A Tribute to the Innocence of Childhood
Dostojee is a film that highlights friendship and brotherhood
Dostojee, which marks the directorial debut of Prasun Chatterjee, is a touching film that appeals both to children and to adults. It weaves a social message of communal harmony and universal brotherhood. The director did not make any attempt to make his film a slogan-raising campaign for communal harmony. His film does that subtly, placing in focus the friendship between two young boys who are neighbours, and go to the same school. From this emerges the message intrinsic in the film.
"Dostojee" is a form of address somewhat approximating to "yaar" in the local language. The director chooses this as the title of his film, and it fits the theme of brotherhood without being too-much-in-the-face. "This is my debut feature film, which premiered at the 65th BFI London Film Festival last October, then Goteborg, Jenoju, MAMI (India Gold), Kerala (World Cinema) and many more. The film was in the International Competition section of SIFFCY 2022, where it won the CIFEJ Prize and the Best Director award. We are planning for a theatrical release around August-September," said Chatterjee.
"The aftermath of Babri Mosque demolition and the Bombay blasts in India, 1992-93, found its violent echoes even in a remote village of West Bengal adjacent to the India-Bangladesh border where the story begins to unfold. A story of friendship between two little boys belonging to two warring religious communities. Palash (8) is the son of a Hindu Brahmin while Safikul (8) is the son of a Muslim weaver," he added.
The innocence of Palash and Safikul receives its sustenance from nature. The greenery of the village, the river and the vast stretch of paddy fields playfully rebound the echoes of the boys' voices and the laughter. However, unknowing to their parents or to them, no one suspects the tragic role destiny plays to disturb the rhythm of harmony. Fate arrives quietly, when separation becomes the destiny of their friendship. How the boys face this parting of ways to spread wings to fly again, is a message for those who must confront loss at one time or another.
Prasun Chatterjee is a self-taught filmmaker, born in a lower middle class refugee family from the suburbs of Kolkata. He learnt the ropes doing group theatre for six years. Without a film school background or any experience of film-making, he managed to shoot his first short film Shades (2017), which premiered at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala and was screened in numerous film festivals.
Asif and Arif Sheikh as the two boys Safikul and Palash are non-actors, as are most of the other actors in the film. These boys have raised the film to a different dimension with their innocence, and candid performances shorn of make-up or any kind of glamorisation. Interestingly, their personal stories are as interesting as the characters they portray.
Prasun said, "Asik Shaikh who portrayed Palash comes from a very underprivileged background. His father is a migrant labourer and his mother is a homemaker. He is the first one from his family to go to a school. I first saw him in a playground, playing with his friends. Arif Shaikh who plays Sariful is also from a very poor background. His father works at a brick kiln and his mother is a housewife. He is also the first generation in his family to go to school. After casting Asik as Palash, we were searching for our Safikul. One afternoon, an angry nine-year old came banging at my door. The boy was Arif, whose friend Asik was cast as Palash. When he heard that Asik had been selected for a feature film and there is a director who is looking for another boy, he came on his own. And I had both the heroes of my film."
The two boys had never set eyes on a still camera till then, so a movie camera shooting a real film was completely alien for them. But the merit of this lack of experience was that they had absolutely no inhibitions in facing the camera, and enacting their scenes in front of it. Besides this, the director was amazed at the capacity and speed with which they learnt the nitty-gritties of film-making. The two boys adapted themselves to the entire process of filmmaking in their own way.
Tuhin Biswas' cinematography makes optimum aesthetic use of the wide skies of the landscape, filming the two boys in a mid-long shot flying kites, exchanging ideas of what their dreams for the future are. While Sariful wants to smuggle cows across to the Bangladesh border, Palash dreams of taking his mother to Nadia which is a Hindu-dominated place within the Indian borders.
Interestingly, their communal differences never play any part in their friendship and the same applies to their respective parents. They are neighbours in a village where feelings are highly sensitised post-Babri Masjid incident. This sensitive ambience is shown only in a brief scene but it does not bear any impact on the film, or on the friendship between Palash and Safikul.
The visual richness heightens the aesthetics of the entire film. Tuhin was roped in at the last moment because the director and his co-producers could no longer pay the high fee to the original cinematographer. It is as much a visually rich film as it is a socially significant film.
The director has not used any background score or songs, so all that one gets to hear are the natural sounds of the environment where the film was shot on location. "The usage of audio elements – like the sound of the handloom, buzzing of the crickets, distant tones of Azaan (the call of prayer for Muslims), or the continuous tunes of rain, had played a significant part in shaping the circumstances of the film. These helped in keeping the story and its characters closer to its roots. So, it was a very conscious decision to not use background music. a dangerous manner – communal discrimination and communal violence," said Chatterjee.
He added that the film was shot in West Bengal along the India-Bangladesh border. His inspiration was fired by the "fine threads of our social fabric are being destroyed bit by bit every day by discriminatory politics. Not just in our country but this is the reality of the whole world. Looking around us we can see the entire world plagued by the menace of religious polarisation."
Dostojee has been chosen for screening across 15 state, national and international film festivals besides bagging awards for the film per se and also for the two child actors.