Chauthi Koot: Not exactly slow cinema, but most definitely good cinema
Beautifully shot, subtly structured and powerfully evocative, Chauthi Koot is yet another mature film that proves the parallel cinema aesthetic is still alive and kicking in India
Dhruba Basu Delhi
Ever since it was sandwiched between Woody Allen’s Irrational Man and Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees at Cannes in April 2015, Gurvinder Singh’s Chauthi Koot has drawn a steady stream of accolades, leading to its being regarded as one of the finest films to emerge from India in the recent past. It has joined a league of other salutary efforts by an emerging brigade of conscientious, festival-friendly filmmakers in the last couple of years, like Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus (2012), Chaitanya Tamhane’sCourt (2014) and Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s Asha Jaoar Majhe (2015).
There are no doubt divergences within this template, which it would not be unfair to regard as an updated revival of the parallel cinema tradition that made such strides in the country in the decades prior to the LPG reforms of 199
Common to these films is the stamp of an assured stylistic sensibility, expressed in long, unhurried shots and minimalist use of sound to complement moods and themes rather than to enhance a sense of pace or action, entailing frequent stretches of silence intended to strengthen the relationship between the viewer and the image. The connection between style and substance is, of course, vital here as well; these formal aspects emerge from what can be identified, broadly, as an attempt to cast the human experience as fraught with vagaries and injustices that are unamenable to easy solutions or resolutions. It is a philosophical and contemplative approach, focusing not on a cause-and-effect linearity or heroic hagiographies, but on the ways in which people think through, talk about and live the quandaries they are caught in, which are essentially rooted in systemic social, political and economic conditions.
There are no doubt divergences within this template, which it would not be unfair to regard as an updated revival of the parallel cinema tradition that made such strides in the country in the decades prior to the LPG reforms of 1991. Gandhi explored an explicitly philosophical terrain in Theseus, while Asha Jaoar Majhe was an agonising portrait of ennui in the time of economic recession. At the other end of the spectrum is Tamhane, who in Court espoused the more directly sociopolitical links between Dalit resistance and the justice system. And somewhere between Asha Jaoar Majhe and Court on this ‘abstract’-‘real’ continuum is Chauthi Koot.
The film is set in early-1980s Punjab, when the Khalistani militancy of Baba Sant Jarnail Singh Khalsa Bhindranwale and his supporters was on the rise, fuelled by unemployment and crop failure and couched in the rhetoric of economic and social change that would benefit the poor rather than perpetuate their misdirection under the rule of Brahmins and Banias. The violence unleashed by this movement was central to the politics of the time, with all the major parties coming together to denounce it as ‘disintegrationist’, ‘anti-national’, ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘extremist’ and Indira Gandhi authorizing the infamous Operation Bluestar to flush militants out of the Golden Temple in Amritsar. She paid for it with her life when her Sikh bodyguards assassinated her and the Sikhs of Delhi paid for that with theirs in the riots that consumed the national capital under the Congress government in 1984.
Chauthi Koot does not concern itself in any clear way with these colourings. It tells two stories: the first, post-Bluestar, follows a group of travellers who have snuck themselves onto a train headed to Amritsar (it was deemed necessary to disallow the train from carrying any passengers on the last leg of its journey) and the second, pre-Bluestar, takes a close look at the relationship between a farming family and its dog as their farmstead is set upon at different points by militants, who need it for shelter in the area, and the Indian army, which is making a big deal of leaving no stone unturned in its search for militants.
The narrative unfolds with deliberate slowness, allowing a sense of impending catastrophe to build and loom over the inactivity. Through this it conveys the plight of those caught in the crossfire between State-authorised violence and anti-State violence, helpless and afraid. The tension is released in a climactic event that is understated and underplayed and, yet, heartrending and profound; contained in the degeneration of the relationship between the persecuted family and Tommy the guard dog are core truths about systemic violence: how it oozes down bloodily from the powerful to the powerless, how contact with it is infectious because it perpetuates itself by creating conditions from which escape or relief seem impossible without recourse to it and how the obscenity of this dynamic can be best understood in its apathy towards innocents.
There is both contrast and continuity in these two stories, in more ways than one. They are stories of disruption, experienced in different ways. The frustrations and travails of the farming family are located in the hinterland
On the other hand, the story of the travellers illustrates how a group of innocents subvert State orders (that they not be allowed to travel on the railways for security reasons) to carry on with their ordinary lives. What stands out about this subversion is its commitment to due process: canvassing the support of other travellers, making appeals to officials, renewing efforts after initial setbacks, negotiating terms, extending apologies for inconveniences caused, and sticking together and helping a brother out. It tells a tale of what the common man must do amidst prevailing insecurity to keep on keeping on, but more importantly, how this is done within a civilised framework in spite of prevailing insecurity.
There is both contrast and continuity in these two stories, in more ways than one. They are stories of disruption, experienced in different ways. The frustrations and travails of the farming family are located in the hinterland, where they find themselves alone against forces that hold them hostage. The solidarity of the travellers can be seen as a function of connectivity, symbolised by the railway network that is the site of their struggle. Subtle hints about development can be read into these thematic relationships, and this is perhaps the greatest strength of Chauthi Koot: by not striving to say anything too directly, it opens up a world of indirect references that can be unearthed through engagement and reflection.
From the perspective of business, this aspect is the film’s weakness. Although Singh’s cinematography is often exquisite, especially in its use of negative space (large swathes of empty farmland swaying in the breeze) to evoke isolation and threat, his determination to reject market imperatives (bombarding viewers with action- and/or star-centric visuals and sounds that distract from and at the same time complement formulaic plotlines) makes Chauthi Koot vulnerable to complaints regarding its yawn-inducing pace and apparent disinterest in actual events. But the slow cinema movement, fathered by Andrei Tarkovsky, legitimised by towering figures of world cinema such as Bela Tarr, Michelangelo Antonioni and Chantal Akerman, and carried forward today by non-Western filmmakers like Jia Zhang-ke, Carlos Reygadas and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, is rooted in an opposition to these very yardsticks. Shots must not be so brief as to reduce the viewing experience into a stimulus-response experiment that precludes thought and involvement.
Chauthi Koot cannot be classified as slow cinema, but the logic that informs it is the same. One of the minor reasons this film has gained prominence is its director’s decision to forgo accepting the National Award he won for it, on the grounds that, while the Awards are meant to promote regional cinema, all the major ones went to high-profile commercial blockbusters (Baahubali, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Bajirao Mastani, Tanu Weds Manu Returns, Piku). Gurvinder Singh has set his standards higher, and he has delivered.