When a state begins to burn, its people begin to change. They, however, don’t necessarily do so in calculated, obvious ways; they change, in ways unbeknown to them, turning suspicious, indifferent, fearful, becoming lesser versions of themselves. One of our biggest collective fears, possibly, is that one day we’ll stop caring, stop looking back, stop looking inwards, that one day we’ll become callous, to the point of becoming inhuman, and we won’t be able to do anything about it. Gurvinder Singh’s second feature, Chauthi Koot, talks about that fear.
Chauthi Koot, based on two short stories by the acclaimed author Waryam Singh Sandhu, is set in the “1980s Punjab”, when a Sikh separatist movement was in full cry in the state. As the film begins, there’s some vagueness and uneasiness about its period. When is the film set, one wonders; is it the Punjab of pre or post 1984 (the year of Operation Blue Star, Indira Gandhi’s assassination, and anti-Sikh riots)? We don’t get an instant answer to that. And we soon understand that Singh has set higher goals for himself, that he doesn’t want to tie paranoia and fear to a particular year, a few events; he wants to talk about how human nature changes over a period of time, slowly but surely, how it is a stream of shifting moralities, how we are on such an edge that all we need is not a push, but a nudge.
But none of that is dealt with in a ham-handed fashion in this film. Chauti Koot is so quiet, so sure of its being, that, at times, we feel it with our ears. The stillness and silence follow us around, punctuated with everyday sounds: of a dog panting, a table fan whirring, a toad croaking, bees buzzing. And within this setting and its elements are the people of this world, who are constantly trying to resist becoming someone else, a change they’re aware of, but something they can’t completely fight, much less, defeat.
Let’s consider a character in the film’s opening segment, a freight train guard. One night, he’s approached by two Hindu men on a train platform, who want to go to Chandigarh. They don’t want to be left stranded at the station, for the fear they will be picked up for interrogation by the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) jawans, who are policing the platform. The guard understands their predicament, but he can’t let them inside the train, either. The train is supposed to leave for Chandigarh without a passenger. Besides, as he tells them, he will possibly get in trouble if he helps them. The guard is persistent, flustered to the point of being indifferent, and then rude. But what does one do in such a situation, where the first instinct is of self-preservation? The two of them, later joined by a turbaned middle-aged man, nevertheless get inside the train. And then we see that the carriage’s not empty; a few turbaned men are sitting inside, obviously helped by the guard who couldn’t remain indifferent to them. Later, he charges money from everyone else but not from the turbaned-men. His humanity, even though brittle and shaken, isn’t wholly dead.
And it is this fight that is, above all, at the centre of Chauthi Koot. The film soon branches out to a different story and setting (this one unfolding a “few months before”), where we meet a man, Joginder (Shavinder Vicky), in a Punjab village. Joginder has a dog called Tommy, and Tommy barks rough. When Tommy barks, Joginder and his family members find it difficult to sleep, but more than that, it brings the Sikh militants to their house, who have repeatedly told him to get rid of the dog. Its barking, the militants presume, will alert the army men of their presence. Joginder has tried getting rid of the dog, but he’s failed. The dog, like a faithful companion, always returns home. Joginder wants to do the right thing; it’ll be inhuman to kill the dog. But Joginder’s humanity, just like that train guard’s, is constantly tested. So, one day, he pours a brown-coloured liquid (probably kerosene or diesel) in a bowl of curd and serves it to Tommy. Eight people sit on two charpoys, waiting for Tommy to lap it up, to die, to spare them the agony and misery. They, of course, dote on Tommy, but they can’t help it. Tommy, thankfully, evades the offer and survives. The rest of this story is about whether Tommy, the embodiment of human morality, will survive or not.
Dogs are frequently mentioned in Chauthi Koot, and not just while referring to Tommy. When militants barge inside Joginder’s house, on hearing Tommy’s incessant barks, one of them says, after a point, “The security forces are chasing us like dogs”; when a younger member of Joginder’s extended family, visibly fed up with the State, says he wants to join the militants, his uncle shuts him up with, “Don’t howl like a dog.” In a later scene, a local doctor’s associate says he’s stopped killing dogs, the “voiceless innocent”.
There are other voiceless innocents in Chauthi Koot, too, in form of Joginder’s children, a girl and a boy, two people without history, and, possibly, memory, who see the army men ransacking their house, going through the kitchen cabinets, bedrooms, trunks. You wonder what kind of adults they will grow up to become, in a place where security, and those who are supposed to guarantee it, has a totally different meaning?
Chauthi Koot is also about everymen being caught between the State and the militants, each group convinced of their actions, each wanting to own the civilians. A lesser film would have taken a side, but not Chauthi Koot. It just shows us two scenes, and expects us to connect the dots. Late in the night, when the militants arrive at Joginder’s house, they threaten the family of dire consequences, if the dog’s not killed. But, a while later, they sit inside the house, have a conversation, drink tea. The next morning, the army men come visiting. The head of this group, the officer who’s sanctioned the search order, is an outsider, a man who speaks in Hindi with an accent that’s not Punjabi. (It’s instructive to note that he’s the only bad actor in the film, as if suggesting that he’s a misfit not only in this setting, but also in the film.) On his order, as Joginder’s children watch, his subordinates turn the house upside down, like machines doing their jobs. The militants weren’t kind, either, but, here, it’s not as much about oppression, as it’s about how it is articulated.
The two stories in Chauthi Koot aren’t bound by a narrative, but by motifs: by fear, suspicion, paranoia, fading morality and humanity. It’s a film that demands our attention, explains little, and, as if living up to what it’s about, trusts us. (I first saw Chauthi Koot at the Mumbai Film Festival last year, and I was unmoved by its beauty and empathy; I found my attention wavering multiple times, and I, hoping that the two stories would overlap, thought the film didn’t really add up. A faulty projection was probably part of the reason. After the film got over, Singh made his annoyance clear, “There’s no brightness; there’s no contrast; there’s no colour. I really wish I could have stopped the screening. It was the most painful two hours of my life,” he had then said. But when I saw the film again, a few days ago, it opened up and spoke to me in different ways, as if I were a different person and this, somehow, a different film. I was skeptical of watching it again, but I’m glad I did, because it felt like giving myself a second chance.)
Chauthi Koot achieves much without straining itself, a film that’s supremely confident of its powers, and isn’t trying to impress or astound. I am going to remember one particular scene from the movie for a long time—perhaps, because on the surface, there’s nothing remarkable about it. In it, Joginder’s children and Tommy—three innocent characters, devoid of deceit and ulterior motives—run around in their house’s courtyard, playing with each other. It’s a scene that lasts only for a few seconds. It’s a world as it is, untarnished, brimming with genuine joy and permanence of present; it’s a world that we owe to people who mean no harm. It’s a world that should be allowed to exist; it’s also a world that we’ve been unable to save.