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Beyond Bollywood: Chhevan Dariya - The Sixth River




I had always thought of Punjabi cinema as the stepchild of Bollywood - illegitimate, unacknowledged and existing on the morsels cast from its super-rich table. Until recently, that is.

The metamorphosis is electric and speeding up at a rate unimagined just a few years ago. Some of the more talented minds are discovering in Punjab and its people - particularly the Sikhs - stories and themes that are endless and immortal, and that deserve revisiting and retelling. To the likes of Gurinder Chadha, who now enjoys an international reputation, and the Mann brothers who have a loyal following in the Punjabi/ Sikh diasporan community, we can safely add the talented Ish Amitoj Kaur.

There is a set formula to Bollywood: A dozen songs, often unconnected to the storyline and just as many dances in a silly romance, skimpy costumes, a few poorly-staged fistfights, the proverbial mother-in-law, and these days a loud car chase. At best a soft porn extravaganza with action, tears and low comedy, is how I classify most of them. One could count on the fingers of one hand with room to spare, the exceptions to this general rule, but they are flops at the box office.

This has been the way since Bollywood began and, for a hundred years, a whole culture flourished on that, except that the butt of low comedy particularly for the past 60 years, more likely than not, was the Sikh and Punjabi culture. But then that's where the money has been. Until very recently!

A breath of fresh air is blowing, and it is being driven by the Punjabi Sikh in the diaspora. The more than half-a-dozen Sikh Film Festivals across the diaspora and some new young film-makers are carving a new path; they give me great hope.

Ish Amitoj kaur is one of the new crop of diasporan Sikhs, now based outside Punjab and the subcontinent and yet deeply rooted in the culture, teachings and traditions of Sikhi. Chhevan Dariya is her second venture as Producer-Writer-Director.

Her first, Kambdi Kalaai, an art film probed many levels of Sikh reality. Love and marriage; the minefields of interreligious and intercultural dating; Punjabi cultural norms; our realities in the diaspora; even the cataclysmic events of 1984 were thoughtfully engaged. Briefly, the theme explored how to become good Americans while remaining good Sikhs; after all, these two ideas are not mutually exclusive.

Chhevan Dariya is her first commercial full-length venture.

Punjab, the part of north-western Indian subcontinent named because five rivers run through it was, in 1947, partitioned into two; western Punjab became Pakistan, eastern Punjab was incorporated into India. Indian Punjab in which now most Sikhs live - was further truncated into three states in India - and is now a land of only three rivers.

By dint of their labor, the Punjabi people rapidly transformed their new state into the most prosperous in India. With prosperity also came unwelcome and undesirable distractions of easy money - alcohol, drugs, female foeticide. The movie title, "Chhevan Dariya" (Sixth River) emerges from the running joke that Punjabis, having lost their rivers in 1947, have added another (sixth) river to Punjab, that of alcohol and drugs.

At times, the movie seems to enmesh too many themes - romance, the almost biblical family spats, the lure and addiction of easy money and the friction that defines (or does it oil?) all human relations. But these are foundational elements of all life as well as of this story. A movie is rarely a full blown commentary on life; often it is a window from which many a view can inform us. So is the case here.

The film brings to us the rich folk music of Punjab - one of the richest traditions of music in the world because of its strategic location near modern Afghanistan and its gateway for the Aryans, Afghans, Persians, Greeks, Chinese and even Caucasians into present day Punjab.

Chhevaan Dariya provides a vibrant introduction to the teachings, philosophy and sacred music of the Guru-Founders of Sikhism that provide mankind an unmatched bridging of the best that the Hindu Vedantic and Abrahamic (Islamic) worldview have to offer. I say this and also emphatically add that in my view as in the view of most scholars of Sikhism, the Sikh worldview is unique and not a deliberate blending of any older traditions like Hinduism and Islam. The few hymns (shabads) in the film are appropriately selected; they are tastefully and movingly rendered.

A people-driven street level counter-movement has assertively tried to propose that a sixth river of Punjab now drives its existence, energy and identity from legendary writers like Bhai Vir Singh, Professor Puran Singh and the much admired social worker Bhagat Puran Singh, among others. Since all three derived their motivation from Sikh doctrine, perhaps the sixth river is that of Sikhi and its unique message on how to live a life.

And that is how this sixth river needs to be identified and not to be tied to one single seminal writer or scholar. In fact Punjabi - the language and its literature - owes its existence and flowering to Sikhi. Much better to have a movement as the resurgent sixth river than any person, no matter how good, benevolent or wise.

The mixing of too many themes may seem distracting because no single idea can then be completely developed. But staying on track of a single theme would have transformed it into a documentary and that would have been a loss. It is a window to a people, and their place and time. It is wonderful as that. The dialogue blends Punjabi and English languages very effectively, just as is seen in the conversation of modern Punjabis. There are also well rendered English sub-titles.

I saw only one sour note. At times the movie seems a bit preachy.

The cast includes actors who have earned their stripes in Hollywood/Bollywood. Music is integral to the screenplay and composed by Jaidev Kumar and the U.K. based Tigerstyle.

The shabads are performed by the award-winning Wadali Brothers. Songs are rendered by established voices of the Indian world of music.

Currently, it is running in its second week in Canada and Singapore. At its premier in Edison, New Jersey (U.S.A.), the two shows were jam packed. It has enjoyed a much appreciated run with standing room crowds in New York City. It deserves a wider appeal and exposure wherever Indian, Punjabi and Sikhs pockets exist and wherever their friends of any nationality, religion and ethnicity are to be found.

In its concluding act, the movie periodically returns to a scene that highlights the modern developers of Punjabi literature like Bhai Vir Singh as an alternative sixth river. From these pictures the camera then moves to an empty frame and asks the rhetorical question of who will fill that frame. Perhaps it ought to be a framed mirror where each viewer decides that he or she becomes more than an attractive but empty suit in the frame.

It puts the onus where it belongs. We each must become the change that we would like to see in the world.

Yes, Chhevan Dariya is inspirational and informative; it is also good entertainment.

Thumbs up and three stars!

September 22, 2010


Conversation about this article

1: Harpreet Singh (Shillong, India), September 22, 2010, 7:09 AM.

Desperate to see it. When is it being released in India and when will a CD/ DVD become available? I want to screen it in my college. Also, can I get full videos of its songs?

2: Gur Singh (Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A.), September 22, 2010, 7:43 AM.

One of the major deterrents in the progress of Punjabi cinema is the scattered location of Punjabis in the modern world. People like me have been living in such places where I know even prayers cannot bring original CDs/ DVDs, etc. in the time frame I want to watch Punjabi movies. This is one weakness which can be turned into a major advantage if some more meticulous planning is done by the Punjabi cinema sellers. The Internet can be used more judicially as one of the options. It calls for an alternative model for selling Punjabi cinema rather than through the conventional bollywood theaters. Also, I would request the great players in Punjabi cinema - such as the filmmaker Manmohan Singh - to try to reach the villages/ cities of Pakistan at a cheaper price. That country too desperately needs the same motivation of Punjabis as on the Indian side and in the global diaspora. It seems that Pakistanis have seen too much suffering in recent years. Lollywood needs a desperate revival to bring some relief to their nation.

3: I.J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), September 23, 2010, 12:49 PM.

I didn't want to burden the review with this but I should have. Many readers may be too young to know this but about 40 years ago a wonderful play "Fiddler on the Roof" made a big splash and later was made into a fine movie. I saw the play then and the movie sometime later. It was a wonderful window into Jewish life around the time of Hitler and the Second World War. Like us, the Jews existed in Eastern Europe as a small minority. The play focused on an economically impoverished but spiritually rich family. How they faced issues that are common to all minorities - the times change, society moves on, the ideas of what is modern and being with the times. What happens when a daughter marries outside the faith? The issues of tradition, family, cultural differences, faith, the changing role of women, inter-religious dating, the precarious existence of a minority, and so on. The issues are universal, as are the heartaches. I would recommend it to all immigrants who think about such matters. In a conversation I recommended it to Ish Amitoj Kaur, the maker of Chhevan Dariya. To my utter delight, she told me that some years ago when she took a course in film-making, her instructor had also suggested that she see it. The issues that the play raises are just as important today particularly to a people like the Sikhs who exist as a minority in the diaspora.

4: Gur Singh (Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A.), September 23, 2010, 10:04 PM.

I am interested in reading a review of 'Ik kudi Punjab di', on in the coming days. Just saw the movie today. The movie is definitely a good step in the right direction. A very good story, good direction, good acting from almost everyone except some errors by the lead girl (even her skills look okay after intermission). Maybe because her role is reduced in that portion.

5: K. Singh (Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A.), September 24, 2010, 5:47 AM.

Gur Singh - Please write the review!

6: Arvinder (U.S.A.), June 05, 2011, 9:11 PM.

'The Sixth River' is a beautiful movie, a must watch by all Punjabis in India and overseas. My hearty congratulations to Ish for sharing such emotion which is sometimes really hard to relate to others. It is as good as her 'Kambdi Kalai'.Hope she keeps making such movies on these sensitive issues.

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