Ramesh Sippy’s 1975 film Sholay was more than just a fight that pitted two ex-cons against a notorious gang of dacoits that had terrorized the village of Ramgarh. It was also a romanticized version of the proverbial battle between good and evil. Jai and Veeru were the quintessential misunderstood samaritans who had fallen into the wrong side of the law and given a chance to redeem their fate by the veritable Thakur by killing off Gabbar Singh, the leader of the dacoits and the devil incarnate. Salim Khan, in his writing, drew a clean line between the good men and the bad. There was no grey area where the dacoits had a motive. They were portrayed as savage brutes who killed just for the sheer joy of it, as was shown by the tragic killing of that young boy in broad daylight whose dead body is sent back on his horse for the villagers to see. The ultimate triumph of the protagonists over the dacoits was an ending that made sense to our intuition, giving us the much-needed catharsis. However, we have come far from there.
Salim Khan, in his writing, drew a clean line between the good men and the bad. There was no grey area where the dacoits had a motive. They were portrayed as savage brutes who killed just for the sheer joy of it…
Abhishek Chaubey has established himself as a Director to watch out for with his 2016 film Udta Punjab, which showed us a gut-wrenching reality of the extent of the rampant drug problem in the northern province of Punjab. Sonchiriya takes you deep in the heartland of India, into the clay-ravines of Madhya Pradesh where dacoits hold sway. Although the common populace uses the term ‘dacoit’, they call themselves ‘baagi’ or Rebels, the ones who harbour a seething disrespect for the law and refuse to abide by it. Led by Man Singh, who is fondly called Dadda (big brother), the gang gets word of a wedding ceremony that’s happening in the nearby village where there’s a huge pile of gold and silver to be looted. Unaware that the local Police were waiting for them, the gang walks right into the trap and find themselves in a fierce gunbattle which kills off most of them including Man Singh. One of the younger rebels, Lakhna, clears a path for the survivors and leads the second-in-command Vakil Singh into the safety of the ravines.
As they traverse the scorching terrain, hiding from the law, they come across a young woman and a little girl who have escaped from their village. The little girl had been violated by her own family and the woman, who called the girl her sister, feared that they would murder them. The woman claims to be of the Thakur caste, same as that of the gang and pleads them to help her. Lakhna feels protective of them and convinces Vakil to let them come. When the woman’s family catches up to them, the gang has no choice but to hand it over to them, except for Lakhna who stands up to Vakil holding his ground to defend his wards. What was a war between the dacoits and the law, had now turned into an internal vendetta between the ranks of the gang members.
Sonchiriya’s narrative breaks down the stereotype of a bad, morally shallow dacoit who can be nothing but an uncouth, stinking, bearded monster who lives like an animal. Writers Chaubey and Sudip Sharma portray Man Singh and his gang as a group of men who have chosen to live this life of ‘self-enforced austerity’, eating whatever they can find and walking scores of miles every day. In an interesting scene, Man Singh and his men crash the wedding party and gather up all the gold. Singh asks someone where the bride’s room is. For a few foreboding moments, you feel something bad was going to happen but then he asks Vakil to give her a hundred and one rupees as a wedding gift. They don’t touch any of the women. Even during the gunfight that ensues, Man Singh makes it clear to his men that – “Not a single man in this family will die today!”.
Also read: Sonchiriya’s real life inspirations
Every character in this gritty narrative has some form of a motive that provides a lot of depth to their actions. Man Singh and Lakhna carry a baggage of remorse from a mishap that they had been in a few years prior to the gunfight. That single incident changes their outlook as the ghost of that dark day follows them wherever they go. That event also brings them into the eyes of their greatest adversary in this tale, the Police Inspector Virender Singh Gujjar who is chasing them like a bloodhound for personal vengeance. It feels as if the superstition of the gang members had manifested itself and cursed them until they are run into the ground. Saving the woman and the little girl becomes Lakhna’s life-purpose and a way to redeem himself from this curse. The background track, playing with the pun – “Baagi…Abhaagi” (Rebel…Foresaken) underlines the story perfectly. Destiny brings everyone to justice.
The film seems to have been shot majorly on a hand-held cam which renders the scenes a bit shaky as if someone were walking with the dacoits with the camera in his hand. This mode of cinematography makes the shots far more authentic than they would have been with image-stabilization. Kudos to the production design team for the gritty, dust-riddled atmosphere of the film. Shot at location in the deep ravines of the Chambal valley which used to be the favourite haunt of the infamous Phoolan Devi, the scenes feel extremely authentic, not to mention the typical dialect that has been accurately reproduced by all of the characters. You might even want to read the subtitles from time to time to catch the conversations. I was hard-pressed to convince myself that these were not all native speakers. Sushant Singh Rajput, as the level-headed young rebel, is compelling on screen as he goes against his own brother. Bhumi Pednekar gives her career-best performance as the fierce, downtrodden woman who tries to save a lower caste girl by calling her her sister against all social conventions. Manoj Bajpayee and Ranvir Shorey as Man Singh and Vakil Singh are an absolute treat to watch even with the limited screen space they get. Ashutosh Rana’s unsettling eyes make him a man to fear as he runs down each gang-member ruthlessly. There is no line between good and evil here, even to the highest echelons of the government where a rogue prime minster has just declared emergency in the nation.
Sonchiriya will haunt you for days after you have watched it. The gritty twists and turns of the story come full circle, tying up everyone’s lives together to a fateful end. Despite the chaotic, blood-swathed gunfights, the story clearly stands out as a tale of redemption where men from questionable moral backgrounds stand up for what’s right. With the layered characters and a masterful attention to detail, this one will most definitely be one of the best films you will watch this year. Abhishek Chaubey’s work has now become unmissable.