Director: Rishi Chandna
Genre: Short documentary
Tungrus, directed by Rishi Chandna, is an infinitely expressive little 13-minute documentary that thrives on the fact that it can be observed through multiple viewpoints. The subject is irresistible: the Mumbai-based Bharde family and their two cats are having trouble adjusting to their new pet, a raging rooster. For starters, the film can serve as a quirky social portrait – the nutty bird repeatedly swoops into every frame to disrupt the mundaneness of a quiet household. This image is occasionally followed by its figurative translation: low-angle shots of booming airplanes flying over the sprawl of suburbia accommodating the congested apartment.
The film can also operate as an odd tale of communal harmony – it is shot entirely indoors, with each member speaking about the strange six-month-old houseguest, almost as if to suggest that the hungry eyes of the human world outside of this space might not be as merciful. The makers allow us – at least those of us inclined to undertake animated flights of fancy – to imagine that the Bhardes have deliberately defied the food chain and earned the wrath of their own community to harbor the “enemy”. This is an opportunity to explore the grand humanity of their gesture.
The film might even pass off as a well-disguised PETA video – the sight of a gangster chicken having its way in a home full of non-vegetarians is one that underdog movie legends like Babe, Paddington and Nemo would take pride in. But perhaps the essence of Tungrus lies in its title – that is, the name of the resourceful Naseeruddin Shah character from Shyam Benegal’s Mandi that is bestowed upon the eccentric Mr. Bharde by his amused wife. Because, beneath its playful exterior, Tungrus is an illuminating Indian behavioral drama.
It is primarily about a retired patriarch for whom the rooster has become a device to retain his individuality over an exasperated family. He has clearly developed an inexplicable affection towards the bird; they share a bond that he is happy to speak about on camera. In fact, to portray instances of the rooster being a lovable nuisance, Mr. Bharde even visibly participates in the staging of some scenes – especially those where he must appear jolted by the bird’s aggressive jump scares. He seems exceptionally keen, and understandably so, given that he was the one who adopted the chick on a whim.
In contrast, his sons and wife appear wry and less than impressed – with the man’s impulsive decision as much as the actual presence of the rooster. The peace of their noisy city existence has been compromised. Dangerous ceiling fans have been replaced by modest table fans. From the way the brothers speak on camera, it appears that relations with their old man are a little strained. Shots of the cocky rooster bullying the two cats even reflect the invisible equation between the charismatic man and his reserved boys. Their upbringing in a culturally diverse atmosphere (the mother is Catholic) might have however conditioned them to adapt better than most – which is why there is a slight hint of fondness for the bird even as they whine about its cannibalistic and excretory habits.
Mr. Bharde is unimpressed, too, about their attitude towards it – we never see them speak about the rooster in the same frame – but he also detects this grudging fondness. As a result, the film is expertly constructed, through personal interviews, in a manner that makes it appear as if the man is subtly seeking his family’s validation. He is demonstrative and vocal about the rooster’s temperament in the way an empathetic father is about an ugly duckling – in the hope that it pushes onlookers to be honest about their own positive feelings.
Towards the end, then, it is no surprise that he is the first one to address the ‘elephant in the room’ – do chickens belong in their hearts or on their plates? He knows that, in their reactions to this difficult moral quandary, he will locate the truth of their attachment to the rowdy bird. If they hesitate the slightest bit, he will win the battle of egos. His unfiltered take on this conflict expresses the sentiment of a man more concerned with the hierarchy of nature within his four walls than outside it.
It is to the makers’ credit that the rooster – who remains unnamed and exquisitely photographed – turns out to be more than just an accidental metaphor for big-city generational discord. In terms of controlled storytelling, this is something to crow about.