Sonchiriya movie review: Sushant Singh Rajput, Bhumi Pednekar and a band of fine artistes deliver aching, desolate beauty
The rootedness of Sonchiriya is reflected in every element of the film, from the dialect the characters speak to their clothing and concerns.
castSushant Singh Rajput, Bhumi Pednekar, Manoj Bajpayee, Ranvir Shorey, Ashutosh Rana, Sampa Mandal, V.k. Sharma, Khushiya
"You haven't got it?" one woman tells another, castes "are all meant to categorise men. Women are a different caste altogether, below all of them."
In a film filled with more movement than conversations, words are used sparingly, but when they come they are on point. Women too are present in limited numbers, but the ones we encounter are prime movers in the battles being chronicled here. Writer-director Abhishek Chaubey's Sonchiriya is a lyrical account of a gang of dacoits wandering the Chambal ravines, some of them anxious for a way out.
Dreary, poetic and desperately sad, it is about unwritten codes of honour among society's outliers, about the cruelty of caste and patriarchy, and about the endlessness of violence once unleashed. "Dacoits too can be good," says a character more than once. But this is not an effort to romanticise the outlaws in the frame so much as to highlight the self-defeating nature of social inequity in a world where men think patriarchy benefits them though it can pull them down mercilessly too.
Deaths are the bookends between which unfolds this tale of a band of male dacoits led by Man Singh (Manoj Bajpayee) in Madhya Pradesh of the 1970s. Just once does one of these men refer to them as daaku. Otherwise, in their vocabulary they are baaghis (rebels) on the run. As they are hunted unrelentingly by the police, it becomes clear that at least some of them are trying much harder to escape their own demons than the long arm of the law.
We know nothing about their background beyond the fact that they are Thakurs, and that Man Singh and his younger associate Lakhan/Lakhna (Sushant Singh Rajput) are haunted by a sorrow that they seem unable to and unwilling to shrug off. Elsewhere in these arid lands, we hear that (the now legendary) Phoolan Devi (called Phuliya in the film and played by Sampa Mandal) is thirsting for the blood of Thakurs — but not all of them. Lakhna, it is clear, is fighting a fight he no longer believes in or takes pride in. Vakil Singh (Ranvir Shorey), for his part, does not trust Lakhna. Rounding off the primary players is the policeman Virender Gujjar (Ashutosh Rana) whose determination to clean up the Chambal seems to be as personal as it is professional.
Sonchiriya, which is written by Chaubey and Sudip Sharma, rarely misses a step. Like Chaubey's three previous directorial ventures — Ishqiya, Dedh Ishqiya and Udta Punjab — it is rooted in the soil from which it emerges. This rootedness is reflected in every element of the film, from the dialect the characters speak (accompanied by subtitles which will hopefully give it the pan-India audience it deserves) to their clothing and concerns. This film has more depth than the more widely promoted, far flashier Udta Punjab though. And like the two Ishqiyas, it is uncompromising and unapologetic about what it has to say.
His direction of Sonchiriya is steeped in conviction. Except for perhaps three brief scenes in which the momentum is intentionally slowed down to needlessly heighten the melodrama — when a group of men realise that they have killed the wrong person/s, while a mother is telling her son his truth, and in the end between Lakhna and the titular character — not a single moment of this narrative feels out of place or unnecessary.
Chaubey's canvas is enriched by production designer Rita Ghosh, fresh from her superb work on Nandita Das' Manto last year, and by DoP Anuj Rakesh Dhawan's ability to turn dust bowls into visual gold. Dhawan does not give us pretty frames here. His unsparing cinematography does nothing to lighten the impact of the harsh landscapes these characters traverse on their way to what seems like nowhere. Even the river is not prettified although it does provide some relief to the eyes. The audience is shown a lot of the violence that occurs, but not in a lascivious fashion.
The most bloody murder of the story, however, takes place off camera as one human being vents a long-burning rage against another, and sound designer Kunal Sharma, while not resorting to sensationalism, ensures that we know exactly what is going on without seeing any of it.
The ensemble cast is brimming with talent.
Bhumi Pednekar is flawless as the beleaguered woman who intrudes on the gang's existence. With just four feature films under her belt (Dum Laga Ke Haisha, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, Shubh Mangal Saavdhan and now this one), Pednekar has already emerged as one of the most versatile young actors on the Hindi film horizon.
All the grime and misery on the planet cannot camouflage Sushant Singh Rajput's handsomeness, yet the actor ensures that what stands out is his character's bruised and broken spirit. There are a couple of seconds here and there when Manoj Bajpayee's facial expressions come across as exaggerated, but for the most part he is as fabulous as Man Singh as he usually is.
Commercial Hindi filmdom is either indifferent to, ignorant about or afraid of caste as a subject, as we were reminded most recently by the shameful manner in which it remade the Marathi film Sairat as Dhadak. The industry is also largely a patriarchal space, usually telling stories of men or portraying women through a restricted male gaze. Abhishek Chaubey's new film, on the other hand, is a commentary on how, while oppressive systems crush the marginalised, the cycles of violence unleashed by dominant communities end up sweeping away everyone including the oppressors and in particular the few who wish to surrender their inherited privilege. Sonchiriya is unafraid, it is aware and it cares.
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