What sensory forces inhabit the landscape of childhood? What does it look, sound, feel and taste like? For Palash and Shafikul, two boys growing up in rural Bengal, it looks like fields and rivers to play football and take a dip in; it sounds like the toktoki, a small metallic toy that makes clickety-clack sounds; it feels like catching caterpillars and flying kites. Dostojee (2021), Prasun Chatterjee’s debut film, opens with a childhood scene most of us are acquainted with—throwing pebbles into water. As the two boys try to outdo each other in covering the distance their stones can manage, no boundaries separate them. Yet, a wall appears soon enough, as quickly as the boys—each of whom calls the other by the same name—“Dostojee,” meaning friend—enter their respective houses, separated by a thatched straw wall.
As next-door neighbours, the two boys have about as mainstream a friendship as two village boys could have during ordinary days. Except, the days have ceased to be ordinary. A spectre of suspicion and ill-will pervades the air around them, holding in its sway, the minds and moods of the grown-ups responsible for showing them the way. Dostojee uses the powerful trope of child’s play to convey messages that are anything but child’s play. In fact, this relationship couldn’t be developing at a more fraught time in history. The Babri Masjid, a 16th-century mosque has only recently been demolished in Ayodhya by a mob of Hindutva nationalists, who consider the mosque site to be the birthplace of Rama. This last fact is significant, because, although he’s a part of the region’s folklore, thanks to the epic of Ramayana, Rama isn’t traditionally revered as a god in Bengal. Yet as the wildfire of hurt religious sentiments reaches their village, that is set to change.