media producers and filmmakers. Her work can be seen at www.porterfolio.net/taran.
~This article is part of a series of column on cinema by Taran N Khan for Himal Southasian. Read her earlier column on the life and work of Khwaja Ahmad Abbas.