Gurvinder Singh’s National Award winning film Chauthi Koot(The Fourth Direction) is an unfolding of human attachment and vulnerability in the time of definitive political progression. Set in a seething conflict zone, Punjab of 1980s- in the context of the Khalistan movement and Operation Blue Star- the film plays upon the idea of suffering and everyday existence in a conflict situation, and human foibles that get cracked open.
Based on Waryam Singh Sandhu’s short stories’ collection of the same name, the film weaves two stories to form part of one filmic narrative, though they appear unrelated and independently episodic.
Upon the film’s opening, distrust hangs stiff in the air as two Hindu men in their mid thirties and a middle aged Sikh man forcefully negotiate their way on board the day’s last train leaving Ferozepur for Amritsar, in times when the gravity of the security situation of post Operation Blue Star era is chillingly alluded to in every second exchange. As their emotionally uneasy train journey begins, it progresses into the pre- Operation Blue Star story of Joginder Singh, a zamindar, and his family comprising of mother, wife, two pre- teen kids in addition to an extended family of cousins and uncles for neighbours; and Tommy, their pet dog and the doted epicenter of their attachment. Through Tommy, the family tries to hold onto the reigns of normalcy in times of political boil. Tommy’s unceasing barking threatens the covert movement of Khalistani groups at night and can possibly alert the State’s security forces and hence, the family is asked to get rid of him. The mutual attachment between the pet and his family makes this a task full of emotional rigour, inviting a threatening visit by the akalis and a resultant CRPF(Central Reserve Police Force) raid upon their home. The film rattles the normative ideas of siding with either party in a conflict situation and revels in the hapless holding on to an increasingly distant and elusive way of existing. By using Tommy as a metaphor for life as it would have been if not for the tectonic shifts in political geography, the authors of the text and film indulge in the impossible logic of trying to distance oneself from the tumult that has gripped one’s world, as long as it is avoidable to jump into the steering of larger political destinies. But the measured sensitivity of projection and the wholesome range of greys in which the characters exist make it a film that can impress deeply upon a viewer’s memory.
The characters of Chauthi Koot are played by theatre actors and non- actors, with faces that are relatable and who speak in accents that are nuanced, even when dialogue is sparse. The character of guard sahib who allows himself to be torn between duty and empathy and lays bare his dilemma in moist eyes, voice with unsure authority and compassion cloaked in indifference as he accepts the ticket price to morally legitimize the unauthorised travellers; is the first striking one in chronology. Joginder remains the understated outperformer, battling the moral crisis of getting rid of Tommy while being sentimentally tethered to him. Even tertiary characters like the local doctor’s accomplice who asserts to give up culling voiceless beings like dogs throw a spot of brilliance in their tightly measured screen time.
The film begins in each of its seeming endings- when the Khalistani soldiers are about to kill Joginder for disobeying their orders, when Tommy refuses to eat the poisened curd,when the CRPF company’s head orders for Tommy to be shot and a deathly gunshot is fired, a massive procession of Sikhs interjected by invisible gun- firing forces, Tommy appearing to have gone lifeless after Joginder hits him with a shovel and the morning after when he is loaded onto and driven away in a trolley. Its last exchange conveys the painful jist of existing in a conflict region when the Sikh traveller complains aloud to his fellow Hindu travellers upon being left behind on a deserted stretch-“Tussi mainu udeekeya vi nai, ae tussi mere naal changi gal nai keeti!”(You did not even pause to wait on me, this was such disheartening treatment). Trust is often the first casualty in such times, such places.[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Uneasiness and fear percolate from every pore of the visuals crafted by cinematographer Satya Rai Nagpaul and stay for uncomfortably long spans, making one feel as if the plot progression is happening in real time. There are other times when the camera wakes up as if from a manic dream and switches to fast pans.[/perfectpullquote] Chauthi Koot has the ability to seize a person with no lived experience of a conflict zone and smear them in sensations of dread that is always only a pulse away. The indignation, violence, fear and mistrust that become life’s refrain in such a situation are effortlessly blown in and remain unmarried to the milieu, rendering it into a universal tale of a conflict ridden region. In this, the planting of culturally distant uniformed forces to guard the nation’s sovereignty from its own people, raiding people’s homes and turning around lives, young children witnessing violent exchanges, the negotiations of anti- state forces, the bubbling desire to shun inaction and dive into participation, abductions and enforced disappearances; could be Punjab of the 1980s or any other region riled in political rebellion.
Uneasiness and fear percolate from every pore of the visuals crafted by cinematographer Satya Rai Nagpaul and stay for uncomfortably long spans, making one feel as if the plot progression is happening in real time. There are other times when the camera wakes up as if from a manic dream and switches to fast pans. A good volume of the narrative is unfolded in what is not seen on screen. Violence and the bloodied armed strife is always a pervasive presence in its visible absence. Designed with minimalistic background music, Chauthi Koot carries forward these stylistic elements from Gurvinder Singh’s previous film Anhe Ghode Da Daan(Alms For A Blind Horse) that projected an unnervingly drab Punjab of the Dalits of Punjab’s Malwa who, till this day, work as seeri or bonded agricultural labourers on the fields of land- owning Jatt sikhs. In both films, the filmmaker is able to carve out a Punjab that is an antithesis of the vibrant and ever celebratory image of Punjab that one is used to witness in popular culture and Bollywood cinema.
Chauthi Koot is a film made to be experienced through quiet absorption and remembered for its shrieking silences.