“DACOITS!!”, now tell me, what’s the first image that pops into your head? Bunch of men wrecking havoc on horsebacks? Sonchiriya dispels this myth (largely borrowed by Bollywood directors of yesteryears from the Hollywood spaghetti western genre) in the first 20 minutes of its runtime; as a policeman and a villager snicker over this daaku trope. It is that kind of film which stays away from most of the classic dacoit film clichés. It does not glorify them as desi Robin Hoods, nor does it vilify them as uni-dimensional looteras of “izzat & sona.”
Simply put, the story follows infamous dacoit Man Singh (Manoj Bajpai chewing the screen) and his gang of baaghis (as the dacoits like to call themselves) as they battle with an internal succession strife between Ranveer Shouri & Sushant Singh, and a cop (played by Ashutosh Rana, menacing, unscrupulous and headstrong in equal measure) driven by personal vendetta against the gang, while part of the gang attempts to get the eponymous Sonchiriya to her destination. At its heart, this is a movie about search for salvation, about the invisible albatross that most of the characters in the movie carry around their necks. It is also a movie about dharma, for some characters it is about adherence to this dharma, while some characters continuously grapple with what the dharma of a baaghi is, if any.
What Abhishek Chaubey (the director & writer continues his excellent form from Udta Punjab & Death in the Gunj) needs to be applauded for is the way he manages to weave these solemn themes into an action packed, fast paced, taut action thriller. There’s never a dull moment, nor a second of respite, as the story runs at a breakneck speed through multiple set-pieces, each of them lovingly shot, with more than a hint at the albatross.
In terms of cast, I’m really happy for the comeback Ashutosh Rana is making as an actor, he’s somebody who can, and does, leave a mark in the tiniest of appearances. Manoj Bajpai and Ranveer Shouri are in great form, despite me being skeptical about the latter’s capability to play a Bundelkhandi baaghi. Sushant Singh plays a believable conflicted baaghi, switching seamlessly between thinking about surrendering to the police and exploring the meaning of his dharma. I think the Accent trainer (Bundelkhandi) deserves a special, despite her/his glaring omission from the credits.
The beehads (ravines) of Chambal are generously woven into the story as a character, when you see the baaghis or the Rana led police, struggle through them, the ravines are not simply a part of the landscape, but are something that becomes integral to the story telling. The barren and confounding landscape reflects not just the mental state of the baaghis, it is an obvious metaphor to the turns and twists the story has to offer. Kudos to Anuj Dhawan (the cinematographer) who’s captured the arid nature of the beehads to perfection, so much so that the landscape reflects the mood of the story and the characters inhabiting the same.
Dhawan ensures that the first time the much hyped Chambal River makes an appearance in the movie (more than half way through the movie) is ominous, enigmatic and burdensome. A burden well borne by Chaubey, who makes sure that the weight of the Chambal curse, falls as squarely on the shoulders of viewers, as it does on the active perpetrators in the story.
Not all’s well in this Bharadwaj-esque world though, the movie is definitely guilty of intellectual navel gazing. Intermittently, some of the shots by Dhawan (and some writing by Chaubey) reek of ‘did you miss this metaphor I just made’ syndrome. It’s also a world where the ghosts of mistakes past take the literal form of a ghost. And the running length of nearly 2.5 hours does get heavy. There are times in the second half when you wish for stricter editing by Meghana Sen – specially when the metaphors get too literal, and Chaubey is more concerned about being ‘smart’ than taking the story forward.
Despite these flaws, Sonchiriya will make its mark as an ‘Omkara’ set in the 70s, where the dacoits are not just props, but are living breathing characters. This film deserves 5 chirps, except for the self inflicted skull drudgery in the last 30 minutes. So, 4 chirps it is.
PS: I’m gonna end with a personal anecdote from the late 80s (when Chambal dacoits still swore by real life Man Singh, Mallah & Phoolan Devi), when I lived in Morena (less than 50km from the locales mentioned in the movie). My father was working there as per a government assignment, and one 20 year old (son of one of the government attaché assigned to him) walked up to him and asked for INR 2,000 (big amount at that time) to buy a 12 bore rifle. When asked why he needed the gun, he simply replied “I’m a thakur, who’s going to give me his daughter if I don’t even have a gun.” Sonchiriya captures the essential being of that Bundelkhand through a very pragmatic lens.