Director: Abhishek Chaubey
Abhishek Chaubey’s Sonchiriya has bandits and gunfights, chaos and caste, blood and bravery. It has ugly action, riveting reactions, lived-in dialect and a damsel whose distress defines the politics of tradition. But this oddly profound “Pasta Western” is primarily an Indian psychological thriller, because it hinges on two themes: death and religion. Civilization might have commercialized the concepts of death and religion, but Chaubey and co-writer Sudip Sharma rightly put their trust in a bunch of outlaws – existential creatures of the wild – to retain the sanctity of these themes. To resurrect the freedom that they once promised. The haunted are always the more evolved. The ghosts they see are clearer in the naked shallows of river banks; the voices in their heads are louder when they echo across the empty valleys that house their hubris. As a result, morality is their silhouette-against-the-sunset shot and redemption becomes their background score.
The dusty ravines of ‘70s Chambal then essentially double up as the dilapidated confines of Mukti Bhavan, the titular Varanasi “hotel” devoted to those searching for salvation in their last days in Shubhashish Bhutiani’s probing debut feature. Maan Singh (Manoj Bajpayee) and his sweaty band of Thakuri dacoits, more than most, can escape the bullets of obsessive Inspector Virender Singh Gujjar (Ashutosh Rana). They can escape the sociocultural irony of their own missions. But they also, more than most, cannot escape themselves. Their legacy, their mistakes, and fading sense of masculinity in a period – the Indira Gandhi-sanctioned Emergency – enveloped by the side-effects of mass sterilization and heightened police power. There is thus a truth to their vulnerability, at a time when men around them are losing more than just their minds.
On another day, Maan Singh, Lakhna Singh (Sushant Singh Rajput) and Vakil Singh (Ranvir Shorey) might have even been sullenly traversing the cobblestoned streets of the tiny Belgian Town in Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges. But they can only afford to be as ponderous as their environment allows them to be. Because justice and honour aren’t merely gangster-keywords here; they are the last-gasp crutches of men who are losing faith in their own ideals, of a non-conformist culture that has realized why it is going extinct. They hang onto the caste system and a general sense of godliness, almost in the hope that reflecting our today through the lens of yesterday might offer them, more than us, a feeling of direction and purpose. The gang is pictured and “shot” in a way that makes them seem like the last surviving breed of baaghis, almost as if an apocalypse might have wiped out the rest of their kind.
The filmmakers even construct the cross-country journey in a manner that makes it look like a story desperately battling the demise of the dacoit-movie genre. The gun-fights are messy and extensive, occuring at points where you’d expect song-and-dance sequences of brotherhood and bonding to interrupt the regular Bollywood arc. And the characters sway between homicidal and suicidal, reckless and righteous, unable to comprehend the extent of their own internal conflict.
When they come across Indumati Tomar (Bhumi Pednekar), a woman with a dying child, the writers use conventional storytelling tropes to make us expect a clear demarcation between selfless heroes and selfish villains. We see scenes of irrational humanity and conscience: they help her. We see decades of conditioning compressed into one ingenious moment: she instinctively veils her face before cocking her rifle at a potential male attacker. We hear self-aware dialogue: “Justice is the only religion” and “Caste categories are for men; women are a separate caste altogether.” We see classic hero moments: Sushant Singh Rajput casually lighting a beedi as he strides out of a house after single-handedly massacring (Django-ing, even) the enemy. Villain moments: A cop parading dead bodies on a tractor after a successful mission. But their roles exist only because the cameras exist. Each one of them is haunted: a victim of decisions made beyond these frames. The flashbacks are placed to precision. The incident that defines the unusual psychology of this film is revealed in a way that dramatically inverts our reading of the story. It effectively turns Sholay on its head, suggesting that Gabbar Singh lies in the eyes of the beholder; it’s only the priority of a narrative, and not the narrative itself, that distinguishes him from the Thakur.
It’s to Chaubey’s credit that the smaller details reveal themselves through the film’s characterization: the two men at the forefront of the incident turn out to be the most broken, and therefore the most selfish, of the lot. Heroism, for them, is not selfless but a necessary consequence of this selfishness. The third man, who wasn’t as involved in the incident, is not damaged enough to rescue others as penance for his sins. He doesn’t need to heal to be healed yet. He inherits the burden of antagonism for simply doing his job better than most.
The performances are barely performances. The ensemble brims with invisible backstory. Bajpayee and Shorey look like they’ve occupied Chambal since 1975. Pednekar lends an inevitable sense of womanhood to the silenced. Chaubey, the protege of a director (Vishal Bhardwaj) who has long made actors out of non-actors, is at ease with the density of voice in his images. Which is why it was perhaps meant to be that Rajput almost redeems his stuttering career in a grimy tale about redemption.
What’s most remarkable about Sonchiriya, however, is that it explores the frayed mentality of the outsider through a cinematic sub-genre that is best positioned to expose the innards of a time-torn nation. For a land whose reverence for history disguises its disdain of the past, there is a lesson in how its countryside consistently breeds underdogs that challenge the repercussions of no future. Scott Cooper’s Hostiles (2017) last expressed this – Christian Bale is the haunted rescuer and Rosamund Pike, the rescued – by contextualizing the trauma of the American-Indian Wars. The lawless Western is, after all, nothing but a rooted reflection of the center; the birds remain just as endangered in the great outdoors. They rage against the dying of light…only to reveal that perhaps they were raging towards the light all along.