Director: Abhishek Chaubey
Cast: Manoj Bajpayee, Sushant Singh Rajput, Ashutosh Rana, Bhumi Pednekar, Ranvir Shorey
Baaghi apna bhagya khud hi banata hai. This dialogue isn't from Sonchiriya. It's from the iconic Chambal film – Bandit Queen. It's apt because in Sonchiriya also, a ragtag team of doomed dakus try to create their own destiny. But the toxic fusion of caste, violence and jungle law ensures that eventually, everyone bites the dust.
Of which there is plenty in this stunning, arid land. For miles, all you see are the merciless ravines. Sonchiriya begins with the sound of flies buzzing and then we get a close-up of the carcass they are hovering on. The close-up holds for much too long but from the first frame, director Abhishek Chaubey establishes two things – that we are in a lawless land and that he isn't interested in making the ride comfortable for us. Life here is nasty, brutish and short. But the twist is that the dakus defy the Bollywood cliché – they don't ride horses and they aren't murderous looters though they kill plenty. Instead, they are rebels with a cause and a conscience – personified by the golden bird in the title.
Sonchiriya is set in 1975 but apart from hearing the announcement that Emergency has been declared, the politics of the outside world barely impinge on this one. It is as if time stands still as the cycle of violence repeats itself. Abhishek and DOP Anuj Rakesh Dhawan do a great job of plunging us into this universe. The film is largely shot on location. The camera is constantly swirling and weaving through crannies in the hillocks and corridors of homes the dakus are looting. The action, directed by Anton Moon & Sunil Rodrigues, is masterfully staged with dollops of suspense and dread – in a key sequence, Diwali diyas are hurriedly put out before the mayhem begins. It's a beautiful, haunting detail.
The acting is stellar. It's a pleasure to see Manoj Bajpayee return to where he started – playing a character named Maan Singh in a Chambal film. Except the one in his debut film Bandit Queen was based on a real-life character and this one is fiction. Maan Singh is a benevolent killer who understands the Karmic burden he carries. This is a man who insists that the dakus give 101 rupees as shagun to a bride whose jewelry they are looting. Manoj gives Maan Singh a bruised dignity. Sushant Singh Rajput as Lakhna, a decent man whose dream is surrender, makes the role his own. As does Bhumi Pednekar as the spirited Indu, the lone woman fighting the horrific patriarchy she is born into. Lakhna gets a few heroic flourishes, especially in the action scenes but neither Sushant nor Bhumi are being used as stars here, which serves the film well. And then there is Ranvir Shorey, an actor who inhabits the character without any sign of strain. He's terrific. Honestly, I don't know why filmmakers don't cast him more often. Ashutosh Rana as the cop who relentlessly chases down the bandits is also nicely terrifying.
Sonchiriya doesn't offer the same emotional depth or keen observation as Bandit Queen did. There isn't enough that feels fresh
In the first hour, the film has real power but Abhishek and co-writer Sudip Sharma can't sustain the grip. Post-interval, the narrative slackens. The brutality is unsparing and beyond a point, it starts to wear you down. Of course, violence comes with the terrain – you don't go to a Chambal film expecting light comedy. Bandit Queen is even more harrowing. The film scarred me but it also gave me an unforgettable insight into an unfathomable world. The brutality had a payback. Sonchiriya doesn't offer the same emotional depth or keen observation. There isn't enough that feels fresh. The weakest spot is the female daku Phulia, obviously modeled on Phoolan Devi. Though she does get one terrific scene, in which she tells Indu that women are such second-class citizens that they aren't even deserving of the brutal caste system. They are the lowest of the low.
Sonchiriya tries to blend Spaghetti Western style-action drama with social commentary but it isn't entirely satisfying on either count. You might also struggle with the language – Bundelkhandi – and it will help to see it with subtitles.
That said, there is no doubt that Abhishek has talent to burn and I can't wait to see what hell he immerses us into next. I'm going with three stars.