Much of the power of Chauthi Koot is in that which is not spelt out or spoken of, but which the audience is made to feel and live through, along with the characters — their lives and relationships — on screen.
Gurvinder Singh brings together two stories by Sahitya Akademi Award winner writer Waryam Singh Sandhu - Chauthi Koot and Hun Main Theek-Taak Haan (I Am Feeling Fine Now). The film opens with two friends Jugal and Raj (noticeably Hindus), in a rush to travel from Ferozepur to Amritsar. On having missed the train they force themselves into the guard’s compartment of another. The cubicle already has a handful of other passengers on board - Sikhs as well as Hindus. That small space, shared by many, becomes the repository of the fears and suspicions that each of them harbours, for the other. The unease in this microcosm reflects the communal tension outside. The desolate railway platform, the sound of the cops’ boots and the shoeshine boy keeping on with his job — the sense of foreboding is palpable, in the air.
With a flashback the film then moves onto another story, about Jugal getting lost with his wife and daughter in the outskirts of a village. Should they knock on the door of the isolated house nearby? Will the family help on hearing the ominous sound? This short link-up incident is all about the basic humanity and goodness that helps people rise above the petty suspicions and frictions.
And then, in a case of story within a story within a story, Chauthi Koot moves on to an extremely poignant tale of the family in the isolated house; and its trusted pet, a dog called Tommy. A dog who shouldn’t bark as per the militant diktat; who is also at the receiving end of the annoyance and irritation of the armed forces.
On a greater level the film is about evoking the all pervasive atmosphere of doom in post Operation Bluestar days in Punjab — the air full of fear, suffocation, insecurity and distrust. The violence is implicit and deeply embedded than overt. What the film tries to put on screen is the consequences of that violence - the trauma of ordinary lives caught between the militants and the armed forces. For them there is little that separates the protectors from the intruders.
Gurvinder is austere in his filmmaking. There are no dramatic highs, no flourishes, never any excesses. In fact the cutting off of clutter - visually, in the spoken word and the performances - makes the film that much more layered and profound. The sparseness is redolent with meaning; the tranquil frames brim over with turmoil. The vacant, impassive faces of the actors signify suppression, the long takes build up the nervous tension and the unhurried pace heightens the urgency. Gurvinder observes pain and anguish from a distance than zoom in on it. Then there is the verisimilitude evident in the organic actors who seem to have been picked up from the villages, streets and fields of Punjab than from an acting school and in little touches and throwaway scenes, like that sleeping child hanging on the father’s shoulder.
The most important figure is the dog. It eventually becomes a metaphor of sorts: the spirit within us, caught in the crossfire of brutality, of the separatists as well as the state forces. The question it leaves us with is that in such trying situations will we end up our dilemmas by silencing and throttling the dog within us or will we let it bark freely?