Abhishek Chaubey’s Sonchiriya is a rare breed of Hindi film. The kind we wait for, that we root for. The kind that looks to push boundaries, defy convention and above all that gives you hope. Hope that Hindi cinema can not just entertain, but also challenge, absorb us into new worlds, place us in the mindsets of its characters and put story and storytelling above all else.
Set during the Emergency, these are the stories of the baaghis (rebels or bandits) of Chambal – outlaws who loot and plunder. Theirs is a world of violence and a constant, unwavering fight to survive. Fighting the harsh terrain they operate in, the authorities seeking to hunt them down, the rival gangs and villagers out for revenge.
There aren’t the typical ‘movie bandits’ we’re using to seeing in old school Bollywood (in one scene two of the locals actually laugh at a film playing in local theatre playing in which the standard ‘movie dakkus’ are on horseback). This is reality – raw and unflinching. These are the unforgiving badlands which make the old West look like a theme park. In their world caste means everything, it’s your identity that defines your place in society.
They live in the barren ravines – their place of escape. No man’s land, where only their rules apply. It is the thing that both gives them power and helps them elude the authorities but also the thing that slowly saps the life out of them and drives them to their limits. But these aren’t mindless rogues out for murder and blind highway robbery. There’s a method to their madness and a code to their conduct. They live by a strict code of honour, an ethos that guides them, which teaches them to rob with honour and avoid unnecessary bloodshed.
Chaubey’s story shows is set at a time when theirs is a dying breed, a dying way of life with only a few gangs remaining and the police aggressively hunting them all down one by one. How fitting then, that one of the final stands they make towards the end of the film involves a shootout with the authorities while the baaghis are trapped within a set of ruins – a structure just barely clinging onto existence, a shadow of its former self.
Writer Sudip Sharma and director Abhishek Chaubey’s greatest achievement is in how they throw us into the world of the Chambal baaghis, and bring to life their culture, their philosophy, their psychology with the smallest of details. They throw us so entirely, so profoundly into the complex heads of these characters it’s hard to think of a similar film to compare it to.
Sonchiriya is pure craft and conviction. There isn’t an iota that isn’t totally and entirely believable. From the lavish, rugged Chambal landscapes, to the ominous and powerful background score to the dizzying camerawork – Chaubey creates a world that is moody, atmospheric and so specific. Not to mention that wonderfully rugged Bundeli dialect (with a welcome decision to include subtitles considering it isn’t the easiest to follow)
Like its central baaghis Sonchiriya is a brave film. Chaubey dares to be different, putting aesthetic above accessibility. He refuses to play to the gallery and mainstream-ify the proceedings or treatment and sticks to his guns, pun intended. So much so that it often feels more like an independent film, the kind you’d see at a festival. To that end, producer Ronnie Screwvala is no less brave for backing this and choosing to bring this story to life, told in this way.
Although director Chaubey doesn’t always manage to maintain his grip over you as aspects of the second half slacken in balancing flashbacks and furthering the story, that doesn’t take away from the sheer brutal impact of the film.
Yet for all the stylistic treatment and general headiness of it all, it is by no means devoid of swag and utter badassery. Much like Uri, Sonchiriya pushes the boundaries of action in Hindi cinema with some of the finest shootout sequences we’ve seen. It serves as a perfect counterpoint to that film – in Uri the action is slick and precise, here it’s raw, ugly and messy.
In terms of the performances, Sonchiriya might well give Gully Boy a run for its money as the ensemble of the year. The incredible casting from Honey Trehan gives us faces we rarely see on screen and make the film scream with authenticity. There isn’t even a hint of performance from the wider cast who are all so deeply steeped in character. As the police officer hunting down the baaghis, Ashutosh Rana is haunting and fierce, a fantastic villain – if we may call him that. As the baaghi seeking redemption, Sushant Singh Rajput is brimming with earnestness and purity as one of the few of his generation who is actor first and star second.
In the end, due to its refusal to gloss over or spoon feed, Sonchiriya may not be for everyone. Dark, bloody and emotionally trying. The chances are it’ll be buried in larger commercial vehicles, but it is nothing short of an achievement and one of the best things you’ll see this year.