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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Film review: Chauthi Koot

(Spoilers abound)

“As the sun, far in the West, slid behind the tall trees, my heart too started sinking heavily.

I would look at the watch, wonder about the speed of the bus, look at the bus driver and at the spreading darkness outside. While I was trying to gauge the feeling of fear and worry writ on Jugal’s face, seated toward my right, he flashed a smile in return."

This is how Waryam Singh Sandhu begins his short story Chauthi Koot (The Fourth Direction). It’s also how Gurvinder Singh begins his film of the same name, based on this and another Sandhu story. In the original text, it takes several pages before we learn why the narrator and his friend are so worried. Singh stretches those pages into a supremely tense opening passage. Two men, both Hindu, are desperate to get to Amritsar. They overcome the protests of a guard and barge their way onto a train.

Once inside, they freeze. Two of the men sitting in the compartment are sardars. Though the word “militant" hasn’t yet been mentioned in the film (which is set in Punjab in the 1980s), we can tell that the newcomers are wondering if they’re staring at one, or two. As the train rattles along and the men eye each other warily, the stage is set for something to happen—an explanation, perhaps, or a stand-off. Then, with a simple “A few months earlier…", we find ourselves watching a completely different story.

It’s a bold move, yanking the viewer out of a narrative that finally seems to be getting somewhere and dropping them cold into another. Even more audaciously, the film’s almost over by the time we return to the first story. Yet, one can see why Singh has structured it so. If the opening passage is a question, the extended middle segment is an answer—of sorts.

Joginder lives with his family and his dog, Tommy, in a village that’s under the twin grip of militancy and the military. One night, Tommy’s barking brings separatist fighters to their door. They threaten Joginder and tell him to kill the dog (the barking might alert security forces). The next day, army men, working on a tip, ransack the house. Yet, Tommy won’t stop barking at night. It’s clear what Joginder must do, but when he does deal with the problem, taking a shovel to the dog, it’s still a shock.

This moment will most likely end up determining what you feel about Chauthi Koot. For me, it was like Singh located all the hopelessness and desperation of the times in a single act of inhumanity. There are powerful reasons for Joginder to do what he did: the twin visits have shown the very real threat to his and his family’s lives, and the loyal but irrepressible Tommy is clearly beyond silencing. It’s undeniable that Joginder loves the animal, calling him sher and puttar. Does his affection for his pet make his actions all the more indefensible? Perhaps, but the alternative—letting Tommy bark night after night, inciting the already riled-up militants—is also untenable.

Joginder’s actions reminded me of a decision taken at a similarly tense moment in a film that couldn’t be more unlike Chauthi Koot. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), an exploration of race relations in New York’s Bedford–Stuyvesant neighbourhood, reaches a fever pitch during an argument at Sal’s Pizzeria. Matters escalate, and the police end up choking a young black man to death. As the stunned crowd realises what’s happened, the film’s mild-mannered protagonist, Mookie— who works for Sal—grabs a garbage can and sends it flying through the shop window. This starts a riot, and the pizzeria is burnt down.

It’s been 27 years, but Lee probably still gets asked if Mookie did the right thing. The answer I’ve always heard him give is that this particular question is usually posed to him by white people. A young, unarmed man is dead. What’s a pizza place—one covered by insurance—compared to that? But for viewers, it isn’t that simple. We feel attached to abrasive but kindly pizzeria owners like Sal, and boisterous dogs like Tommy. We see the brutality and wonder if it might have been avoided, even though it cannot compare with the larger brutality that surrounds these incidents.

Whether Joginder did the right thing is something viewers will have to decide for themselves. As with his first film, Anhey Ghorey Da Daan (2012), Singh gives us fragments and leaves us to figure out the whole picture. As I walked out of my second viewing of the film, it struck me that the two men had walked screen left to right in the beginning, and right to left in the end. Is this a comment on the futility of their journey? Is the mention of Operation Blue Star, the Sri Lankan civil war and racial strife in South Africa in the same radio broadcast significant? It really depends on what you see, and how you see it.

Chauthi Koot is less elliptical than Anhey Ghorey Da Daan, in which details of plot and character were handed out so sparingly that the film was ultimately easier to admire than feel any emotional connection to. In his second film, Singh is content to provide a little more information, though his filmmaking style is still spare, quiet, fixated on minute detail. The sound design (Susmit Bob Nath), music (Marc Marder) and cinematography (Satya Nagpaul) blend into one another. Some moments that are so precise they’re breathtaking: a tiny bird balancing on a stem in the early morning fog; a startled chicken flying into the frame when a gun goes off.

All the elements come to a head in the film’s one set piece. A religious convoy comes by Joginder’s village and asks for directions. In the next scene, we’re travelling with them as men and women on tractors and trucks sing about ancient battles and drinking the blood of enemies. As their voices gain in strength, shots are fired into the air and shouts of Bole sau nihal ring out. The procession come to a halt and, in an astonishing overhead tracking shot, we zip across the length of the convoy, stretching for what seems like a kilometre. The scene ends in chaos, with the police arriving and telling everyone to disperse. There are so many elements embedded in this scene—the martial traditions in Sikhism, the pairing of religious fervour and violence—that one could spend hours picking it apart. Yet, like the film, it’s most powerful when experienced as an unsettling, vivid whole.

Chauthi Koot released in theatres on Friday, with subtitles.

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Uday Bhatia
Uday Bhatia is an assistant editor and film critic at Mint Lounge based in New Delhi. He also oversees the 'How To Lounge'/Culture section.
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Updated: 08 Aug 2016, 04:54 PM IST
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