By Elias Savada.
Pariah Dog highlights Alk’s ability as an extremely gifted, poetic, and even counter-culture filmmaker who has fashioned a labor of love for his debut feature.”
A hazy dusk is arriving in Kolkata in West Bengal, India (the most far eastern part of the country, on the border with Bangladesh), as the immersive documentary Pariah Dog opens. Darkness arrives moments later, as do all sorts of animals. A herd of goats is shepherded down the street, some rats feast on tossed-off garbage, but it’s a single, stray dog, mournfully howling like a sad, worn-out police siren, that will catch your ears and eyes as the night turns late and the crowds have gone home. The critter is soon joined by others, walking the town as most of its humans sleep.
The dog’s antics and constant yelping certainly caught Jesse Alk’s attention. With all the barking going on, perhaps the sleep interruptions were enough for him to take up a camera and go film. Alk, as director, producer, cinematographer, editor, and co-writer (with assistant director Koustav Sinha), seems destined to follow in his father’s famous footsteps. That would be the late Howard Alk, an independent filmmaker with the ability to multitask during his too-short life (he died in 1982 at age 51), having made American Revolution 2 (1969) and The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971), while also collaborating with Bob Dylan on some of his films.
Pariah Dog is the younger Alk’s first feature, which has taken home of slew of awards from the two dozen or so film festivals at which it has been presented. For three years the Canadian-born American filmmaker marauded the densely packed former colonial capital of this South Asian country, the second-most populous in the world for people, but the largest for its street dogs. For a few souls, the dogs’ plight takes on a personal fight against animal cruelty. Alk follows four individuals of mostly modest means who task themselves with caring for the hungry, dirty, and often emaciated mongrels.
Kajal Halder is one of the those helpers, giving comfort to several strays at her “home,” a pile of concrete blocks with a tarp on top, resting on a speck of dirt in the urban jungle. It’s only big enough for her, but she doesn’t complain. “I don’t have a problem with it. In fact, I like it.”
Pinaki “Pinku” Dasgupta is a proud painter and sculptor, but without many patrons. “If I have a little food, they (the dogs) get the same.” He supplements his meager income with as the driver of a small motorized taxi.
Malika “Milly” Sarkar contemplates her single life as one of her dogs licks itself nearby. An intelligent woman, she doesn’t want to make the mistake again, of having a human relationship – her husband left her years earlier. She likes to reminisce about family and pets from her youth, and despite some financial issues, she still has control over land that has been in her family for generations. When she’s not graciously remembering lovely Cinderella chocolate birthday cakes she enjoyed as a child from Flurys, one of the finest pastry shops in the city, she’s lamenting squatters on her property. And complaining about Kajal, who helps with Milly’s animals without getting paid.
The entertaining 62-year-old Subrata Das finagles his love and attention on several of man’s best friends. He seems to be well versed in animal medicines and can yodel and sing. (Hear that, Linked In?) His meager income comes from driving a motorized rickshaw. His aunt was a film actress, and he had his 15 minutes of fame when he appeared on a 2013 episode of Dadagirl, a Bengali-language quiz show on which he represented Kolkata. He’s somewhat well known around town and helps judge local dog shows that promote fighting human cruelty against the animals. “Love in human beings is decreasing day by day.” But, boy, is he proud of his appearance on that tv show, whether he’s playing the video to friends and strangers on his cellphone, or affectionate mounting a photo collage featuring himself and Sourav Ganguly, the former Indian cricket team captain who hosted the popular program. Late in the film he embarks on upping his celebrity presence by becoming a traveling musician to promote his love for “human, animal, and plant.” The filmmaker amusingly edits this segment of the film as if is a musical video. Bollywood awaits.
Street bazaars and peddlers abound as the camera floats over their wares and then settles on one of Alk’s dog lovers, often trailing a few feet behind them, cutting away to a canine or a pack. While mostly shot at night (the garish street lamps and neon cacophony illuminate most of the byways), the city does show off many of the townspeople (and some fierce rain storms) in its bustling daytime. There’s a nice ebb and flow as the stories move back and forth amongst each other.
Near the film’s end, Milly and Kajal seem to have reconciled their differences and have journeyed to another town to promote Milly’s Initiative, part of the Stray Animals Day crusade. Pinku finally finishes a wooden piece that reflects his state of being, and all seems better in the world. It’s a nice wind down for a film filled with great admiration for these four activists. They enjoy sharing their love and affection with their non-talking friends. They all believe “my time is for them.”
Pariah Dog showcases animals rights advocates in their own ways, as much as it highlights Alk’s ability as an extremely gifted, poetic, and even counter-culture filmmaker who has fashioned a labor of love for his debut feature. His dad would be proud.
Pariah Dog arrives on various on-demand platforms on August 18.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).