The film contrasts violence, human vices and lawlessness in a seemingly peaceful setting, in a quiet village in Purulia district in Bengal.
In the pastoral expanse of rural Bengal, in Purulia district, single railroad workers and best friends Balaram (Shankar Chakraborty) and Nemai (Tapas Paul) spend their days wrestling on a hill with little work to speak of because their flag station has only a couple of trains to be flagged off or signaled to.
Wrestling, however, despite its aggression and physical combat, turns into an expression of close bonding for Nimai and Balaram, a bond already established through their complementary work at the flag station. Wrestling, for them, is a way of releasing physical energy and a form of dynamic entertainment.
Amidst wrestling, they spend their time talking with the locals, who include Padri Baba, a local Christian pastor who lives in the village church and looks after his seven-year-old orphaned nephew, Matthew. He takes him along on his bicycle when he serves the lepers, the poor and the oppressed in the village.
There is a colony of dwarfs that inhabit this peculiar and mystic village. Each morning, they can be seen crossing the hillocks and pass through the forests to catch the daily public bus and go to their jobs. Among them is a grinning railway guard who is always in uniform with exaggerated mannerisms, alertness and paranoia.
There are also a troupe of masked dancers who pass across the village, mutely going about their rhythmic routine. There is a world below this in the village, consisting of a bunch of bumbling poor old men, Christians, who dream of travelling to America by first reaching Kolkata with a complete lack of geographical knowledge.
At this point a couple of city yobs in fashionable clothing move around in the village in their jeep, downing bottles of beer to get rid of their boredom as they go stalking; what or who is unfolded towards the end of the film.
Balaram returns from visiting his aged aunt with wife Uttara (Jaya Seal), and her presence slowly but surely begins to tear their intense friendship building up to a disastrous, catastrophic climax. The people and their separate worlds are not really linked to one another. They appear like a collage of images that do not quite add up to make a meaningful whole. Yet, they describe, in their own way, the vulnerability of human life to greed, to lust, to violence, and ultimately death. The violent actions of the three Hindu extremists threaten the peace of the village, but a sliver of hope remains.
Uttara soon painstakingly learns the bitter truth that to her husband Balaram and his friend Nimai, as well as to the city-bred goons, she is no more than a piece of flesh to be devoured, raped, violated and killed. Nimai, with a broken marriage before him, a marriage that exists only in remote memory, feels particularly jealous of Balaram because he has Uttara. Balaram is happy with this beautiful 'thing' he 'possesses' and therefore, can 'devour' at will, within the privacy of their bedroom or under the open sky against the backdrop of the fields.
With the two men's silent squabbles over Uttara, the apparent serenity of the village is disturbed, with an onslaught of violence, murder, blood and gore. The roaring sound of the speeding jeep metamorphoses into an eruption of barbaric violence.
The two fundamentalist city yobs torch the Christian missionary Padre tying him to a pole and burning him, and the whole church is set ablaze. A panic stricken Uttara cries out to Nemai and Balaram for help whilst the boy Matthew escapes unharmed. But their senses are blind and deaf and mute to the outer world and they go on wrestling.
Then as the dwarf railway guard offers Uttara hope for a better future, the goons kill him. They then chase a fleeing Uttara, rape and kill her. The scene of peaceful harmony is reduced to one of meaningless and futile violence. The camera pans to capture a glimpse of Uttara's violated corpse, the deadbody of the kindly railway guard, the fire in the church in the remote distance.
Amidst all the scenes of death and destruction, the film ends on a moving scene of living violence. A golden sky throws the two silhouetted wrestling figures of Nimai and Balaram in relief. The circle of moral decay, of an environment that easily lets the animalistic instinct within the man out, is complete. The group of masked dancers silently wrap a fleeing Mathew into their fold as he becomes one of them, offering only a tiny glimmer of hope in a world of despair.
The way the movie depicts the development of the plot conveys this violation of a peaceful world. The series of disjunctive shots of the threads of the story that follow the opening utopian shot disrupt any notions of linearity, making the audience feel the conflict of the forces that destroys the village. One of these scenes shows an army of dwarfs traversing mountains, plains, and rivers, suggesting the search for an alternative world. As the dwarf who tries to help Uttara explains, these people have grown weary of the world of 'tall people', which full of cruelty and despair, and seek an alternate world. This is a metaphor for the wider world plagued by inequality and corruption. The troupe of masked folk dancers, who meander through the village, function in a mythic framework, representing the continuity of culture and tradition, and act as a stabilizing force in the various conflicts that mar the idyllic world of the village.
The schism between the friends is illustrated in the wrestling, which gradually becomes an overpowering obsession. Instead of expressing bonding, it takes on the colour of a power-game between two equally physically strong and morally weak men. The wrestling irrespective of homoerotic undertones is a deliberate destruction where one aims to destroy the other, as each morally unjust man attempts to win the physical 'possession' of Uttara.
Although an allegorical, cautionary tale on religious fundamentalism, between Christianity and Hinduism, Uttara is also an incisive examination of the provincialism, anachronism, moral and social injustice, and inherent contradiction. Contradiction is very important element in the film, for example the Christian missionary Padre who dispenses of his food wastefully at a rural village ravaged by poverty in exchange for converting desperate (and undernourished) souls, and a band of Hindu zealots aggressively roaming the landscape in their off-road utility vehicle and behaving in a manner completely with disregard to others contrary to the Hindu faith.
Another important aspect of the film is the way in which the dwarfs don pagan masks and ritualistically perform an ancient parade through the village. The seemingly pantheistic ancient dance is intended to represent an instinctual connection to roots and tradition becoming a metaphor for the sense of duty that has become increasingly sublimated in an environment of self-interest, vanity, gluttony and strong jealousy and competition. It is this contrasted, parallel image of reverence for the cycle of nature that renders Buddhadeb Dasgupta's vision of Indian society as a complex and tragic one, illustrating that society is overcome by hypocrisy. The barbaric behaviour of the city-dwellers is also intended to reflect the deviance of human nature in modern urban society, as it becomes plagued by declining moral values and terrorized by the inhumanity of extremism.
The film is shot strikingly with visual imagination of the rural pastoral landscapes, the solitary huts of the wrestlers and the isolated church, contrasted against the malignant presence of the three urban yobs and their brutality. Filmmaker Buddhadeb Dasgupta employs a unique strategy of shooting where he consistently shot periods of Uttara just after dawn and before sunset to emphasise the natural lighting on the landscape and to create atmosphere. In addition, this is precisely matched with reverse angle shots and unusually deep focus for framing and blocking. The cumulative result of such a technique adds to the formal unease, in a world where distinct natural beauty and deadly human menace coexist in equal measure. The cinematography, with the increasing or diminishing light of day is intended to directly coincide with the volatile changes in the ambience and mood of the film. The intense sunrise in one of the scenes as tension surmounts attempts to exude a feeling of heat, giving reflecting the burning emotions between the two wrestlers who are overcome by lust and jealousy.
The sounds that accompany these images play into this reiteration of theme on a more abstract level, ranging from the eerie silence that accompanies the menacing presence of the three goons, to the death knell that sounds as a rock rolls down while the wrestlers fight to kill each other. The audio occasionally uses a lot of rhythm and beats, for instance during the escapades of the three yobs, but this is sometimes juxtaposed by images and sounds of tranquility, the shots of the orchard accompanied by a soothing tune, and the troupe of dancers with their folk culture, that signify hope for the future.Jaya Seal as Uttara
Tapas Paul as Nemai
Shankar Chakraborty as Balaram
R.I. Asad as Padre
Tapas Adhikari as Railway Guard
Saurav Das as Matthew
Gautam Warshi as Hindu Militant
Masood Akhtar as Hindu Militant
Subrata Dutta as Hindu Militant