Abhishek Chaubey's Sonchiriya opens with a premonition. A close up of the rotten carcass of a dead snake, flies swarming over it, with the ravines of Chambal in the background. It lies on the way of Man Singh (Manoj Bajpayee) and his men, a band of fictitious dacoits living in seventies India. They are about to make another loot when Singh's men warn that it's a bad omen. Man Singh casually disregards, and keeps walking. It's an arresting start. But there's something off. Is it Man Singh's voice? I toss it aside, just like Man Singh, and move on. Soon, Lakhna (Sushant Singh Rajput) – while washing his face in the river – sees an apparition of a girl. Man Singh sees it too. They look at each other, exchange a few words, and it becomes clear that Bajpayee and Rajput aren't speaking in their voices. Neither is Ranvir Shorey, who plays Vakil Singh. They aren't speaking in Bundelkhandi, as the trailer and the pre-release interviews had promised. This is the dubbed Hindi version!
Even if one isn't acutely aware of the actors' original voices (to be fair, the dubbing artists do their job competently), the inevitable lack of harmony between the lines and lip movements give it away. And it sticks out like a sore thumb in a film that is otherwise so rooted in its milieu. Despite the brilliant, breathless opening twenty minutes, I walked out. There were others, as I later found out from Twitter, who had the misfortune of going into a theatre that was playing the Hindi-dubbed version. These were in different parts of the country, in cinema chains such as Movie Time, Carnival, Mukta a2, Sangam.
A tweet by Rajput, the film's lead star, two days after the film's release, had drawn attention to the situation. The tweet read: A lot of you are writing in to me with heartbreaking reports that the film is released in some 'dubbed' version which is not the same as the original version we have created. Please note that I have not dubbed for any version other than the original dialect. And neither have any of my senior actor colleagues who are part of the film and who I've spoken with. Please send me names of theatres that you find are playing this 'dubbed' version and I will escalate to those concerned. I don't want our labour of love to be corrupted in any manner…" His words give the impression that the Hindi-dub was done on the sly, without the knowledge of the main actors including himself. There were speculations about the Hindi-dubbed version being an unofficial one. The director had been eerily silent.
I reached out to Ankur Khanna, Associate Producer in the film. He admits that RSVP, the studio that has produced Sonchiriya, "should have been more bullish about their communication about which is dubbed and which is original." It's also a mistake on the part of the theatres who are playing the Hindi version, as well as the ticket-booking service Book My Show.
Khanna says that all the actors, except Ranvir Shorey, were approached to do the dubbing themselves. Rajput and Bajpayee didn't want to do it, as they thought the Hindi version will release "only in the interiors."Bhumi Pednekar and Ashutosh Rana did their own dubbing.
Khanna explains how Sonchiriya came to have a Hindi-dubbed version to begin with: a situation not uncommon for South Indian and Hollywood films, but rare for a Hindi film. The decision to do a Hindi-dubbed version was taken in December, 2018, after the exhibitors and distributors said that they thought the film was "too dark and bleak" — adding that the Bundelkhandi dialect would further alienate the audience. These exhibitors and distributors largely belong to the single screens; territories such as Punjab, Gujarat and Orissa; and multiplexes such as the one I went to, in Chembur, that cater to Marathi-speaking, working class section of the audience. He says that the makers even considered Hindi subtitles. "Then we came to know by research people who understand Hindi cannot read Hindi but can speak it."
Khanna says that all the actors, except Ranvir Shorey, were approached to do the dubbing themselves. Rajput and Bajpayee didn't want to do it, as they thought the Hindi version will release "only in the interiors;" (Rajput didn't respond to this after we reached out to him). Bhumi Pednekar and Ashutosh Rana did their own dubbing. Chaubey "wasn't happy about the dubbing, as an artist, but he understood that it had to be done if the film were to release widely to recover its cost." Although the director supervised the choice of the dubbing artists, he excused himself from the rest of the dubbing process, which was done under the supervision of one of his assistants. Chaubey didn't respond to our mails, but he was quoted in an interview saying, "If you remember, Dedh Ishqiya was in Urdu with English subtitles. In Udta Punjab the characters speak in Punjabi. We again used English subtitles. I think my characters will always speak the language they are meant to. Our pan-India audiences are mature enough to accept any language that the characters speak."
And yet, complaints about Sonchiriya's Hindi-dubbed version are hardly the studio's biggest problem, which faces huge losses after the film's poor first week run. Made on a budget of approximately Rs 32 crores, it earned about Rs 3.5 crore on the weekend. Khanna sounds devastated. He says the perception that the producers weren't confident about the film isn't true. "Everyone in the organisation is proud of Sonchiriya. I will be proud of it when I am 60 years old." The distribution team of RSVP, he says, made urgent calls to the exhibitors playing the Hindi version, on Sunday, the third day of the film's release, requesting them to switch to the original. "We didn't expect it to open big. We were expecting it to grow by word of mouth. But when it didn't pick up even on the weekend, Ronnie (Screwvala) said that at least people who are seeking the film should enjoy it in its authentic glory," he says. At the time of release, the ratio of screen share between Bundelkhandi and Hindi was 75:25 in favour of the original; it changed to 90:10, after the weekend, according to Khanna.
Described by the director as a film about "daakus with existential crises," Sonchiriya – written by Sudip Sharma, a regular collaborator with Chaubey – tackles themes such as caste and gender, but not necessarily at the expense of entertainment. RSVP saw in it the potential to provide the big thrills; they "decided to scale it up." "We thought let's make a chase-action film, which should have superficial pleasures. And whoever wants profundity and layer, will get that too," he says. The film released in 1700 screens (which translates to 3000 shows per day) in India, according to Khanna.
Maybe the marketing of the film, given its aim of reaching a large audience, should have been more aggressive? (The film's release date was pushed from 8 February to 1 March, and a snazzier trailer, less true to the film than the quieter, moodier first one, was released.) Khanna says that they had a hard time trying to find the right way promote the film, without being misleading. "We did print, teasers, motion posters. But 60-70% of film marketing today is music oriented. This film didn't have music that could be used to promote. We were up against a film that had five remix songs and not one original." One of the film's digital campaigns, in a tie-up with Chambal tourism, had Rajput, Pednekar and Bajpayee trying to sell the home of Phoolan Devi as a holiday destination. "I keep thinking what else could we have done," he says.