Sonchiriya writer Sudip Sharma on setting film during Emergency and how NH10 kick-started his career
After Udta Punjab, screenwriter Sudip Sharma collaborates with director Abhishek Chaubey for a second time in Sonchiriya, which explores the era of desi dacoits and the blood curdling chill of the Emergency.
Meeting Sudip Sharma comes as a surprise. Mild mannered, punctual and measured in his words, the cinematic universe that he creates is clearly miles away from this IIM Ahmedabad graduate who chose the crazily unstable profession of screenwriting over suits. Sharma collaborates with director Abhishek Chaubey for a second time in Sonchiriya, following up on the singeing experience of Udta Punjab, upon which the Censor Board planned to wreak havoc. Not one to play it safe, Sharma has co-written Sonchiriya along with Chaubey, this time exploring the era of desi dacoits and the blood curdling chill of the Emergency.
The title of your film Sonchiriya is a mouthful and fairly intriguing. What does it mean?
Sonchiriya is a very common word used in these parts of India (Chambal valley). It literally means the golden bird — the great Indian bustard, which is on the verge of extinction. Chambal has a sanctuary for these birds. Because it’s so rarely seen, and needs to be preserved, it kind of went with the theme of the film. Here is this beautiful life that needs to be protected and needs to be saved, and in saving that we can possibly find our redemption. The title lent itself into its context. It might be a bit of a mouthful, but when you watch the film you realise that it fits in beautifully.
Your film is set during the Emergency. The controversy around Udta Punjab didn’t discourage you from utilising a politically controversial period.
It’s not an Emergency-based story; this period in time is just the backdrop for the film. Some of the issues we are dealing with in the film — patriarchy and caste system, one might wonder how do they fit into a dacoit movie — are not easy to talk about. Indians tend to have, what we colloquially call in Punjabi, a mitti pao tendency (Punjabi), like 'don’t talk about the bad stuff, speak about the good things.' That’s usually the standard Indian response to any uncomfortable issue. To me, the idea of travelling to a certain part of India and exposing myself to that culture is always exciting. Getting to invest myself in a subculture, which I don’t know much about is one of the primary reasons for me to do a film. A film about people like me might not be something that I make. The idea is to understand our country more.
Why did you choose to make a dacoit film in today’s times? Would I be correct in assuming that the ‘baaghi’ (rebel) concept draws from prevalent mood in our country, where going against the establishment is not welcome?
We were dealing with several ideas while discussing this film. One was to make a dacoit movie but not the sort of film that we are used to. Often these films have had a very B template. We also clearly didn’t want to do a ‘cool’ dacoit movie, not one of those where a dacoit is a gunslinger. The idea of being a ‘baaghi’ (rebel) was interesting as was the thought of placing the story around the Emergency, around that period of time. It was important the era comes somewhat close to reflecting what’s currently happening around us.
We were also keen to establish the premise of dacoits dealing with issues that we don’t necessarily associate with them. Chaubey (Abhishek Chaubey, the film’s director) and I kept telling ourselves is that these are dacus (bandits) dealing with existential issues. They aren’t after a pot of gold or bag of money. They are struggling with issues of who they are and what it really means to be a rebel; are they really on the right path?
That’s interesting - dacoits seeking the right path?
What’s fascinating about the Chambal dacoits and what sets them apart from the typical highwaymen is that they had a very strong code of honour. Some of it might be steeped in patriarchy. Fine, those were the times. The thought that we would respect women and protect them actually came from a sense of male privilege — that women needed protecting, looking after and defending. But some of it also came from traditions of the region, of not taking injustice and fighting back against perpetrators.
NH10, Udta Punjab and now, Sonchiriya. You’ve written films in spaces where not many tread into commonly. How difficult was it to become a screenwriter with this bent of mind?
Hindi film industry works in a very particular sort of format and if you try to do anything that is outside the comfort zone of the powers that be, it has always been difficult. The lot before me must have had a hard time trying to make their films. Say for Anurag Kashyap or Vishal Bhardwaj, they must have had it really tough as there wasn’t a reference point for their kind of films.
Thankfully, in the past 5 years or so, there is a big chance. People are open to films steeped in reality. With OTT coming in, now you get a legit feed on your TV of international content rather than downloading it or finding a pirated DVD. The exposure is going to make it better for content, as the general populace is getting acquainted with what’s being made the world over.
Did you find it difficult to persist with screenwriting, given your background in academics?
That was always difficult. I remember that the phase before NH10 released, it was a particularly difficult time emotionally and physically. I had been working 18-hour days for the past five years, churning out scripts after scripts and people, surprisingly responding well to them. They would say they would like to make it into a film, and then it not happening (for one reason or the other), which was even more frustrating.
There were two phases to it. The first phase meant figuring out what it means to be a screenwriter, and how you actually write a half decent script. I am not trained as a scriptwriter. The next phase was tougher; when you are actually closer to delivering half decent stuff and people are responding to it, but stuff actually not happening.
Navdeep Singh and I worked on five scripts before NH10 got made. One of them was half shot; another was about to go on floors. So all of it built up and NH10 came at the right time thankfully, otherwise I was very close to giving it up. If it didn’t work out, I might not have been doing this… (Pauses). Or maybe it’s just a story that we tell ourselves, as it sounds cinematic. Possibly I would have stuck around for some more time.
When Udta Punjab faced backlash from a state regulatory body, how did you react to the situation? You were accused of tarnishing the image of Punjab.
It was very frustrating. For the sake of authenticity, we were trying to tell the story as we saw it and what was happening out there. The backlash was surprising, as we had no political agendas or hidden intentions. We were trying to tell an honest and important story. When the backlash got politically motivated, we hadn’t envisioned that at all.
You are currently working as showrunner on a series for Amazon Prime and Clean Slate Films. It’s a cop drama. Aren't there too many of these?
Cop dramas or stories have been the same traditionally; they are not a new phenomenon. It’s always about an underdog fighting the good fight, fighting the system and trying to make his place in the universe. There are ways to tell it over and over again without making one lose interest. Ours goes beyond a cop drama and explores other facets of life.. In the series format, there is room to present much more.
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