“Sonchiriya”… A diligently made ‘daku’-drama whose parts work better than the whole

Posted on March 7, 2019


Spoilers ahead…

Abhishek Chaubey’s Sonchiriya opens with the image of flies swarming around a rotting snake carcass (seen in an extreme close-up) – and in the far distance, out of focus, we see a group of dacoits walking towards it. The visual weightage seems appropriate when we learn that a dead snake is bad luck. For these dacoits, in the Chambal, bad luck is always in the foreground, strewn across their path. Or in a placid river, where a crocodile lurks, threatening to turn an all-too-rare idyll into a scene of carnage. The dead snake may carry a curse, but this is already a cursed land, and these are already cursed people. Lakhna (Sushant Singh Rajput) says that he was once proud to call himself a dacoit (though, instead of daku, he uses the term baaghi, rebel), but now he only feels shame.

These opening scenes, with their lack of explicit pop-culture markers, feel timeless, and it isn’t till these rebels set out to loot a gold-splattered wedding that we realise it’s 1975: the Emergency is announced on the radio. Why set the movie in this particular year? To conflate the death of democracy with the dying days of dacoity? Or maybe it’s because the year would see the release of Sholay, which contains the most iconic representation of the dacoit in Hindi cinema — an image that Sonchiriya works assiduously to break. If the ruthless Gabbar Singh made the dacoits of Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai look like a bunch of sentimental play-actors, the scruffy, smaller-than-life men of Sonchiriya make Gabbar Singh look like a theatrical ham. This is a very unusual daku-drama. You could point to Mujhe Jeene Do and say, correctly, that the dacoits were humanised in that film, too. But this humanisation came through an exquisitely portrayed romance, while here, despite Lakhna spending a lot of screen time with Indumati (Bhumi Pednekar) — and despite our expectations when big-name male and female stars are thrown together — there is not an iota of love.

There’s no item girl waiting in the dacoit hideout to launch into Mehbooba or Maar diya jaye. There are no horses, either. I chortled when I saw Man Singh (Manoj Bajpayee, reprising his Bandit Queen role in a subdued key) and his men — including Lakhna and Vakil Singh (Ranvir Shorey) — walking towards their hapless victims, announcing their intentions on a megaphone. Remove their guns, and they could be asking for votes. The detailing is top-notch: till I saw a torch strapped to the barrel of a rifle, I’d never thought about how dacoits operated in the dark. The film’s tone is as dry as the terrain. You’ll probably grin when Man Singh instructs one of his gang to hand over a token gift to the sobbing bride whose wedding they’ve just plundered, but the men themselves are dead serious. (The deconstructionist tone is very Peckinpah, and that opening image with the dead snake could be a Wild Bunch nod.)

After a lot (a lot) of throat-clearing, Sonchiriya transforms into a chase movie. The gang splits up into warring factions. Lakhna and Indumati attempt to get a little girl from the oppressed caste (who was raped, like Phoolan Devi was) to a hospital. Vakil Singh and his men give chase. There’s also the cop played by Ashutosh Rana, who wants to clean up the Chambal (though we later realise there are personal reasons as well for wanting to wipe out the Man Singh gang). You really have to respect the director for the patience and the diligence with which he opens out what could have been a simple, linear action movie. He opens our eyes to the fact that this land is as riven with caste distinctions as ravines. (The Gujjars, the Thakurs, the Mallahs, the “achoot”s) The authenticity is amazing. (Without subtitles, I would have missed half the lines in this dialect.) As is the look. The ground is bleached by the merciless sun, and the sky is bleached of blue. It’s practically colourless.

The drama is colourless, too. Like in all of this director’s work (he wrote this film with Sudip Sharma), something is… off. Compare, for instance, the impact of the incest revelation in Chinatown versus the one here, despite very similar-sounding lines. There’s so much naked striving to be a Great Movie™ that the simpler pleasures of a merely Good Movie often fall by the wayside. I’m not just talking about entertainment (though that’s certainly nothing to be ashamed about aiming for). I’m talking about, say, how these dacoits are portrayed. Sonchiriya wants to eschew every single cliché associated with the “daku movie”, so the “So ja beta varna Gabbar aa jayega” archetype who strikes terror in the hearts of villagers is replaced by a bunch of touchy-feely men constantly haunted by past sins. (Only Ranvir Shorey roars. He’s magnificent.) You miss the menace, the sense of a knife pressed against your throat.

Which would still be a fair tradeoff if the film was a probing psychological study of a vanishing tribe — but these stretches are very broad and limited to some embarrassing hallucinations. Man Singh and Lakhna are linked very early on, not just by the way they use reason to calm down a hot-headed Vakil Singh but also in their shared visions of that hallucination. But what we see in Lakhna — the yearning to surrender, or the attempt to repent for a sin by performing a compensatory good deed — we saw in Sunil Dutt’s character in Mujhe Jeene Do, which came nearly six decades ago (and without the suffocating artiness). There are times Sonchiriya tries to get existential, scratching its chin about “baaghi ka dharam.” The irony may be that there is no single defining code that binds the lawless, but this nihilism is constantly undercut by hope. There is little doubt that the little girl will make it and “liberate” Lakhna from his great sin. After all, she isn’t just a little girl. She’s the thudding titular metaphor.

Like Udta Punjab, Sonchiriya is a wealth of meticulous research that’s fascinating as information, but it isn’t moulded into something particularly sharp. The film feels studied, unfocused, and some of the writing is puzzlingly old-school for a filmmaker with such major ambitions — like the character who is imbued with colour in one scene so that he won’t remain faceless when he is killed a couple of scenes later. But it’s the old-school drama that finally works. Sonchiriya bursts into life when “Phulia” makes her appearance. There’s no need to fill us in, for we already know her story — she comes fully formed. And in her short screen time, she pretty much plunders the movie from under the noses of characters we have been with for far longer.

I glanced at my reviews for Abhishek Chaubey’s Ishqiya and Udta Punjab and found I felt the same about Sonchiriya. “Yes, these are colours and flavours we do not see or smell in the spit-shined urban multiplex movie, but how far in the other direction will we travel before beginning to demand that a film have more to…” “Every scene screams, ‘We did all this research and we’re going to share it all with you… Scenes with barely anything interesting in them are allowed to go on and on, with dialogues that are distractingly ‘writerly’…” The line about women that Phoolan Devi delivers to Indumati is a fabulous sentiment, but in the context of the character and the scene where it appears, it feels… off.

Sonchiriya is very watchable, but sometimes, when some parts are so great, it’s a bigger disappointment when the rest of the film falls behind. What keeps you hooked is the superb staging. Cinematographer Anuj Rakesh Dhawan keeps finding ways to arrange the characters in near-choreographic tableaux, and these “stills” are often sensational. The acting is pretty good, too — Ashutosh Rana takes us right into the head of a man whose sadness may lie at the root of his sadism. But Sushant is hampered by the one-note niceness of his character. I’m not really a bad guy. I just loot and kill, but inside, I’m quite the softie. If not more deranged, he should have at least been more haunted – and not just by the occasional hallucination. You see it. You don’t feel it. That could be said about a lot of Sonchiriya. Like that shot of the dacoits at the beginning, it’s fuzzy and it stays at a distance.

Copyright ©2019 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi