The state of Punjab in the 80s was full of ‘dehshat’, a word that’s hard to translate. It approximates closest to a combination of dread and fear, and it was widespread, especially in the areas where the deep blue-robed ‘khaadkus’ played hide and seek with the military. It was the time when the Khalistan movement was at its peak, and the battle-lines were clearly drawn between the militants and the security forces: in between were the people of Punjab, torn between the two, not knowing which was the lesser evil.Gurvinder Singh’s Chauthi Koot is a marvelously authentic re-creation of that time. Those with long memories will remember how the charismatic ‘leader’ Jairnail Singh Bhindrawale and his well equipped ‘army’ was flushed out during Operation Bluestar, how the unrest which had long spilled over to the capital peaked with the assassination of Mrs Gandhi and how it led to the bloody riots in which thousands of Sikhs were killed. The pogrom, for that is what it was, was a fall-out of the mishandling of the situation in Punjab right through the end of the 70s and the early 80s.Singh’s film, which was screened in Cannes in 2015 and which won the Best Punjabi film at the national awards this year, is based on Waryam Singh Sandhu’s stories, ‘Chauthi Koot’ and ‘Hun Main Theek Thaak Haan’. It weaves both tales into one narrative, the first of which shows us a group of people, Hindus and Sikhs, heading towards Amritsar in a train, and the second which flashes back into the countryside and a family of farmers and how it dealt with that most difficult of times.The father, mother, two children, uncles, aunts, grandparents — a group which would be doing the `giddha’ and the `bhangra’ in the `ganne ke khet’ surrounding their house, in a mainstream Bollywood movies — are aware of the danger that lurks in the tall green stalks. The guns could belong to either side, but they are the ones caught in the crossfire.That sense of growing dread is evident in each frame, especially the threat that is held out to their beloved dog, Tommy. His barking alerts the security forces to the movement of the militants: clearly, he needs to be got rid of; equally clearly, here are people who love their pet as much, if not more than themselves.The narrative unfolds at an unhurried pace and yet you do not stir, not even when you can see it stretch. You watch, heart in mouth, willing for the safety and well-being of all the innocents in the frame, both two and four-legged.Singh’s signal achievement is the manner in which he makes us forget that there is a camera, despite the formalism of his style, just the way he did in his debut, Anhey Ghode Da Daan. His characters (some theatre people, some non-actors) appear rooted in the milieu; their faces are creased and lived in, and we believe in them.
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