Bandits and bandit culture have long played a key part of Hindi cinema. From unflinching independent films that shed light on harsh realities such as Shekhar Kapoor’s highly celebrated Bandit Queen (1994) to iconic villains moulded for the mainstream like Sholay’s Gabbar Singh. And yet, the genre no longer has the same prominence it once did. Movies such as Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Paan Singh Tomar (2012) are few and far between.
Sudip Sharma is the writer behind Abhishek Chaubey’s upcoming Sonchiriya – a bandit movie which looks to revisit the genre and re-examine a fascinating culture. Sharma is one of the minds behind some of the most talked about films of the last decade such as Navdeep Singh’s NH10 (2015) and Udta Punjab (2016), also directed by Chaubey. Sharma talked to us about the history of bandit culture, why cinema has traditionally been so attracted to it and whether these stories have a newfound relevance today.
How would you explain it to a generation that isn’t familiar with them?
It’s the moral code. Our movie specifically deals with the bandits in Chambal. And if you really look at it the locals divide the whole bandit culture or bandit history in three eras. First was the Baaghi era which was close to this idea of the Lone Ranger in the Old West – somebody who is for revenge or because somebody wronged him and he wants to set that right. The Baaghi era really started just after the Britishers left or maybe a little before that.
Sultana Dakku was a Baaghi even though he wasn’t operating in Chambal. The Chambal Baaghi era really started with Dakku Man Singh back in the 50s. That lasted till about the early 70s which is when the Dacoit era started where the code started dissipating. Then the whole caste equation came in and these caste gangs started getting formed. Before that, it was all Thakur gangs in Chambal. In the 70s it started opening up to other castes which was when (Bandit Queen’s) Phoolan Devi started her own Mala gang. By the 90s it turned into a Lootera era which is just pure bandits – highway robbers whose only idea was to make money even if that meant killing somebody.
There is something very fascinating about this whole culture and about this idea of people taking the law into their own hands. And you also have to realise that a lot of it is to do with the fact that a lot of those parts were quite lawless in the 50s and 60s. India had just got independence and there wasn’t much of law enforcement around those parts. Which is where this culture came from. It was kind of a call to really undo the wrong that has been done to you.
What is it about them that’s traditionally been so appealing to mainstream cinema?
At some level it’s about the underdog who has been wronged and wants to set things right. And so most bandit stories were always about the landlord in the village taking over the land or looking at women the wrong way and then the main guy whose helpless takes to the ravines and goes out there becomes a Dakku comes back and takes his revenge. So there’s something attractive about that kind of underdog story.
Personally, what attracted me to the whole thing was not just the genre part of it and I’m a huge buff of genre films and we don’t quite make enough genre films around here. For me what was really fascinating was that the entire Chambal dacoit baaghi story is actually a fight against patriarchy and the caste system. That’s what really drew me into this world. Patriarchy because that was the Phoolan Devi story. You’re talking about North India back in the 50s, 60s and 70s which was sort of the epitome of patriarchy in the country. Women were wronged and they had no course for recourse, which sort of started changing when Phoolan came in and the things she did. They may have been right or wrong but that’s the way she dealt with it.
The same with the caste system. The story of the Chambal baaghis is the story of the caste system. It started with the thakur gangs and by the 70s the other castes got involved and they started going against the thakurs. For me, that was the most fascinating part of it – to be able to look at the whole caste system with the lens of a gun.
Why do you feel the genre died out?
Because at some point of time we stopped making movies about who we are. I think that started with the 80s, 90s and early 2000s. We stopped talking about 80% of India and focused on the urban class and making movies for NRIs. That definitely played a part in the dying out of the genre. Also, the sort of climb down of the Chambal baaghi from being the righteous rebel who was out fighting for a cause to just another bandit, that also took the x-factor out of the whole story. By the end of it just became a gangster movie and that by itself was less interesting.
Do you feel like there’s a new relevance to it?
The relevance of these stories never went away, we just stopped looking at them. Caste and patriarchy are equally relevant today. I found It fascinating to look at that era and that culture and how much of it still holds true. Maybe not in that violent a form, but some of the stories you keep hearing about. If you travel out there, some of these places really haven’t changed at all.
What were your references for this film? Any go-to bandit movies you’d recommend?
Bandit queen is the iconic reference and there’s no way you can look beyond that film. I remember watching it for the first time in a theatre in Delhi, I was probably in my 12th standard when it came out and getting blown by it and just how harsh and true to life that film was. There’s also been Paan Singh Tomar also which was a very good film and a fascinating story. Out in the West, they’ve been a few films. The Sam Peckinpah films like The Wild Bunch which is about a dying culture and dying ethos and taking a final stand. Also some of the movie from the 70s like butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Aside from these, to be honest, I haven’t been a big fan of the Indian dakku movie culture. They sort of brushed away the socio-political dynamic of the whole place. It was always about the upper class and lower class and there was no caste equation to it and that for me is only telling half the story. There’ve been a few movies in the 80s which were interesting. A couple of Rahul Rawail films and films like Dacait and Yateem. These were probably a little more interesting. They were also shot in the real landscape.
Do you have any favourite onscreen bandit characters?
Gabbar was very different to the kind of characters that we are dealing with. He was very much in the Dakku bandit space and it wasn’t quite rooted in the same milieu that we are in. We also drew a lot from real life characters. When I went out there for research, we actually met a lot of real dacoits and baaghis from the era. We met Mohar Singh who was at one point of time one of the biggest baaghis in Chambal, he had 80 murders to his name. He actually surrendered back in the 70s and was given a pardon. So, he’s still around and he shared some of his stories.
For me, the most fascinating part of writing a film is the research part of it. What you try to do as a storyteller and filmmakers is live out a life which you did not have which is what I try to do. I don’t like telling urban stories about people like us because that’s far less interesting and there’s far less to explore. These kinds of stories and terrain give you so much more to explore and uncover a side of the country that you never knew existed and didn’t have much detail about.
You’ve previously talked about how the violence in NH10 or Udta Punjab is meant to turn you off. Is the same true for Sonchiriya? Is there not an element of making them very cool gangster-like figures you’re rooting for?
The violence even in this is meant to sort of turn you off although we’re not going for the hard-hitting punch-in-the-gut violence like NH10 had. We’re really trying to explore the morality behind violence and what makes people do certain things and what the repercussions are. But I don’t think we have crossed the line of making violence enjoyable with this one.