Some followers of Indian independent and regional cinema may be more familiar with Bikas Ranjan Mishra’s now-on-hiatus website DearCinema.com than the man himself. The portal, which doggedly covered the film stories usually ignored by the mainstream media, ran out of funds and shut shop — temporarily, he says — about a year ago.
Now, his readers as well as lovers of offbeat cinema will get a chance to see Mishra’s love for the medium via another labour of love. His directorial debut Chauranga arrives in theatres across the country today after a successful run at various international film festivals. In November 2014, it had won the top prize for Indian films at the 16th Mumbai Film Festival, the Golden Gateway Of India Award (India Gold), beating out the much-praised Marathi feature Killa. Later, in April 2015, it won the Grand Jury Prize (Best Feature) at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles.
An uncompromising film about caste and sexual oppression in a small village in the Chhota Nagpur region of Jhardkhand, Chauranga has taken six years to go from an idea to a full-fledged feature that has been partly crowd-funded and partly funded by a number of entities. These include filmmaker Onir (whose company Anticlock Films is a co-producer), actor Sanjay Suri (who also plays one of its leads), filmmaker Sujoy Ghosh, the government-run National Film Development Corporation (NFDC), and others. Aside from that, it has also received cash grants from Sweden’s Göteborg Film Festival as well as the NFDC’s annual Film Bazaar, by way of an award for best project in the co-production market.
Many players, clearly, have placed their faiths in Mishra’s first ever feature-length film, which is entirely in an eastern dialect called Khortha that borrows from Hindi, Bengali, and Oriya. Chauranga largely follows brothers Santu and Bajrangi (Soham Maitra, its protagonist, and Riddhi Sen), belonging to a low caste, who rear pigs with their mother Dhaniya (Tannishtha Chatterjee); it examines their relationship with the family headed by the cruel village alpha-land-owner Dhaval (Suri) and his daughter Mona (Bengali TV actress Ena Saha), who also happens to be the object of Santu’s affections. Several criss-crossing story threads strive to highlight the realities of caste hierarchies in rural India, the ever-pervasive threat of violence, and the repressed sexuality that is also often hypocritical in its nature.
“It's not a demonstrative film about the caste system," said Mishra, in a phone conversation with HuffPost India earlier this week. “It's the story of a boy, in which caste plays a huge role in his journey.”
Sanjay Suri, in a still from 'Chaurangaa'
Tannishtha Chatterjee, in a still from 'Chaurangaa'
The 35-year-old drew from his own childhood experiences for the film. The son of a lawyer, his childhood was spent in Hazaribagh, a small town in Jharkhand. There, his father would take him often to one of the oldest cinemas in town, owned by a client. “When I was there, the caste system was very noticeable in everyday life,” he said. “But in recent years, I’ve noticed one thing: there are no drummers in the village anymore, which would usually be men from the lower castes. The newer generations are trying to move away and find newer opportunities, either there or in cities, and moving away from the hierarchy.”
In his teens, Mishra’s family moved to the state’s famed steel-town, Jamshedpur. “You could say it was a cinema-literate town,” he said. “That’s where my fascination with films really began.” The late ‘90s saw Bollywood break away from formula with films such as Satya (1998), Dil Se (1998), and Kaun (1999). They released in theatres there to long queues and full houses, remembers Mishra. As a member of a local film society called Celluloid Chapter, he spent his spare time devouring films by renowned filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard and Andrei Tarkovsky at frequently-held retrospectives and a bi-annual film festival.
His introduction to the world of filmmaking was through a one-day workshop conducted by filmmaker Imtiaz Ali. It was the late ‘90s and Ali wasn’t a known name yet. He would also get opportunities to interact with Bengali filmmakers such as Mrinal Sen and Rituparno Ghosh, who would travel there for the film society’s events.
This continued when he graduated college with a degree in mass communication, and headed to Delhi to do a master’s at Jamia Milia Islamia. “By then, video cassettes and later DVDs had made it very easy to watch a lot of films; plus, I was also meeting a lot of critics and historians,” he said.
Mishra (right), during the shoot of 'Chauranga'
Having decided to become a filmmaker, he took up a job as a producer at a business channel to be able to move to Mumbai. For four years, he worked on shows that dealt with personal finance and white-collar crimes. Around the same time that the wildly popular film blog Passion For Cinema (defunct for many years) came up, he quit his job to start DearCinema.com and gave up smoking to save money so he could fund his passion project.
“DearCinema was about bringing in learned assessment and writing from professionals who really knew what they were talking about,” he said. Noted film journalists and critics associated with FIPRESCI wrote for the website for free, while a rag-tag staff worked for “very little” money.
Over the years, Mishra worked on getting Chauranga made while running the website, which enjoyed a small-but-regular following, and freelancing for various publications as a cinema writer. Meanwhile, he continues to work as an independent screen-writer (he has penned a Marathi indie coming out later this year).
Presently, he is simply looking forward to completing this final leg of the film’s journey. “This is the most important time, because it’s when the imaginary world in which you made the film meets the real world.” He hopes to make his next film a political satire which won’t be quite as grim as his debut. “One thing I’ve realised is that just because I am angry about something, it doesn’t mean it needs to show in my film.”
Chauranga has released with English subtitles in select theatres across India.
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