Cast: Suvinder Vikky, Rajbir Kaur, Kanwaljit Singh, Harnet Aulakh, Gurpreet Bhang
Director: Gurvinder Singh
In its endeavour to symbolise realism on celluloid, rarely does Indian cinema accomplish what it sets out to, more so, in cinematic adaptations of political upheavals in our country. Most of these films have often tormented us by either jarringly stilted or unreal, biased and loud take-it-from-me messages that do more harm than justice to such themes. Director Gurvinder Singh’s second offering — he debuted with the award-winning drama Anhe Ghode Da Daan (Alms for a Blind Horse) in 2011 — Chauthi Koot (Fourth Direction) gives us an insightful look into the lives of Sikhs, some of whom may have turned militants, but largely remain helplessly mute as the commoners.
The film blends two short stories in which conflicted unresolved political tension casts a mood that’s both palpably eerie and entrancing generated by the Punjab insurgency that, post the massacre at the Golden Temple in Amritsar in June 1984, culminated in the assassination of Indira Gandhi the same year. The excesses of both forces — the terrorists and the security forces fighting them — made lives miserable for the ordinary citizens, who live on the edge wondering whom to fear more? No one, it seems, trusts one another. The film opens with two rushed men Jugal (Kanwaljit Singh) and Raj (Harnet Aulakh) on a wobbly bus journey in Ferozepur, Punjab getting off, and hurriedly pacing towards the railway station where they miss the last passenger train to Amritsar.
As they plead and negotiate with the railway guard to allow them to board the “passenger-free” freight train and cover the two-and-a-half hour train journey to their destination, the two (and another turbaned Sikh) find a few other Sikh men aboard too. As the train moves past fields, the unease surfacing between the men is unmistakably overwrought. One of the two men, then, begins to reminisce the dreadful night when he, along with his young wife and a child, had got off a bus and lost his way to home. The flashback then recounts his harrowing night’s ordeal, as hesitatingly, he knocks on a house to seek shelter from residents who by sheer stroke of good luck, happen to be family friends. The house owner is a farmer Joginder (Suvinder Vikky), who is seen chaperoning them to the nearest safe spot to their home, before walking back.
The narrative then begins to follow Joginder and his family’s tale of unspoken disquiet as his dog (Tommy) begins to bark, waking up his family. Later, some terrorists force their way in and beat him up, and demand that the family dog be killed since its barks draw attention of the military. The family adores Tommy and would never let that happen, but nevertheless, contemplate getting rid of him. What follows next is yet another harrowing experience for the family as armed military suspecting men arrive and ransack their house on suspicion of the family giving refuge to terrorists.
Thus begins an uneasy alliance of foes on opposite sides of the frontline, aligned by something even more potent than politics or religion: the immediate threat and fear of extermination. Be it the rebels or the military force, they all mistreat Joginder. It’s not the kind of film that would even once make you rest your back at ease; instead it focuses on the undercurrents of tension in a farmer’s family that’s under threat equally by the Indian Army as well as the Sikh militants. Chauthi Koot seeks to outline the terror that remained within the clueless blank faces of the hoi polloi, and signifies the trauma lived every moment of the conflict. With misgivings and doubts hovering over them, there’s no trace of even a semblance of camaraderie or bonhomie remotely.
Singh’s story is charged with dreadful fatalism and centres strikingly on the setting rather than characters or even the plot; the strain that any conflict accompanies is writ large on the faces of characters in spare yet deeply atmospherics. The attacks on the innocent common man are unanticipated leading to their unpredictable and bewildering lives. With minimalist physical torture shown, the entire film grips you with its haunting depiction of the after-effects of violence that endure long after the lights come up. Viewers will be completely overawed by the camerawork of Satya Rai Nagpaul’s gentle and visually stunning shots that are central in establishing the loaded and charged quietude moving through the farmhouse.
Capturing rural Punjab at its naked best, Nagpaul allows the camera to seize the furtive movements of characters as if one is being a part of the actions while watching them. This is a part of Punjab eclipsed by the loud, uncanny and bizarre portrayals of a community in countless Bollywood films. There are no political sides taken and what you see is the psychological terror, anxious trepidation and may be, some hope too, on people’s faces. The film boasts of a confident command of tone with magnetic performances holding your attention, and film leaves many things unreciprocated. But only if you want to grasp the agonising lives of some of these men and women, and look deeper, you will appreciate. Chauthi Koot is the kind of film that comes once in a while, and therefore, is a must-watch!...