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Features: Kajal, Pinku, Milly and Subrata.
Writers; Jesse Alk, Koustav Sinha.
Director: Jesse Alk

Screening at the 2019 Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, July 19-29.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

2019 MELBOURNE DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL: The opening scene of the documentary Pariah Dog is one of heartbreaking poignancy; a beautiful young adult male pariah (or desi) dog, the native canine breed of South East Asia, sits alone in an empty street in Kolkata, the tips of his golden coat covered in the city’s dirt, his yearning howl a cry in the night for other members of his long-dissolved pack. The life he cries for – the wilderness existence with which every one of his instincts is primed to interact - has long been consumed by man’s industrial expansion. He is native to a land that he no longer recognises, and one whose society has wilfully neglected to recognise him.

Director Jesse Alk takes the outsider’s plight of the urbanized native dog as the starting point for a lyrical examination of four humans for whom modern Indian society is equally unforgiving. Pinku is an artist, his wooden carvings things of rare beauty but unsellable in a modern metropolis; Subrata is ageing into irrelevance, his memories of a game show win and a fading dream of stardom all he has left; Milly was a once a woman of means with generational land rightfully hers being taken by squatters and corrupt local government; alongside Milly, her faithful assistant Kajal endures their complex love/hate relationship as her own life narrows in scope.

United only by the documentarian’s lens, these four Calcuttans share a passionate love for the street dogs of their city, dedicating hours and most of their meagre earnings towards their care. A great deal of bitter existential irony courses through the frames of Alk’s deeply humanistic film; as the population that surrounds them seems oblivious to the torment of their lives, these four remarkable people commit to providing shelter, food and affection to the similarly displaced dogs (as well as cats, a monkey and a parrot, if dogs aren’t your thing).

To the production’s credit, Alk and co-writer Koustav Sinha refuse to present their subjects as the antidote to the street dog’s harsh life. Scenes that convey the physical hardship and ultimate demise of some beautiful animals will be too much for some, as will the emotional toll that an animal’s passing takes upon the carer. The director also refuses to employ traditional narration, a decision that skilfully adds to an overall defiance of any prejudicial context; fittingly, Pariah Dogs will live a long, timeless life as a statement against selfish modern living.

The film is not without humour, of course; in one left-field moment that serves to both relieve tension and utterly bewilder, Alk helps Subrata realise his Desi-pop ambitions by crafting a music video for his self-penned, lower-caste anthem. The potential that factual filmmaking has for capturing fateful moments is realised when the elderly gentleman literally crosses paths with an anti-animal cruelty demonstration, which he soon joins in chorus.

The final frames, in which two of the protagonists reconnect on the traditional life-giving waterways far from the decay of the city, are a hopeful response to the call of that lonely, howling street dog. His India still exists, or at least the spirit of the land from which he came.


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