Film: “Chauthi Koot”; Language: Punjabi; Cast: Suvinder Vicky and Kanwaljit Singh; Director: Gurvinder Singh; Rating: ****1/2

So unconcerned is the filmmaker with cinematic scrupulosity that he forgets to go by the guidelines of ‘How To Create A Masterpiece’, and still creates one.

“Chauthi Koot” stuns us without trying. It opens on a rickety bus with two men in their 30s looking rushed, scared and anxious. We silently follow them to the railway station where we see a train leave as they look at one another.

“Now what,” asks man says to the other.

It’s a question that encircles most of this amazingly austere, seriously restrained and brilliantly bridled study of Punjab during the state of militancy in the 1980s when the state, known for its bonhomie and ‘balle balles’, boiled over with a seething rancour. This is the Punjab that we do not get to see in our films.

Dark shadows lurk in the stark bare landscape filled with acres and acres of wounded acrimonious humanity. The fear is palpable. As we get drawn into the inner circle of the characters’ miserable crisis, we are made to understand the true and full relevance of what it means to lose one’s freedom in the insane rush of politics.

Given the time-frame in which the film unfolds, one would expect the director to indulge in aggressive politicking. But militancy is not really the issue in “Chauthi Koot”. We hear cursory radio broadcasts about Operation Bluestar and Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s assassination. But the mood of storytelling unfastens the theme from its politics.

This profoundly unsentimental film explores the innermost recesses of an individual’s loyalty when pushed into a corner. The frightened hounded individual’s dilemma is the crux of director Gurvinder Singh’s haunting study of desolation and loss during times of war.

The characters driven by their apprehensions, signify that curbed sense of panic after the breakdown of the state machinery.

We meet the farmer Joginder (Suvinder Vicky, remarkably unobtrusive) and his family besieged by the double fear of militant visits in the night and security personnel during the day. They can’t decide which of the intruders are more dangerous.

What makes the family’s dilemma seem so real and tenable is the absence of bravura in the telling of the tale. The director strips down the narrative to the barest minimum of fuss and ostentation.

The camera (Satya Rai Nagpaul) moves through the rural household with calm stealth taking in the sights and sounds so gently that we are sucked into the sounds and sights with minimum flourish.

The narrative makes the barest possible use of the excellent background score, using the music not to enhance emotions but to gently and simply remind us that all said and done, this is a cinematic expression of a political circumstance which the state and its people lived through. And survived to tell the tale.

“Chauthi Koot” is arguably the finest film on Punjab militancy, leaving behind such masterpieces if the genre as Gulzar’s (uneven) “Maachis” and Shonali Bose’s “Amu”.

The beauty of the beast that is terror and militancy, is that it brings out unplumbed depths of courage in an ordinary citizen. Joginder’s courage comes from saying no to the militants when they ask that the family dog be put to sleep.

It is in keeping the canine from death that the family preserves its sense of self. The fear that lurks during the night-time when a state is under siege, is created with extraordinary subtlety and mellowness in the film.

There is fear and foreboding in the way the family walks and sleeps. Every gesture indicates an absence of certainty and presence of fear. Every move is filled with misgiving.

“Chauthi Koot” brings back the troubled phase of separatism in Punjab with a refreshing absence of political prevarication. The location and the characters are so truthful as to dissolve the distance between the screen and the audience.

There is another story that the director has added on to the story of Joginder’s family. It is the story of two Hindu Punjabis travelling by train through the stressful hinterland.

This sub-plot doesn’t really add up. And understandably so.

“Chauthi Koot” makes us privy to the crisis of those times when a night-time knock on your door could mean death or a death-like state of frozen existence.

We come away feeling troubled and guilty from this experience for reasons that are not easy to discover. And even harder to justify.

“Chauthi Koot” opens on August 5.