A Dog And His Man Movie Review: A Quiet, Moving Record Of A Village That Vanishes Due To The Coal Beneath It

Siddharth Tripathy’s film was premiered as an Official Selection at Vancouver International Film Festival. It will be screened at Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival With Star, 2019

Director: Siddharth Tripathy

Cast: Balu

The title of Siddharth Tripathy’s quiet, moving film sounds like something out of a fable, or a folk song: A Dog and His Man. The analogy is not far off the mark. The story is about Shoukie (Balu), a man who looks to be in his late fifties, or maybe in his sixties. There’s a timeless quality about the setting, a village in Raigarh. There’s a timelessness about Shoukie, too — and to describe the kind of place Shoukie is from, the kind of life he leads, I’ll give you this scene. Shoukie and his friend go fishing. It’s not the image you get when you hear the word, that of a man with a rod, waiting for something to bite. This is about Shoukie and his friend holding a length of cloth between them and swinging it back and forth in the water, until it’s filled with plump, wriggling fish.

It’s a good catch, so the men decide to celebrate with a drink. They go to the house of the local arrack seller and sit on the floor, as though for a meal. But when they hear how much it costs, they realise they are short of money. So Shoukie says he’ll trade one of the freshly caught fish, which is unlike the fish in the market because that’s kept in cold storage. Mission accomplished, but the point of the scene is to contrast Shoukie with people like his son, who aren’t content to lead this idyllic life. They don’t care about the freshness of fish. They want a job that will give them real money. They want a real house, made of concrete, and with “bijli-paani”. That is what the Corporation has promised them, in return for their land.

The director isn’t holding up a placard. He is making a record. He’s talking about what coal has done to these villages, but he doesn’t rub our face in the (literal) darkness

The Corporation could signify any industry. This is, after all, a story familiar from all over the country. In A Dog and His Man, it’s a coal company. In the 1990s, coal deposits were discovered in the area, and there was an influx of corporations. A title card at the opening tells us: “Villages, farmlands and forests were transformed into giant pits of coal. The locations where this film was shot are likely to disappear into one such pit.” But the film isn’t agitprop. There’s no anger, except perhaps in the volunteers from an NGO who ask these villagers to fight for their own land. “Is ghulami se kaise bachenge aap?” they ask, though even this attempt to help comes with a distancing effect because they speak in Hindi, while the villagers speak Chhattisgarhi. (All parts are played by residents of these villages.)

The film is more a lament, like the unseen woman’s song we hear early on, floating over the credits, and over abandoned houses: “I remember those younger days of love, but you have forgotten me…” The director isn’t holding up a placard. He is making a record. He’s talking about what coal has done to these villages, but he doesn’t rub our face in the (literal) darkness. When Shoukie and his friend talk about all this, after their drink, cinematographer Sandeep P Kumar frames them through the doorway, behind which we see trees and skies and the sun. Often, the camera stays still, watching the landscape as people amble across the screen. At times, they are dwarfed by nature. At times, they are dwarfed by the factory. The swarming ants in the first shot are perhaps too much of a symbol, but gradually, the symbolism begins to fit. In a conversation with his wife, who brings up Gandhi, Shoukie says, “I know about the village. What do I know about the nation?” He’s an ant going about his business. Why is that a bad thing?

Often, the camera stays still, watching the landscape as people amble across the screen. At times, they are dwarfed by nature. At times, they are dwarfed by the factory

The other creature of the title is named Kheru. A company representative tells Shoukie that almost everyone has left the village and blasting will begin soon, but Shoukie refuses to leave Kheru behind. “My dog dies at home, that’s for sure.” The film quotes Pablo Neruda’s A Dog Has Died. “My dog has died / I buried him in the garden / next to a rusted old machine. / Some day I’ll join him right there…” In a flashback, Shoukie’s wife orders him to get rid of the dog, and he tries, but it keeps coming back. An acquaintance says: You can leave the dog but will the dog leave you? Is Kheru, then, a metaphor? Perhaps. At one point, we see Shoukie in the company’s premises, asleep on mounds of rock. A security guard wakes him up and asks him to leave, because people may think he’s a thief. Shoukie wonders how he can steal something that is already his. He doesn’t see that the land isn’t his anymore. This isn’t like bartering with fish. This is a world whose currency is money. The coal matters more than this dog, and his man.

"Baradwaj Rangan : Baradwaj Rangan is a National Award-winning film critic. He has authored Conversations with Mani Ratnam and Dispatches From the Wall Corner. His long-form story on Vikram was featured in The Caravan Book of Profiles, as one of their “twelve definitive profiles.” His short story, The Call, was published in The Indian Quarterly. He has written screenplays and works for theatre. He teaches a course on cinema at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.."
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