In 2008, director Bikas Mishra read a report about a young Dalit boy in Bihar, who was pushed under a train because he had written a love letter to an upper caste girl. Mishra used this event to build a story that culminated in the movie Chauranga, which means a pen with four colours. Mishra used it to comment on the caste system based on colour. This film won the first prize in the Mumbai Academy of the Moving Image (MAMI) Mumbai Film Festival India Gold section in 2014.

The film unfolds through the eyes of 14-year-old Dalit boy Santu in Bihar, who spends his day looking after his pigs and sitting in the branches of a jamun tree, watching the headman’s daughter pass on her bike to school. His only dream is to go to school like his older brother Bajrangi but he can’t because of his refusal to touch the feet of the headman Dhawal, who is having a secret affair with Santu and Bajrangi’s mother, Dhaniya.

The film hurtles towards a violent end when Bajrangi learns of Santu’s infatuation and helps him write a love letter to Dhawal’s daughter.

The film succeeds in creating an eerie feeling of something simmering underneath the surface, apt for a film whose aim is to show the violence inherent in the rigid structures of the caste system.

In this interview, Mishra talks about the writing process, the influence of Satyajit Ray and Luis Buñuel on his craft, and what’s right and wrong with the independent filmmaking scene in India.

How did the idea of Chauranga come about?

I had this idea about my ancestral village, Salgawan, five kilometres from Hazaribagh (in Jharkhand). We still live there, in a way. Our house is at least 200 years old and for all the events of our life—birth, marriage and death—we have to go back.

I find village life more interesting than city life, and when I started to develop this idea, one of the recurring images was that of the house. So many events of my life have happened there. I had a school friend with whom I studied till our graduation. As a child you are not aware of differences. He belonged to a different caste and I should not have been seen even interacting with him. My family outwardly let me be with him but my uncles and cousins warned me that I should not eat with that fellow.

It’s traditional for us to touch the elders’ feet when we go to someone’s house, but I was warned that I should not do that when I go to his house. Even if I tried, his father would never allow me to. If I touched his feet by mistake, he would touch my feet back. I felt these differences personally and wanted to show that in my film. Sitting in Mumbai, it can look like a story from a different time, but these differences are lived experiences.

How did you become aware of these differences and inequalities when you were growing up?

One person in Hazaribagh who made me realise these issues was Ramanika Gupta. She is a well-known author in Hindi and when I was in Class 11 and 12, I started working with her in a way. She was a Dalit writer and feminist, a deadly combination.

After my matriculation, I enrolled in St Columba’s College in Hazaribagh but I was not interested in physics, chemistry and biology. I did it because everybody else was doing it but I hardly went to college.

I wrote for a small newspaper called Hazaribagh Times from my school days, about everything from the prime minister’s foreign trips to the opening up of satellite channels by Doordarshan. But what I developed was a taste for writing satire. I wrote for many publications and then became a part of a literary club in Hazaribagh, Karavan-e-Adab, a group mostly comprising Muslims whose passion was poetry. This group held a monthly mushaira.

I started learning Urdu and attending the monthly mushaira, Mahana Tarhi Mushaira. When we teamed up, we thought: let’s bring out something in Hindi, Devanagari script so that more people can read. We aimed to start a magazine but we were short of money, so we started a folder—one sheet of paper folded into eight small pages. It had short stories, short poems, and I used to write an editorial.

This is how I met Ramanika Gupta. She took notice of this magazine. She brought out a quarterly called Aam Aadmi, the mouthpiece of the CPM. She was a trade union leader; she had been the elected MLA from Kujju constituency. She also had a printing press.

She told us: ‘Let’s call your magazine Nav Sandesh, the youth wing of CPM’s mouthpiece’. She asked us to just write and said she would take care of the printing and distribution. In return she would add that it was the official publication of CPM’s youth wing. Our names were also added in Aam Aadmi. She gave me the job of copyediting and proofreading Aam Aadmi.

I found her attitudes fascinating. Whatever I was exposed to in literature was controlled and sophisticated. But her writing was crude: she described what was not often described, like her sexual encounters, and sexual encounters of women in vivid detail. Her language contained many abusive words. She didn’t restrain herself. At times I was offended by her descriptions of a Brahmin, Rajput or zamindar family.

All her stories had details of exploitation of tribal women by zamindars, especially droit du seigneur. There was a highly exploitative system in Hazaribagh, now in Chattra, called bahu jutaai. When a man got married in the village, the doli of the bride would first stop at the zamindar’s mansion and the bride would spend her first night there. There’s probably a reaction to that ... the entire area is now practically controlled by Maoists.

I was only 16 or 17 then, working with her publication and running our own little magazine. It was a time when most of my political ideas were being formed. I had studied in an RSS school, with its hardcore Hindutva ideology. So between the extreme right and left I was trying to navigate my way.

Ramanika Gupta played a key part in exposing me to the other side of the spectrum. I finally came to Mumbai, quit my job, and started thinking about where to begin, what to write if I have to write a film. I always had an idea of my own village and after so many years, I could look at it objectively. I could think about the kind of privilege I had. I could question my own life. But I had no idea how to piece together a story around the village.

At that point I came upon a newspaper piece about a boy thrown in front of a running train, because he happened to be from a different caste and he had written a love letter to a girl of a different caste. This gave me a structure.

Right from the beginning the idea was not to do a documentary but to explore why it happened. What kind of village permits such an incident? I had insight in village life, you know, about the façade and the reality. The façade is that there is democracy; there is an elected mukhiya now. But the reality is that he belongs to the majority caste. Even the elected mukhiya in my own village was less powerful than our family because most of the land belongs to us. Secondly, if the MLA from Hazaribagh visited the village, he would come to our house, not the mukhiya’s. It gave more power to our family.

The entire family in my movie veers around this character called Santu. I associate with him, but I belong to the other end. Maybe it’s a confession. I have not perpetrated any violence on anyone but my hands are not clean. I have been part of this exploitative system, so it affects me still.

How much is autobiographical?

It’s not entirely fictional. I did not see these precise events but I have heard stories. All these zamindars had kept women. It was an accepted institution; you know, just for fun you have an affair, but her limits are set. She is good in a cowshed or somewhere else but she is not allowed in the house. And she will not be acknowledged.

I used these ideas in the film. You see the relationship of Dhaniya always in the cowshed cleaning dung or drawing water from the well, but you will never see her in the courtyard. There is a spatial demarcation. Even in the scene where the two women are together, I have used the situation to demarcate where one belongs.

Dhaniya is washing the feet of the MLA and is sitting down while the wife is doing aarti. They are comfortable in each others’ company; they probably even know what’s going on.

So, what was writing process like?

Once I had one line of the story—a boy is killed for writing a letter—I wrote the first draft in a week’s time. That’s how much I have taken from reality. The rest is completely imagined. But I had no way to understand whether the story was good enough for a film, or whether anybody in the industry would fund a film like that. I worked for MAMI till 2009. I quit to work on my story but I had no idea how to go ahead with it. I realised I needed guidance.

Thankfully, the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) Screenwriters’ Lab existed, so I applied. I got selected. The first session was in Locarno (Switzerland) where my mentor happened to be Marten Rabarts. And then it became a very rewarding journey writing the script.

 How did he help to hone your script?

Unlike many experts who start with advice, he started with questions. He asked me about my background and why I am writing this script and not any other script. He asked about the characters; for example, why is the priest in the story blind? Why does Santu play with hoop and roller, and not with anything else?

These questions made me think and look for more detail in my own script. The first draft that I submitted lacked a structure.

Was it very different from the final version?

No, the story was the same. Except for the first part, where the characters were set up, he advised me to build them gradually rather than bring them on just like that. The second session was in Goa and when I met him, I had 120 pages in comparison with 50 pages in the first draft. It had all the missing details and the structure.

But perhaps in reaction to my first draft, I oversimplified things in the second. I thought people would not understand the intricacies of the caste system so I introduced a character who would explain things like a sutradhar and it completely ruined the narrative process.

Can you give me an example of this?

There was a whole new character, a drummer, who was to be seen in the temple. In the second draft he became the narrator. His idea was to sum up things. He would comment on everything, like in the scene in the temple where he explained, ‘Boy, you are not allowed there’. In other scenes, he had conversations with people to convey ideas. But it was counterproductive.

I met Marten again and we discussed the script, scene by scene, and I realised it was not working because I underlined things. Sadly we had only two sessions and I felt I needed further guidance. I applied for the Berlinale Talents Script Station and I was selected for it. It is also a lab and I wrote to Marten and he replied, ‘Do you mind if I mentor you again?’ I had other choices but Marten was someone who had invested so much in the script so I accepted.

I went to Berlin and we met for half an hour. I then spent two days in my hotel room finishing the script, as I didn’t know when I was going to meet him again. On the fourth day, I showed him the draft. So, this was the major writing process.

The draft in Berlin was the third draft, but the draft that became the movie was the tenth. Many things had to be changed depending on the actors, the location. I kept improvising.

How did you decide upon the mood? It has an ominous feel, with the blind and lecherous priest, the creeping snake: how did you come upon these images?

I think it came intuitively, right from the beginning. I had a tough time finding an actor to play the priest. It wasn’t a nice role, and all these old actors want to do very nice roles. I never expected Dhritiman Chatterjee to play that. He was the first person to point out the mood; he said, ‘Your biggest challenge is to keep that mood in the film.’ Not much happens in the beginning in terms of drama. What happens are very ordinary things like that boy sitting and talking on the tree—but there are some undercurrents.

That has also come out clearly because of the discussions with Marten. The film is structured like that. The idea was that I build this slowly and in the end, this thing just turns around. The real face of the village is exposed, it’s violent, and it’s cruel. That’s how a village is. If you talk to the people, they are very nice, like a village in a Bollywood film is like. But this is just the surface. Underneath there is violence, oppression and deceit. The idea was to wait for that moment to bring it to the surface.

Did you have any particular movie in mind while making the film? For example, Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, where nothing much happens on the surface but there is an undercurrent of evil.

Someone I was always thinking of was Satyajit Ray because Ray captures villages beautifully. I like Ray so much, I can’t tell you! I discovered Ray thanks to a teacher called Rashmi Doraiswamy, who taught cinema in Jamia. When we watched Pather Panchali together, Rashmi explained the layers of the film. It’s not just a film; there is all this symbolism, like the lota rolling when the old woman dies. There is so much cultural context. I read everything about Ray. I have even read his childhood memoirs and I was so pleased to know that he had been to Hazaribagh!

There are two filmmakers whose influence is paramount. One is Ray and the other is Luis Buñuel. They have a fundamental philosophical difference. Ray always looked for goodness in human beings. In utmost poverty and hardship, he showed that people are ultimately good. They care for each other.

Buñuel, on the other hand, always made films in which he brought out the worst in human beings. His whole idea was to always expose the bourgeoisie. He made The Exterminating Angel, about a group of elite French people invited to a dinner party. There is no visible obstacle but they cannot leave the place. It is as if they are imprisoned there, but there is nothing physical stopping them from walking out. They run out of water, they run out of supplies, and they really become beasts in the film. They start killing each other.

So, they are two extremes. I love the warmth of Ray’s characters but politically I sided with the bestiality of Buñuel’s characters. I see a direct inspiration from Buñuel in my film. If I look back at the character of Lali Pandey, the blind priest, I see a resonance with the blind street singer in Los Olvidados (The Young and the Damned) by Buñuel.

Why did you cast the polished Sanjay Suri for the role of the village headman?

I met Sanjay through Onir, who produced the movie with Sanjay. I met Onir during the Script Lab and Marten was also his mentor. Sanjay is his business partner—a warm, friendly person—and I developed a fondness for him. At the same time he also has a hidden rage in him. The character of Dhawal fits that. He is a quiet person, very sophisticated. He will not even scream at anybody. If he is angry the worst he would do is to say, ‘Nachaniya ho kya? Mela lagan hai kya yahan’. But there would also be a hint of a smile. That’s when he is in control over his own self.

But he also has this hidden rage. When it overtakes him, he can do anything. He can kill someone, like the way he smashes his daughter’s head against the mirror, or kicks the boy.

The idea of Dhawal was of someone who is polished and educated, maybe has been abroad. He is the only heir to this huge estate. Maybe that’s the burden of his life. Otherwise he would have settled somewhere abroad or done something else.

Is that the reason why he gets emotionally involved with Dhaniya, the lower caste woman?

The back story is that when Dhawal was in the final year of college, he was called back because his father was ailing. Then his father died and he was left with this. I have met people like that. During my recce, I went to every royal family in Jharkhand. I met a king who had rented his mansion, called Sheesh Mahal, on a little hillock. He rented it out to a security guard and they keep their dogs in the mansion, some 25 dogs in a mansion!

This is the story of Dhawal. He would probably have led a very different life under different circumstances. He is educated, his wife is definitely educated. She comes from a liberal family, because where else would she get the idea of educating her daughter, so much so that she even goes against her husband’s wishes. Dhawal himself is a victim of this huge mansion. He can’t give it away; at the same time he has to maintain its prestige and honour. That was one of the core ideas that Dhawal would not be like a filmi zamindar but he would have his own struggles.

When you first see Dhawal and Dhaniya together, you know that this is not a new affair. It’s like a ritual. Perhaps he finds some kind of solace in this woman. Even though he is not loyal to his wife, there is a hint of loyalty to this woman. I worked in detail for every character. Many people asked me why he is doing this when he has such a pretty wife.

Yes, what was the cause for disaffection between them?

There is an underrated element in the character of his wife.  She is a rebel. The very first scene starts with this man asking her not to send their daughter to school today, yet she does. She is not someone who obeys him and this directly affects his ego. He is such an egoist. The wife does not speak much but in the second encounter, when the daughter is not sent to school and he asks her ‘Mona aaj bhi school gayi hai?’, she does not answer. She walks away when she could have said ‘Nahi gayi hai. Nahi bheja aaj school’.

Her character shows a new layer when this man is finally dying and she is enjoying herself. Probably that’s the only time when she is not unhappy. She gets the chance to admire herself in the mirror. I have worked a lot in the detailing of each character. I wanted to show their characters through nuance. If the film is verbose then it loses its charm for me.

Did the characterisation change a lot after your first draft?

No, it did not. But with Marten, I had started working on themes alongside the story. On the one side there is this childlike innocence of Santu who writes a very innocent love letter. It’s hardly a love letter! On the other side is the whole village, which has a huge problem with this innocent boy writing an innocent love letter to an innocent girl.

The same village has an old, blind, frustrated priest. He practically molests the girl every night when she walks him down and it goes unnoticed. Even the girl does not complain. You have this innocent love on one side and then there is this lustful old man, the most devious man in the village. That’s the irony. The innocence is killed and this old man retains everyone’s respect.

Another theme I worked on was motherhood. These two women are better off than the men in the village. They are more progressive. The wife, her life is all about getting her educated. She sends her daughter to a school and she rides a bike, so it has to be at least five or 10 kilometres away. Even Dhaniya: her whole idea is to get her sons educated. It’s the idea of mothers wanting a better society. Even the snake is a mother, protecting the eggs she had laid somewhere. Men die eventually, only mothers can think of bringing a better tomorrow. And it will only come through education.

What was your equation with the director of photography, Ranjan Mishra?

I told him only one thing at the beginning: that he was not my cameraman, to only do things that I told him. I told him that we are co-authors and you have to understand the script as much I do for us to go ahead and shoot. One of the rules was the script is our Bible and as the director, the only privilege that I have is that I am the ultimate priest of the script. I am the ultimate interpreter so if we have a disagreement, we refer to the script and the script can only be interpreted by me.

The other thing was to get the mood right, and he spent a lot of time on that.

Some of the things that we decided at the outset was that since we were shooting in the village and we didn’t want it to look exotic, we decided to shoot mostly in close-ups.

Why do you use so many animals throughout the film?

They came to the film quite naturally. First there was Dhawal’s mansion and that had to have cows. Then the idea of Dhaniya was that she was from a tribal community in my village called Bhuniya. They are pig people. They keep pigs for livelihood. And it’s very common that all these priests are gifted goats and cows. So somebody must have gifted the priest a goat.

Was there a sexual connotation in his relationship with the goat?

It was there in the script but because of the permission and the censors and basically from the logistics point of view, we kept it nuanced. It’s good if someone notices it, otherwise it’s just an old man and a goat.

I think all social scientists should watch this movie. I felt that you had read Gerda Lerner and Uma Chakravarti because you got all the nuances of caste, gender and the underpinning sexual control of women quite right.

I don’t need to read these books because I have come from there. My understanding of the village is more like Santu’s understanding of what’s happening in the village. He does not understand like an adult, but he understand at the gut level. He understands that Dhawal is doing something wrong and that’s why he does not touch his feet. If he had, all the problems would have been solved. He would have been sent to school and this story would not have happened.

He knows something wicked is happening in the temple, otherwise why would he be lurking around the village all the time? My understanding is also like him, not at a literal level, but an instinct.

What do you think about the independent film scene in Indian cinema at this moment? Do you think it’s becoming or has become a movement, or is it something sporadic?

I think it’s a very exciting time. Movies like Court, Killa and Titli are all first feature films. So there is something definitely right. The environment is right for new voices. What is right is that the filmmaking part is solved. Technology is a great enabler.

But we have a second part, distribution and exhibition. If Guneet Monga is still unable to release Peddlers, there is a problem.

The distribution is still ruled by Bollywood. We have to screen at the same multiplexes and the distribution cost is high. But this much we can take pride in right now—we have a healthy filmmaking scene and different voices are emerging. A film like Lunchbox is so different from Titli or Ship of Theseus.

If you look at it as a movement strictly in the confines of the French New Wave movement, that was a group of 10 people who subscribed to an ideology of filmmaking. They were making similar kinds of films. Or if you see the Dogme 95 movement—they had a manifesto and were trying the same things in different ways. But here, everybody is from completely different backgrounds.

What is common is the exposure to cinema and a deliberate attempt to not be Bollywood. I think that’s a conscious choice. The other is the exposure to world cinema that affects the style of filmmaking. They adhere to a common ideology: that cinema should look natural and realistic.