Pariah Dog review – lyrical portrait of Kolkata’s canine carers

The street dogs that feature in this lyrically-shot documentary aren’t strays, exactly; they are the indigenous, free-ranging “pye dogs” that have colonised India in large numbers and live fundamentally independently from humans. But interaction is not unknown, and this film turns its focus on a disparate set of individuals, all scraping by somehow, who take it on themselves to feed and minister to the animals.

The most dramatic figure is the autocratic and argumentative Milly, getting by on dreams of former glory and always ready for a scrap, it seems, with the locals who she suggests are squatting on land she owns. (Part of her rage is directed at her “helper”, Kajal, who she would like to treat as a maid, but has no money to pay her. We also meet Pinaki, an artist who mourns the dead dogs he tried to help, and Subrata – seemingly the most emotional and committed – who walks the streets with bags of dog food, buys a Casio keyboard to play self-composed animal rights songs to a largely uninterested public, and dines out on his appearance on a TV quizshow.

The parallel between the animals and their carers is clear – these are all marginal, fringe figures – but never forced by Canadian director Jessie Alk, who spent five years on the project; in fact, the whole thing is put together in a beautifully understated manner, with the human participants allowed to explain themselves on their own terms. There’s a pitiless clarity to the way the Kolkata streets are filmed: intentionally or not, they look like the world’s greatest film set, and the film serves equally well as a portrait of the metropolis. At 77 minutes, this is a brief inspection, but so heartfelt that it never seems too short.