Sonchiriya, a film written and directed by men, flaunts a proud and clear feminist statement
Sonchiriya, Abhishek Chaubey’s allegorical dacoit drama set in 1975 India, and co-written by Sudip Sharma, has a feminist story to tell with subtlety and rootedness.
It is fairly heartening that a film written and directed by men has a proud and clear feminist statement at its heart. Sonchiriya, Abhishek Chaubey’s allegorical dacoit drama set in 1975 India, and co-written by Sudip Sharma, has a feminist story to tell with subtlety and rootedness.
In more ways than one, this film with it’s dusty, arid frames that reflect a certain lifelessness in the lives of its central characters, pays tribute to a woman’s struggle and purpose. Its seventies backdrop is also relevant to the social commentary for present day India — where being a rebel or ‘baaghi’, even at the level of free thought, can place one on the wrong side of the establishment.
In Sonchiriya, it’s the woman’s sense of purpose, Indumati, and her natural protective instinct, that becomes a change driver in the film. Patriarchy and traditional tropes of honour, respect and conduct define the behavior of outlaws of the Chambal valley, the dreaded ‘dakus’ of pulp masala movies.
In what can serve as a chilling awakening of just how close patriarchal dominance is to reality in the valley, a drive through the Chambal in 2007 was sufficient to explain this to the author. For as far as your eye can see in the beautiful and stark landscape where earth cracks under a scorching summer sun, not a single girl or woman, with or without a veil, is ever visible. Stopping over for a cup of tea and a snack, women like me were advised to keep a cover for our heads handy to avoid roving eyes. Men were protectors, women subservient. And caste is the catalyst in balancing out society and economy.
Given that such strictures and common cruelties were regular occurrences in this region, particularly in the '60s and '70s, no wonder that its incubator like situation threw up extreme reactionaries. Phoolan Devi for one, the famous lady dacoit who sought revenge on men from a caste that used rape and public ritual humiliation to punish her. Shekhar Kapur’s cinematic masterpiece, Bandit Queen, has narrated this tale beautifully.
Sonchiriya goes a step further. It focuses on the impact of hardened, unforgiving caste structures and rigid societal rules on women who aren’t natural aggressors. Indumati, a character that Bhumi Pednekar has played with a fine, human touch, doesn’t come across as someone who can pick up a gun right from the start. Her inherent hesitation is gradually replaced by a protective instinct that takes over as she seeks solutions. In the film, one woman tells another that women in the Chambal valley are actually caste agnostic. That is not their domain. They actually form the lowest caste of all, irrespective of their surnames. With this statement, she makes it clear to the audience that women must eventually fight their own battles; and that male patriarchy, which sets itself up to protect women and the weak in the first place, actually rings hollow when faced with crises.
The women in Sonchiriya, though few, are not focused on survival alone. They live with a sense of purpose. Unlike the rebels bearing guns as dacoits, or the policeman seeking to weed them out, their purpose is essential and clear. It’s the men who seem adrift — in a culture of traditions, tropes and confusion over right and wrong.
Abhishek Chaubey has elegantly portrayed strong, fearless women that stand up to adversity and come from repressed, unrepresented sections of rural and interior parts of India. He empowers them artfully with his narratives, ably assisted in this case by Sudip Sharma’s intelligent dialogues. Sonchiriya is one of Chaubey's more introspective films, one that is well worth a watch for its stark silences and relentless movement in this atmosphere of all-round din.
Left to Right: In Jangalmahal, history of political partisanship, economic aspirations push voters towards BJP
Jangalmahal is now seen as one of the strongholds of the BJP, and the party claims it will win all seats in the region
The ruling of the Supreme Court is reminiscent of the jurisprudential baggage that India has been carrying since partition
What these two films have in common is how they create a sense of a setting as something inseparable from the inner lives of the protagonists.