‘Kohrra’ and beyond: The rise of Punjabi cinema

As the Cinevesture International Film Festival takes wing, four film makers deliberate on how Punjab is emerging as a fertile ground for cinematic narratives with an independent streak

Updated - March 30, 2024 06:14 pm IST

Published - March 28, 2024 11:43 pm IST

Randeep Jha on the sets of ‘Kohrra’

Randeep Jha on the sets of ‘Kohrra’ | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

After being moribund for years, Punjabi cinema got a facelift when a sullen Suvinder Vicky looked into the camera in Kohrra. As sub inspector Balwinder Singh, his dour face revealed the scars of a violent past that the community is hiding behind the miasma of mirth and masculinity.

For those following Punjabi cinema, Kohrra is the harvest of the rich seeds of cinema sown a decade back by Gurvinder Singh whose arthouse films Anhey Ghorey Da Daan (2011), Chauthi Koot (2015) and Adh Chanani Raat (2022) put Punjabi cinema on the map of World Cinema. The incremental change has given shape to Cinvesture International Film Festival happening in Chandigarh this week with a rich variety of voices from across the world.

A still from ‘Crescent Night’

A still from ‘Crescent Night’ | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

A first of its kind in the region, the spotlight is on Punjabi cinema and tales from the border state that are slowly moving from cliched narratives of Jatt pride to a more nuanced take on immigration, caste, patriarchy, drugs, and a false sense of masculinity. Apart from Adh Chanani Raat, where Gurvinder dissects the idea of honour and attachment to land among Jat Sikhs in a painterly fashion, the festival screened Anmol Sidhu’s Jaggi whose disturbing tale of the impotence of a schoolboy in a masculine society acquires multiple meanings in a patriarchal system.

A still from ‘Jaggi’

A still from ‘Jaggi’ | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Then there is I Am Sirat, Deepa Mehta’s documentary on the complex reality of a transgender who is a woman in her professional life but acts as a son to her mother. In the market section, there is Anurag Singh’s Encounter, a follow-up to his deeply moving Punjab 1984 that challenged Diljit Dosanjh to explore his range.

Director Ajitpal Singh

Director Ajitpal Singh | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

On the advisory board of CIFF, Ajitpal Singh, whose critically acclaimed Tabbar ignited interest in layered narratives from Punjab before Kohrra happened, says “Making films is easier but we need steady stewardship to take them out. Once in a while, The Disciple gets made because Alfonso Cuaron decides to present it. The challenge is how to show an independent film in India. You are doomed if you don’t have a Karan Johar or Kiran Rao presenting it. If you don’t have an ageing film star or TV star looking for a de-glamourised avatar to headline your film, it’s hard to find even an OTT release. Anyway, the platforms are expecting a theatrical release first.”

Our theatres don’t offer the audience a choice. “But are people watching MUBI that is brimming with choices from the alternative space? The filmmaker needs to ask himself for whom he is making the film. I don’t want to say that every independent filmmaker should become a Bollywood director but we should ask ourselves how Satyajit Ray found an audience. For me, if I don’t have an audience, I am not a filmmaker,” he adds.

Randeep Jha

Randeep Jha | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Kohrra director Randeep Jha hails from Motihari in Bihar but has grown up on a diet of Gurvinder’s films and Barry John’s theatre before assisting Anurag Kashyap. His three-year journey with the series made him realise that people in the State are looking for emotional closure for the events of the past.

No wonder, there is a shift in the outsider’s gaze of the Hindi film industry towards Punjab after the provocative Udta Punjab didn’t fly. Imtiaz Ali’s take on folk singer Amar Singh Chamkila is ready for an OTT release and Sriram Raghavan’s production house has bought the rights of journalist Jupinderjit Singh’s book, Who Killed Moosewala? Interestingly, Chamkila, whose murder also remains unsolved, has already been recreated by Diljit Dosanjh in Amberdeep Singh’s Jodi last year.

Randeep relates during the pandemic people adjusted to subtitles and developed a taste for watching stories told in the language of the characters. “Now they find the Hindi dub false and want to watch content in the language of the backdrop with subtitles. People have called me up to say that they tried watching the Hindi dub of Kohrra but it could not sustain their interest beyond a few minutes.”

Gurvinder Singh

Gurvinder Singh | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Gurvinder, the agent of change who has designed the creatives of the festival, is more cautious. Coming from a sensibility of World Cinema, he doesn’t see himself as a Punjabi filmmaker but as someone who chose to make films in Punjabi. “I could make them because State support was available. Now that space doesn’t exist.”

Funding for his films, he points out, has always come from outside Punjab and people haven’t watched his films through proper channels. “It is either through pirated copies or illegal cable networks which are still popular in villages.” The penetration of web series, he says, is still very minimal. “If you ask a Punjabi outside Chandigarh and small pockets of Amritsar and Ludhiana, they would not have heard about Kohrra or Tabbar.”

Randeep Jha on sets of ‘Kohrra’

Randeep Jha on sets of ‘Kohrra’ | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Somehow, Gurvinder, who is now developing a web series around the trial of Bhagat Singh, says, the sense is that independent cinema should be watched without buying a ticket. “We can fill a college auditorium but the same audience doesn’t go to a PVR to watch it.”

The director of the moving documentary Trolly Times, named after the newspaper farmers brought out during the agitation against farm laws, says, the general sense of disillusionment in the youth needs to be tapped into creative space. “The youth just aims to go abroad without any purpose. With the wheat-paddy cycle giving diminishing returns, they don’t like to practise agriculture anymore, and see their lands only as a property that can be milked without working.”

Anurag Singh

Anurag Singh | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Anurag Singh, who is more mainstream in his approach, says the business of Punjabi films has increased manifold in the last decade. “On the day my Jatt & Juliet made a record ₹25 crores in 2012, Rajamouli’s Eega hit the theatres and made ₹100 crores. I told my friends that we have to find an Indian audience like films from the South have. Now Mastaney, not even a comedy, has made ₹75 crore.” Gradually, he adds, the audience is coming to terms with the fact that Punjabi films can also provide a rooted experience, different from Hindi and English films like in Jatinder Mauhar’s Maurh.

Films with female protagonists, he says, are also finding space with Sonam Bajwa’s Godday Godday Cha doing decent business. Anurag also underlines the support of the diaspora. “Now if they have to pick between a Hindi and Punjabi film, they go for the latter first. That also means films like Angrez that show a Punjab that no longer exists have done well overseas because the older generation wants to see the Punjab they left behind.”

Ajit says change becomes visible when any art that is at the periphery starts rubbing what is at the centre and changes the nucleus. “Even if it changes the nucleus by 10%, it has done its job. The fact that Suvinder Vicky who came from independent cinema is a star now shows that things are changing. Paramvir Cheema who came from theatre is in great demand. After Gurvinder we have Anmol Siddhu whose Jaggi shakes you up to the core. Kohrra has been green-lit for a second season and Tarsem Singh’s Dear Jassi is the new darling of film festivals.”

Cinevesture Film Festival is on till March 31 in Chandigarh

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