In an ambience where biographical films seem to be the rage of the day, or crime thrillers of different kinds, the Bengali film Cholai, not released in its home state, West Bengal, is a fictionalised adaptation of a hooch tragedy that shook West Bengal some years ago.

It has earned accolades at international film festivals like Cannes and recently, at Madrid. Cholai was also shortlisted among the Bengali films for the National Awards with six other films but lost out in the final round to Shankhachil.

Theatre actress Mishka Halim who portrays the role of a journalist in the film, bagged the Best Actress Award at the Madrid International Film Festival earlier this month. She was pleasantly surprised because the film has many characters portrayed by both known and unknown names from Bengali cinema and she being nearly unknown, bagged the prize.

172 people died on December 14, 2011, after drinking hooch allegedly manufactured by Khora Badshah in areas like Sangrampur, Mograhat and Mandirbazar in South 24-Parganas three days after the AMRI hospital fire snuffed out the lives of 92 patients in Kolkata. The hooch tragedy shook director Arun Roy so badly that he was determined to make an entire film on the subject though he was aware of the obstacles he might have to face to make the film, to complete the film, to get the film censored and last but most importantly, to get it released in the theates I his home state because the tragedy cast a shadow over the state government in power – the TMC headed by Mamata Banerjee.

Roy’s first, full-length feature film Egaro (Eleven) was a celluloid reconstruction of Mohan Bagan’s historic winning of the prestigious IFA Shield from its British opponents, East Yorkshire Regiment on 29th July 1911. The narrative blends fact with fiction to create a parallel theme of an underground revolution going on at the same time in Bengal, and one of the players is a member of this group. In the film, the director brings across the message that Mohan Bagan was not just a football club but a metaphor for an India desperate to drive the British Imperialists back to Great Britain and regain independence.

The Bengali word cholai means hooch, or illicit or spurious liquor which, if the proportion of the pesticide/chemical used to contaminate the liquor in order to reduce the cost and keep the price the same, can lead to death. Pure liquor is expensive and the bootleggers cannot afford to either make or sell it at a high price and in the village economy where the tragedy and other similar hooch tragedies took place, they are sold at an average price of Rs.5/packet. “"Like wine and tea-tasters, Bengal also has professional hooch-tasters to ensure quality control. They get paid Rs 100 for each tasting session," says Roy.

He did extensive research for seven to eight months travelling through Mograhat, Canning and Laxmikantapur to internalise the lifestyle, the language, the manner of these poor villagers engaged in the business, sometimes along with their wives and grown children. “I lived with some of the families who were distilling spurious liquor, learnt how to make it and also drank cholai to get a grasp over the subject I did not know much about. I learnt the dialect – Dokhno – they converse in and four-letter words and profanity is a part of their everyday language, used by husband, wife and small kids casually and they do not feel these are dirty slangs or abusive profanity. They do not know that this is ‘slang’ because it is a part of their everyday language,” says Roy. He lived with them for three months and also drank cholai with them in order to blend himself into their ‘mainstream.’

Spurious liquor is brewed in obscure places. It does not attract taxes or duties and since it is done clandestinely, there is no quality control. Illicit brewing is absolutely unscientific, crude and lacking in minimum hygiene in preparation, dispensation in sachets and storage. So, it is natural that hooch brewers, mostly semi-literate or illiterate, often mix excessive amounts of methanol /pesticide in their liquor leading to mass deaths. Law enforces are aware of this underhand business but they pretend it does not exist and keep away or make it one more way to access their regular ‘haftas.’

Roy’s documentary research through newspaper clippings, reports, etc took another seven to eight months till he settled down to put together his cast and crew. But the biggest hurdle was to fictionalize the names so that it could not be identified by the powers-that-be. The real kingpin who confessed that he headed the entire business and the poor distillers were his workers is Khora Badshah but Roy has changed his name to Nata Badshah. Roy has also made improvisations and innovations in Nata’s family so that there are no legal hassles post-release. Nata is shown with one wife though the real Khora has several wives.

The big cast has a mixed bunch of powerhouse performers like Saswata Chatterjee, Sankar Chakraborty, Kharaj Mukherjee, Partha Sarathi, Nimai Ghosh and Sumit Samaddar alongside actors from group theatre and some completely new finds picked up from the village. National Award-winner Mayukh Bhowmik has scored the music while cinematography has been done by Gopi Bhagat and the film has been edited by Sanglap Bhowmik. Jaspreet Kaur has produced the film. Subhomoy Chatterjee’s dialogue is a winner all the way. Saswata Chatterjee plays several roles presented as a metaphor for the ‘powerful’ in the village.

Almost the entire film was shot on location in Nepalgunge that is 40 kms away from Kolkata. Roy organized a workshop for the entire cast for one month so that the actors could learn the local dialect dokhno. My actors would gather everyday and get onto a train to imbibe the finer cadences of the dialect and to get used to the village ambience. “The vocabulary is different even in delivery of lines – in terms of tone, pitch, framing of sentences, forms of address, everything,” says Roy.

is more about the Rs.2 lakh compensation announced by the State Government to be paid to the family of each victim and how this sum never reached them for self-appointed leaders of the village who used the announcement as a vehicle to line their own pockets.. Even before the compensation of Rs.2 lakh is announced, the village priest tries to extract money for the funeral rites, the cremation workers demand a high rate for cremating and the camera tracks to take a mid-shot of collective burning of dead bodies on an open field. The village barber, a mandatory person to perform rituals when people die tries to extract his own pound of flesh.

Once the compensation is officially announced, the doctor asks for Rs.5000 to issue each death certificate, an agent peeps in and tells the doctor that he will take a cut of Rs.1000 for each patient’s family he brings in for the certificate. The Panchayat asks the councillor to tel the villagers to gather Rs.10,000 and hand it over to the Panchayat for organizing a procession! The Councillor, on his part, adds his own demand of Rs.5000 to this Rs.10000. All this happens when not a single paisa of the compensation money has reached any family of any victim. The local medical centre has to put up 40 patients crammed in 20 beds with four paramedical and fourth class staff in all. Those who cannot be accommodated lie vomiting in the courtyard and keep dying.

One victim does not die and is sent back home. His wife and son are very sad because they will not get the compensation money. One scene shows two families fighting over a corpse in the crematorium to claim the compensation. Some dead bodies have been cremated without a certificate and the doctor makes hay when asked to give certificates after the victims have been cremated or buried but not without having to part with a ‘cut’ to the ‘agent’ who comes with a family member. The politicizing of mass deaths comes across with wonderful humour without marginalizing the tragedy. It is this clever mixing of a real tragedy with humour offers the viewer a ring-side view of the changing face of moral values in the villages of West Bengal.

Cholai is a wonderful film.