A Bengali director who sets his film in rural Bengal and has two children as protagonists is nothing if not brave because there will inevitably be a gaggle of cinephiles who will compare it to Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955). Instead of trying to avoid references to Ray’s debut feature, director Prasun Chatterjee embraces the older film in his own. Dostojee is filled with loving odes to the unforgettable Pather Panchali. There are shots with kaash phool (kans grass) bobbing in the wind; there’s a travelling bioscope and a jatra (folk theatre) performance; there is a father who is a priest, an embittered mother and a loving elder sister; and there is the fearsome monsoon rain and the grief it can bring — yet all these details only serve to underscore just how different both Dostojee and the world in which it is set, are from Pather Panchali.
Set in 1993, Dostojee is the story of friendship between two shiny-eyed boys, Palash (Asik Shaikh) and Safikul (Arif Shaikh). Palash is the village priest’s son and a good student while Safikul, the son of a weaver, is the brat who doesn’t do his homework and is constantly being scolded by grown-ups. The two boys are neighbours and fast friends. As cinematographer Tuhin Biswas follows the boys scampering through rural Bengal, we’re treated to some mesmerizingly beautiful shots of a countryside where the nature is lush and the people are poor. There are hand-painted signs that look battered by time, abandoned boats with grass growing out of them. Photographs cost Rs. 7 and the travelling salesman is happy to do barter deals, accepting scrap metal instead of money. Some of the most magical visuals are in a scene in which Palash and Safikul sneak out at night to catch fireflies. Against a tree wrapped in moonlight and shadows, the two boys pretend to be warring princes, both of them wearing on their heads hats that have glittering fireflies stuck to them. It’s a stunning shot and also a subtle reminder of the violence that lurks around these two boys — a violence they’re able to withstand only because of their deep friendship.
Early in the film, Palash and Safikul go to the market to buy a toy called toktoki, which makes an annoying clicking noise. While they don’t find toktoki, we hear a different kind of cacophony — a man with a microphone says that as a response to the razing of the Babri Masjid, which happened six months ago, it has been decided that a “chhota Babri Masjid” will be built in the village. Villagers are asked to donate generously for this. The land that is eventually selected for the new masjid is the tree that is the lair of the local madman, who is reminiscent of Saadat Hasan Manto’s Toba Tek Singh. (It is surely no coincidence that Safikul and the madman are the only ones in the film who are subjected to violence.) When Safikul steals some sand that has been collected for the mosque construction to build Palash’s diorama for the Hindu festival of Jhulan, it doesn’t go down well with some locals. Meanwhile, in response to the growing clamour for a new mosque, the Hindus of the village decide to have a jatra performance of Ramayana. Safikul attends the jatra and has a great time. He and Palash go backstage in the middle of the performance to find Sita and Ravana smoking. “Aren’t you enemies?” the boys ask. “We’re all friends, but we dress up as enemies to earn our bread and butter,” replies the actor playing Ravana. The next thing we hear is Safikul being beaten by his father. Against their shadows, which move like a shadow-puppet performance, we hear Safikul weeping and promising he’ll never go against his father’s wishes while the older man rages, “How will I face the others?” The only witness to this violence appears to be Palash’s little sister (Hasnahena Mondal). She’s also the witness that the camera focuses on when Safikul gets hit by his tutor for not having done his homework. In an unforgettable shot, we see a fantastic transition — at first the little girl is delighted to see someone she considers more powerful being cut down to size, but quickly, her expression shifts to dismay and then a blank despair. In the background, the sounds of Safikul being slapped ring loud and sharp.
Despite the odes to Pather Panchali in the details, with Dostojee, Chatterjee stands out as an original new voice from Bengali cinema. This is a film that is lyrical, rooted in contemporary reality and determined to be hopeful. Chatterjee has drawn out charming performances from his child actors and his directorial vision pieces together a portrait of a village in Bengal in beautiful detail — there’s a tea stall where everyone gathers; the cycle repairman is an Amitabh Bachchan fan; a broken kite feels like the end of the world; two boys fight and make up; mango orchards, with their snaking branches and shadows, offer shelter; the women toil in their homes. When tendrils of politics from the world beyond sneak into this village, we see the first hints of its idyll being disrupted. Palash’s father is the local priest and at one point, he says he’ll have to go through the scriptures to learn what are the rituals of worshipping Rama. “Rama worship was never prevalent in these areas,” he says to his wife. Not that anyone can blame a director for choosing not to explore such issues in contemporary India, but the film is less rich for Chatterjee’s decision to not explore this sub-plot further. Palash and Safikul’s friendship is at the heart of the film and when it stands as a contrast to and bulwark against communal anxieties and prejudices, Dostojee feels most moving. When the external politics recede from view, the story takes a sharp turn towards the personal and everything falters. The boys’ friendship is impacted not by the actions of men, but by a random act of God, which feels contrived despite its emotional consequences. The second half of Dostojee lacks tightness and becomes uneven as it teeters dangerously towards sentimentality. Punctured by unnatural, drawn-out silences and a stillness that feels laboured, the film’s exploration of grief feels mired in stereotypes.
Child protagonists seem to be Indian cinema’s go-to device as the social circumstances around us become more toxic and riddled with anxieties. The courage, innocence and resilience of youth is the only lens through which optimism seems possible. While celebrating the power of friendship, Dostojee is also a reminder that no matter what one’s age is, growing up comes at a cost.