Sonchiriya: Abhishek Chaubey's subversion of the dacoit drama is powerful and engaging
Sonchiriya merges the familiar beats of a dacoit drama with the philosophical undertones of new age cinema to present a concoction that is as explosive as introspective.
Abhishek Chaubey's dacoits walk the Gabbar gait, but without the crutch of background score. Since we have grown up on the dramatic depiction of dacoits in Hindi cinema, the footsteps and the campy introductory music are sure to echo in our ears nonetheless. But then the camera shifts its focus to the flies hovering around a dead snake, and we know that Chaubey will debunk every myth we have been fed about dacoit dramas.
Sonchiriya, Chaubey's recent dacoit drama, is a nod to Shekhar Kapur's 1996 (premiered at Cannes in 1994 but released theatrically in India in 1996) cult Bandit Queen. The film often harks back to the story of Phoolan Devi in terms of its texture, style and aesthetic. But it is not as raw and hard-hitting as the Seema Biswas-starrer, a conscious move that turns out to be in its favour. Despite weaving the story around a long forgotten breed that is alien to the millennial audience, Chaubey puts forth a tight, immensely entertaining act, thanks to the exhilarating action and a crop of excellent actors.
Sonchiriya is an unofficial spin-off of Bandit Queen since it takes a key character from that film, Man Singh (Manoj Bajpayee), and tells the story of his gang, comprising the likes of Vakil Singh (Ranvir Shorey) and Lakhna (Sushant Singh Rajput). Each of them is undergoing an existential crisis fuelled by the remorse of killing innocent lives in the past. However, they believe they are dacoits by birth and must serve their dharma. The rest of the film revolves around the journey of all the three characters to discover their dharma, and that hell of a ride involves rescuing an absconding woman Indumati (Bhumi Pednekar), a young rape survivor, and hiding from a police officer of another caste, Virender Singh Gujjar, who has a personal agenda to hunt them down.
The beats of the cat and mouse chase between the police and the dacoits, and a rape revenge drama, are familiar. But Chaubey subverts these with his keen eye for technique, detailing and character development. He thus presents a blend of Sholay and Bandit Queen. Sonchiriya can be aptly called Abhishek Chaubey's Sholay, given his new-age sensibilities and fascination for old world charm.
The USP of the film is the action that is choreographed with both great precision and on grand scale by Anton Moon, best known for his outstanding work in Doomsday and Maze Runner: The Death Cure. The countless gun sequences and chases are extremely thrilling. They have the poise of the concluding sequence in Sholay and the recklessness of the opening scene in Anurag Kashyap's Gangs of Wasseypur. But the action sequences, with frequent deaths and copious amounts of blood (never gore), are also rooted in realism. They do borrow liberally from mainstream cinema but are never as pulpy as say, a Revolver Rani. Close-up shots of battered bodies, half-dead dacoits and gushing wounds establish the underlining empathy emphatically. The stress on the cost of violence is not only crucial to the philosophical undertones of the film, but equally significant in the current climate.
Besides being laced with empathy, the gaze is equally ambitious. Anuj Dhawan's cinematography captures the limitless expanse of the Chambal ravines with stunning aerial shots and tracking shots through the meandering mazes, reflecting the state of mind the dacoits inhabiting these are in. Editor Meghna Manchanda Sen treats the narrative as an action thriller and hits all the right punches, coupled with Sudip Sharma's terrific screenplay and colourful dialogues. While there was marginal room for improvement in the screenplay (like a deeper connection of the narrative with the 1975 Emergency), the story by Chaubey and Sharma comments on various evils of society through their characters' personal struggles.
The most dominant issue addressed is that of caste, one that Bollywood usually shies away from. Sonchiriya is designed as a barren jungle where the caste system acts as the food chain. The men of higher caste prey on those of the lower caste and the vicious cycle continues with the descendants of the lower cast seeking retribution. The women, however, as Chaubey demonstrates through Indumati's parallel narrative, are not subjected to the caste system. "Aurat ki toh jaat hi alag hoti hai," says a legendary dacoit and rape survivor who returns to the screen for a lifesaving cameo.
Among the principal cast members, Bajpayee uses his quirks in his favour to play Man Singh as a fearless dacoit with a moral spine. Sushant is arguably the best performer in the film. He steeps deeper into the restrained style he has adopted recently to make Lakhna a dacoit with a beating heart. He aces the action sequences as well, often using his costumes and the environment to highlight his stunts. He does get a superstar-like moment in one action sequence, but he never lets the star get better of the actor. The same is the case with Bhumi, who peels the various layers in her character, with the measured pace of an advancing executioner. Ranvir proves yet again why he is a powerhouse performer with the most explosive character of the lot. The film would not have been as thrilling had it not been for Ashutosh Rana's menacing act. He uses the character's nuances to make every bad guy believable and different from the last one.
There is also an unsung hero in Vishal Bhardwaj, whose music infuses life into the non-action portions of Sonchiriya. Varun Grover uses ample metaphors in his lyrics to establish why rebellion, though often celebrated, comes at a great cost.
The title of the film, Sonchiriya (the Golden bird), is itself a metaphor. It symbolieses the prized yet evasive treasure that the dacoits are on the lookout for, to pay the debt to their dharma. With this relevant, engaging film, Chaubey seems to have paid his debt. After Udta Punjab, he proves with even greater conviction why he is no rebel without a reason.
This is a first impression review of Sonchiriya. Read Anna Vetticad's movie review here.
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