Tathagata Ghosh’s Dhulo is a bold retelling of female awakening amid bigotry

The short fiction Dhulo (The Scapegoat), shot in a small Bengali village, had a big-screen showcase at the London Indian Film Festival.

Like the world in Satyajit Ray’s Ashani Sanket (1973), Tathagata Ghosh tries to create a similar universe in his new short film Dhulo (The Scapegoat), where the resplendent lush, green village – like an island – hides in its womb, dark realities. Dhulo opens in a bucolic Bengali village, at dawn. A woman hurries through a field until she stumbles upon a decapitated head of a goat. The horror written on her face not only tells of her familiarity with the dead animal, it is a foreshadowing of what is to come.

Dhulo was shown on the big screen at Cine Lumiere, London, and virtually, in the Satyajit Ray Short Film competition, with some great contenders, as part of the London Indian Film Festival, which is on till July 4. The festival’s line-up is a “love letter to India”. And, love letters scratch open wounds.

Ghosh, whose films have a political scaffolding, is out to unsettle. Born of anger and chaos, Dhulo compels us to introspect. Its editing is tight and quick, colour filters accentuate the atmospheric image-making and sound is mostly strings, save for the climax’s dhaak beats – will the shakti-roopen goddess eliminate the mahishasur (demon)? Dhulo is a Brechtian singing of the dark times – not just of the present, but one without beginning or end. Dhulo works as a double bill with his short Mangsho (The Meat), though made later, during the pandemic last year, on the migrant crisis. The legacy of intolerance finds fruition in Dhulo (which translates to dust). If meat signals flesh and body as sites of oppression, dhulo is the dust to which bodies return. Each character is a scapegoat, a victim of his or her circumstance, and the film moves by distilling their reactions.

When he was shooting this film last year, the Delhi riots were going on. It was “unsettling, very disturbing” for the director, who was recreating the violence and disturbance in the film. A palpable fear stalked the crew in the four days of the shoot, especially those from the minority community — and it reflects with conviction in the film, when the second male lead, Ali (Ali Akram) says, “Musholmaan maanei ki koshai er jaat? (Does being a Muslim make us all butchers?)” He and Shimli Basu, who plays his wife, are noteworthy in their debut roles, and while the lead Bimal Giri delivers a blood-curdling, chilling punch as a muscle-flexing prototype, the real scene stealer is his screen-wife and the female lead, played by Payel Rakshit.

Dhulo is Ghosh’s backhand stroke at religious and gender discrimination. The diminutive Rakshit has outdone herself, with a deadpan face and a restrained performance, she lifts others, too. She takes us back to the ’70s-’80s era, when Indian cinema had room for the mofussil and the provincial woman. Not only does her vengeance remind one of Smita Patil from Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala (1987), her standing up for her friend (Basu) harks back to the middle-class Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee), who, despite being in dire straits, quits her job in response to the injustice meted out to her colleague-friend Edith in Mahanagar (1963) – female sacrifices, sorority and solidarity are rarely championed in film scripts. True emancipation cannot be a selfish one, it needs to lift, empower and mobilise others.

In Jeo Baby’s Great Indian Kitchen, the matriarch tells her new daughter-in-law (Nimisha Sajayan), “it’s normal, this is how things happen”. One has heard this oftentimes, what’s unsettling is when a girl training at a Durga Vahini camp, Prachi, in Nisha Pahuja’s documentary The World Before Her (2013), justifies her father’s beatings by saying that at least he gave her life, didn’t kill her at birth. Shot in Ghosh’s ancestral village, Amta, in Bengal’s Howrah district, the 24-minute Dhulo reflects the gender disparity and domestic violence that the village women have internalised and normalised. Like in Mrinal Sen’s Akaler Sandhane (1980), in Dhulo, too, the village women were moved to see their lives being played out in a pivotal scene with Rakshit.

“We were shooting, creating a reality/world of our own, but in that creation, we had to manipulate the reality. It’s quite dark in retrospect. There are pockets in the village that are either BJP or TMC heavy. In one such pocket panned out the scene with Bimal on the bike, by looking at his demeanour and dialogues, they thought we were campaigning for the BJP, making an ad film, perhaps, in the run up to the West Bengal election this year. We agreed with how they perceived us to get our job done. The political climate was boiling at the time, people were consuming WhatsApp forwards and fake news on social media, it was uncomfortable to see, but we had to complete our film,” says Ghosh, who was selected as a Berlinale Talent (an up-and-coming young filmmaker) at the Berlin Film Festival this year, and who made a short documentary series, Beyond the Dust (on YouTube), speaking to these villagers, during the Bengal election.

Ghosh makes no bones about calling a spade a spade, and, unlike his idol, German filmmaker Werner Herzog, believes “films might not change the world, but can make a person feel something. If one understands, she will go tell three.”

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