Banners: RSVP, MacGuffin Pictures
Producer: Ronnie Screwvala
Director: Abhishek Chaubey
Cast: Manoj Bajpayee, Sushant Singh Rajput, Bhumi Pednekar, Ranvir Shorey, Ashutosh Rana
Writers: Abhishek Chaubey (Story), Sudip Sharma (Story, Screenplay and Dialogue)
Music: Vishal Bhardwaj
Herds of horses kicking up blinding dust storms, the deafening hail of bullets, towering men with scary moustaches, and of course thunderous dialogues… these are the images that come to mind when we think of the dacoits of the Chambal, thanks to Bollywood.
All that changed with Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen, and now Abhishek Chaubey revisits that brand of cinema with Sonchiriya. It is not as stomach-churning as Bandit Queen was, but at the same time it is a human story, a saga of conflict, survival, repentance and hope. It is India’s own Western, raw, grim and gripping.
The story is of Man Singh and his band of rebels, which includes a hot-headed Vakil Singh and a sensible Lakhan. The men are on the run from the Special Task Force (STF) led by Virendra Singh Gujjar, whose only aim is to capture the dacoits – dead! Man Singh and his men walk into Virendra’s trap when they decide to loot a wedding party in a nearby village. Most of Man Singh’s gang are killed in the combat, including Man Singh himself. Lakhan, Vakil and a few others manage to escape.
After the death of Man Singh, Vakil is chosen as the leader. While on the run, they come across Indumati Tomar and a 12-year-old girl. The girl is a victim of rape and needs medical attention. Though reluctant at first, the dacoits decide to help her. While the death of Man Singh creates issues within the gang, especially with Lakhan suggesting that they surrender, matters become worse when Indumati enters the picture.
Who is Indumati and what is her relationship with the little girl? Is Lakhan able to convince his gang to surrender? Are the differences between Vakil and Lakhan sorted out? Why is Virendra desperate to kill all of Man Singh’s men? Is he successful? All these questions and their answers constitute the rest of the narrative of Sonchiriya.
Writers Abhishek Chaubey and Sudip Sharma have captured the essence of the Chambal beautifully. While the story is gritty and the sequences are bloody, at no point do they make you squeamish. The writers do not waste any time trying to build the characters and take us directly from one gun fight to another. The opening gunfire exchange is brilliantly executed and all through the film, the pace is maintained.
While the story makes comments on caste, the status of women and society at large, the writers have laced even these serious conversations with humour. The entire film is in Bundelkhandi and that is what makes Sonchiriya an authentic experience. At first, reading the subtitles to follow what the characters are saying may seem tedious, but it doesn’t take long to get drawn into the world of the dacoits, and language is no longer an issue.
Sudip Sharma’s dialogue deserves special mention, for instance, when Lakhan asks, ‘What does a rebel have to do with dharm?’; or when a female character tells Indumati that caste is just for men while women belong to a different caste, much lower than all the castes; or when a Thakur constable is slapped by his Gujjar superior and he says that the number of stars on the uniform makes no difference because the real uniform is one’s skin… Provocative lines like these force one to ponder uncomfortable truths.
Unlike the dacoit films of the ’70s and ’80s, there is no screeching background score for the rebels. Anuj Rakesh Dhawan’s camera work is a character on its own. He captures the ravines, the dusty villages and the river with aplomb.Every scene adds to the story-telling. Chambal ceases to be just a location and takes a life of its own.
Despite being a gritty, hard-hitting story, Chaubey has managed to keep the look of the film upbeat. The main reason is that, at the end of the day, Sonchiriya is the story of every character’s quest to find his or her sonchiriya or ‘golden bird’, their moment of redemption, that one moment of happiness, that elusive feeling of peace and deliverance that everyone wants to attain but is unable to find. It makes several comments comments on righteousness, morality, casteism and the futility of violence and vengeance. The extremely significant scene, where fact meets fiction, injects pathos. That is where reality of the life in the coarse valley hits you hard. It is a delight to watch women characters fighting battles in all their glory in a male-driven narrative.
Performance-wise, every single actor has done justice to their parts. Sushant Singh Rajput as Lakhan is absolutely fantastic. You find yourself rooting for his character and want him to succeed. Bhumi Pednekar as Indumati Tomar is a wonderful combination of love, pain and strength. Her delicate frame is only a façade, because she brings power and grit to her role. Manoj Bajpayee as Man Singh is dignified. He slips into the character so easily, it seems he was born to play this role. Ashutosh Rana as Virendra Singh Gujjar is at his devilish best. His subtle smirk on his face is chilling. But the standout performance comes from Ranvir Shorey. As Vakil Singh, Shorey is the surprise element in this film. His rustic and volatile Vakil is a treat to watch.
Verdict: Worth a dekho!