Satyajit Ray | India | 1981 | Hindi
In a village, it begins. A man called Dukhi chopping grass of the chamar (untouchable) caste. He is exhausted, depleted, but determined to set in place the arrangements for an auspicious date to be chosen for his young daughter’s marriage. Quickly, his wife Jhuria reveals that he has been ill. And he has not yet taken food. But he is determined to move off in this pursuit. He instructs his wife to buy atta, chawal, dal, ghee, namak and haldi and to create plates from leaves. He will fetch the Brahmin and return with him, he says. His wife tries to get him to eat before his departure, but he is determined to get on his way. She is left standing with cup and plate in hand, deep concern embedded in the shot of her face. He makes way into the village, to the Brahmin’s house and throws himself to the ground as he greets him, the caste delineation demarcated. He reveals his request, to which the Brahmin replies by sending him to work, taking advantage of the opportunity for free labour. First to sweep, then to fill sacks of husk and transport it to the shed and finally to chop wood. The detail and care of his sweeping is captured along with the weight of those sacks of husk through a shot from behind and side of a man hunched over, shuffling along as he struggles to bear the undeniable weight. He goes to ask the Brahmin where the axe is to begin the third task, pausing outside, allowing us to become privy to the conversation that the Brahmin is having with a man who just lost his wife. Telling him that his task is to remarry and see his lineage continue, that the Brahmin himself is up to his third wife. When Dukhi arrives before wood, the shots tell us that this hunk is immense, impenetrable. It is dry, knotted, a solid block not unlike the body of the Brahmin that moves with great heave and effort. Back in the village, his daughter picks the leaves, creates the plate. In one telling shot, she is standing solemnly, gazing outside to check if anyone is coming then returning to a child’s game, reminding us of her age. Another lower caste man approaches Dukhi and asks what he is doing and why. The protagonist explains the situation and the man suggests to ask the Brahmin for food. The man says he doesn’t want to ask anything else of him as he needs the auspicious date. Dukhi says he would like tobacco, and the man obliges. He goes to the Brahmin’s house to seek fire. The Brahmin is eating a hearty lunch, his wife fanning him. The Brahmin’s wife tells her husband off for allowing him to come to the house to which he points out that they are getting free labour. She hurls the hot coal outside toward Dukhi, some of which lands on his feet. He returns, he smokes. A juxtaposition of activities, as the Brahmin eats paan, spreads himself out and sleeps. He wakes up, goes out of the house and finds the protagonist asleep under the tree. He shouts. Dukhi wakes. He explains he is feeling weak, that he hadn’t eaten. The Brahmin tells him he can eat when he finishes working and shouts at him to hit the wood harder. And harder. Dukhi begins, still unable to penetrate it. Then power builds in him and he hits the log harder and harder. The Brahmin moves inside while his son watches on, horror in his eyes. Dukhi collapses onto his face. A powerful shot of devastation in the man who witnessed his beginning with that wood, now also witnessing his end. He speaks to other men from the community and tells them not to move the corpse. The Brahmin goes to ask them to move it. They meet him with strong stares of disapproval, devastation, unwavering stares that see him retreat. The newly widowed Jhuria weeps as cattle move behind her in the background. Tears roll down their daughter’s face. Jhuria goes to his body. A storm has arrived, the sky is weeping soaking them through as she kneels over his body in desperation, before going to the Brahmins house. Her calls are shut out by walls and doors. Then it is dawn and the Brahmin is outside, attaching a rope to the ankle of the corpse. He begins to drag it, his effort visible as he climbs an inclination, a plain with only a scattering of trees. And he leaves the body to rest, a shot of it amongst animal sculls and bones. Finally, he performs a ritual around the hunk of wood, axe still in place. This film offers superb acting and brilliantly captures the characters’ states, from desperation and pain to immense cruelty. An arresting portrayal of inequality and suffering that is as relevant today as it was at the time this film was made and at the time Premchand wrote the short story on which the film was based in 1931.
Screened as part of Revisiting Ray at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, 15-16 May 2018.