A scene from director Gurvinder Singh’s film Chauthi Koot shows two middle-aged Hindu men, with fear writ large on their faces and a hurried pace of walking followed by running as if their life depends on it, reach the Jalandhar railway station after having arrived in the city in a bus from Chandigarh.
A train arrives soon but it is just a long attachment of empty bogies going to Amritsar after nightfall due to security reasons. An older Sikh traveller comes and gives this bit of information to the two waiting men. When they approach a policeman to request for being allowed on the train, he quips, ‘How can I trust you?’- packing the entire dismal tale of Punjab of the 1980s in this question.
Talking about the evolvement of cinematic scenes in his film, the fate of trust among people and myriad other issues arising from communal disharmony and social degradation, Gurvinder says, “Rumours can sway people in any direction. Lynching of Muslims over suspicion of eating beef is the most recent example. A lack of trust between Hindus and Sikhs in the 1980s led to a prolonged period of violence by both the state and militants. I felt it was important to portray the suffering of common people during that time,” says Gurvinder.
He has adapted the script from Waryam Singh Sandhu’s short stories ‘Chauthi Koot’ and ‘Main Hun Thik Thak Haan’, connecting the tale of anxious travellers with one of a farmer and former kabaddi player Joginder Singh, his family and dog Tommy, respectively. Chauthi Koot premièred at the Cannes Film Festival this year and also won the Golden Gateway of India award at the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival.
Talking about why he combined the two tales, Gurvinder says, “Diversifying the narrative sheds dominance of characters and the result is a multiplicity of emotions and perspectives. The two stories certainly provide a wider canvas,” he says. Giving an example from the movie, he says, “To portray a scene at the station during the night at the peak of militancy and state repression in Punjab, we did a recce and came across a boot polisher. The policemen getting their shoes polished from him represents the hierarchy, particularly of those times,” he adds.
The scene depicting the swelling ‘jatha’ of villagers going towards a gurdwara after the Indian Army’s Operation Blue Star inside the Golden Temple complex captures the feelings of the Sikh community when the fountainhead institution came under attack in a pitched battle between the state and militants. But can an impassioned crowd think coherently? A Sarbat Khalsa was held at Chabba village in Amritsar on November 10 after incidents of desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib.
“I don’t think a gathering swayed by incidents of unrest can decide on a wise course of action as it requires prolonged reflection,” says Gurvinder.
Speaking on the performance of the film at festivals, he says, “The jury don’t always know about the history of Punjab in which the film is set. Cinema must move the viewer emotionally. History, dry use of ideas or other devices can’t bring success.”
In another powerful scene in the film, the dog Tommy is unable to understand the complexities of the situation and still wants to bark and run to his satisfaction, especially when he detects militants. On one such fateful night, Joginder has to kill the dog for fear of his barking. Everything goes quiet. Martyrs among men are plenty but Tommy actually travels in the fourth direction (Chauthi Koot) with the perspectives of the state, militants and common people being the other three.
“I will say Tommy is vital to the central theme of the film, and represents the voiceless,” says Gurvinder.
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