In one of the scenes in “Sonchiriya” (means The Golden Sparrow), Dacoit Vakil Singh played by actor Ranvir Shorey is beating up a mole who has turned and realizes that his own ring leader is actually the man who led them to a robbery where half his gang is massacred brutally by the local police. “ Mhaare Dadda Baeimaan” ie “ Our Godfather is dishonest” exclaims Vakil Singh. He smells treachery after living a loyal self in a world where there is no hope and where logic gets dimmer by each passing minute.
In yet another scene, a local doctor wreaks havoc in his clinic when Dacoit Lakhan Singh (Sushant Singh Rajput) along with Indumati ( Bhumi Pednekar) get a little girl who has been raped by a local strongman. The doctor just won’t treat her as she is a “low caste”. The girl who can barely speak is literally rushed out of the clinic in the thick of the night.
The above scenes paint an authentic sketch of the valley of Chambal in Madhya Pradesh, the original birthplace of Indian dacoity and the viewer is arrested in this hopeless land where the landscape merges very well with the narrative of the story. This caste dominated, patriarchy dominated lawlessness gives birth to the unique characters of “Sonchiriya”.
“Sonchiriya” is a film directed by Abhishek Chaubey and stars Manoj Bajpai, Sushant Singh Rajput, Ranvir Shorey, Ashutosh Rana, Bhumi Pednekar in pivotal roles. The film is written by Chaubey and Sudip Sharma. This essay is aimed at reviewing the film and explore the various themes it highlights. We also talk about the genre of the Dacoit centric films in Indian cinema and its relevance today.
THE PLOT OF SONCHIRIYA
Set in the Emergency period of 1975-77 in the Chambal valley, the film talks about the exploits and adventures of Dacoit Man Singh (Manoj Bajpayi) and his gang which comprises Lakhan Singh, Vakil Singh and others who are on the run as the Special Task Force led by Inspector Virender Gujjar (Ashutosh Rana)is out to ‘cleanse the ravine’ as per orders from the Indira Gandhi Congress government. As they plunder and move on, they are met by Indumati( Pednekar) a high caste Thakur woman who has a small girl called “Sonchiriya” in tow. Sonchiriya needs medical treatment which is far from the village and Indumati makes a proposal to tag along with the gang. As it turns out, the girl has been mercilessly raped by the patriarch of Indumati’s family. As they all move along, and run from away from Gujjar and his baton of policemen, many twists and turns ensue with Indumati and Sonchiriya being the only two survivors. The film also explores the self beliefs, inner demons of its lead cast, the schematics of the caste and sub castes at play in the story.
THE WORLD OF CHAMBAL AND THE AESTHETICS OF THE RAVINES
Abhishek Chaubey and DOP Anuj Rakesh take some virtuoso shots of the valley of Chambal. One can feel the heat, the dirt and the gradual death of hope and humanity quite convincingly. The film has been shot in the “Sergio Leone style of Sphagetti Westerns” where shots are terribly long and takes a toll on the viewer as they feel the pulse of the visual on the screen. No character in the film barring some exceptions is seen clean shaven, bathed, combed or in ironed clothes. The music of Vishal Bhardwaj is of the level of Nino Rota in “The Godfather”. In my opinion, the music itself is an instrument of storytelling in “Sonchiriya”. Traditional and modern instruments are used by Bhardwaj which brings a sense of an epic in a story focused on a few characters.
The “BundelKhandi” accent used by the cast is not easy to follow but looks raw and authentic. My favorite innovation in the film are the aerial shots used by Anuj Rakesh of the ravines, the valley while there is an encounter in the backdrop. The photos of Indira Gandhi appears on toys, her “English” commentary on the All India Radio and her posters create a sense of the time but fails to capture the politics.
THE GENRE OF THE DACOIT FILMS AND THE “BAAGHI” (REBEL)
The cult of the “Daaku”, “Baaghi” aka “Dacoit” in Indian films is not new. Since the 1950s Indian society is ingrained with stories of the outlaws who picked up the gun as a sign of rebellion to take their “due” from the rich. The Dacoit profession has created some iconic characters in films like “Gabbar Singh”, “Phoolan Devi”, “Paan Singh Tomar”, “ Ganga Daaku”, “ Raaka” and so on. These stories stem from the very fabric of India, as a commentary on the social caste system, the exploitation of the peasants, land grabbing, patriarchy and politics. Although Dacoity is no longer a profession in India, it is considered to be a historical reference point in the evolution of India’s hinterland. There is also the fact that Dacoits were worshipped as local heroes, as people who would “steal from the rich and distribute to the poor”. Poems and stories were written by leading writers and poets on dacoits. “Bandit Queen” directed by Shekhar Kapur is considered as India’s biggest and most critically acclaimed film on this subject by all means. The key here is of course the landscape of Chambal which is a “badland” with mostly desert and very little population. This setting gives the storytelling of “Sonchiriya” a life of its own!
Parallels can be drawn from the classic Westerns in Hollywood such as “Billy The Kid”, “Wyatt Earp”, “Tombstone”, “Unforgiven” and the films of the legendary Sergio Leone whose “Once Upon A Time In The West”, “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly”, “A Fistful of Dollars”, “ For a Few Dollars More” all served as an idea manual to all filmmakers across the globe. Leone invented storytelling for Bandits in films. SONCHIRIYA borrows a lot from this vintage style storytelling.
THE PERFORMANCES IN SONCHIRIYA
This film already has a talent heavy cast. This is a homecoming of sorts for Manoj Bajpayi who got his first break in “Bandit Queen” and he leaves an impact with his look, emotions and effortless diction. There are some powerful performances by Sushant Singh Rajput Ashutosh Rana, Bhumi Pednekar and others. But the film’s most unexpected and brilliant work has been done by Ranvir Shorey as the deeply emotional and reactive “Vakil Singh”. I think “Sonchiriya” belongs to Ranvir. This is his big moment! There is also a nice cameo by Jatin Sarna (Sacred Games) as Indumati’s elusive husband.
I will give “Sonchiriya” a 7 out of 10 as it is brilliantly enacted, shot and directed by Chaubey. Its music and narrative is deeply emotional but its length and slow second half can be a problem to the regular movie going audience.
- Rahul Gupta, an avid movie and TV buff who learnt movie production at New York Film Academy and worked as a talent manager at The Gotham Group in Hollywood. In addition he runs a kids brand outfit and a start up fundraising practice in New Delhi.