Against the backdrop of a fractured period of Indian history, Dostojee is the intimate portrait of a warm and soothing friendship. Two eight-year-old boys, who are neighbors and share a deep friendship, revel in the small joys of life oblivious to the rising tide of communalism. Their innocence and love for each other is untouched by the atmosphere of growing distrust that surrounds them. Offering beautiful scenery and worthy of their history, an idyllic border village between India and Bangladesh in West Bengal, with acres of vast lush farmland and the Padma River flowing nearby.
Early in the film, we see them indulging in one of childhood’s greatest pleasures – trying to outdo each other by throwing rocks into the Padma. The lives of Safikul (Arif Shaikh), son of a Muslim weaver, and Palash (Asik Shaikh), son of a Hindu priest, are intertwined as they play and attend school together. They even have the same tutor. Yet their families rarely interact with each other despite their homes being separated by a rattan boundary wall.
In the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri mosque and the explosions in Bombay in the early 1990s, religious tension also reached this isolated village. The Muslim community wants to build a “Chhota Babri Mosque” and is raising funds for it. The Hindus plan to have the idols of Ram and Sita enshrined in the local temple. These developments are puzzling. In one scene, Palash’s mother even expresses her confusion at the push towards worshiping Ram as it had not been prevalent in West Bengal.
Although vaguely aware of these developments and a simmering unease at home, Safikul and Palash have other concerns. They have to organize money to buy toktoki (a small metal toy that makes noise); overlapping classes to visit a fair; and perfect Amitabh BachchanDeewar poster’s iconic pose. As they lose a kite fight, instead of being sad, they wonder if their kite has floated to Bangladesh.
That’s what makes childhood special. One can construct one’s own world, a safe place, by not understanding and not caring about surrounding complexities. Together, the boys attend a play on the Ramayana as well as the Eid festivities. To their surprise, they find actors playing the roles of Ravan, Ram and Sita smoking together, backstage. The boys are told by the cast that they are all friends but pretend to be enemies on stage for a living. There is a socio-political message here. But the film makes no effort to emphasize this.
At the heart of Dostojee (as the boys are affectionately called) is their innocence. It brings warmth and freshness to the story. It provides a foil to the undercurrent of communal tension that threatens to upset the tranquility of rural life. Chatterjee, also the writer of the film, never takes his attention away from Safikul and Palash – not even when they are arguing and not talking to each other for a brief period – although he makes us aware of how the world that surrounds them is changing.
The film gently addresses a series of issues. Although love and acceptance are the main themes, it’s also about the pain of losing a loved one. Grieving takes many forms and the way a heart deals with loss can be unpredictable. Sometimes it clings to fragile memories or simple things left behind.
Chatterjee’s cast of mostly non-professional actors works very well for the narrative. Their earthy character adds an interesting twist to the story. There are times when certain scenes appear staged. But that’s a minor issue as the two young lead actors do the heavy lifting of telling this sensitive story with their compelling performances. They make us believe in the purity of their emotion, uncorrupted by a polarized society. They also make us hope that love can make the world a better place.
The cast of the movie Dostojee: Arif Sheikh, Asik Sheikh
Director of the film Dostojee: Prasun Chatterjee
Rating of the film Dostojee: 3 stars