When after its signature tune the national news channel announces the declaration of emergency on radio, a group of bandits enters a village in the ravines of Chambal. The pack of the chief warns everybody of dire consequences if they don’t cooperate but little does he know that flying bullets are far less deadly than the haunting images from his bloody past.
It’s a gang guided by Man Singh aka Dadda (Manoj Bajpayee) through the dusty and unforgiving bylanes in the Chambal valley. The water is so clear that you can see the bottom and air is so pure that all your wishful thinking takes a backseat. But it’s the life in between that’s hard, testing, judgmental and full of dangers. It doesn’t matter if you’re a bandit or a farmer, all this will culminate inside the barrel of a gun. It’s wilder than the wild, wild west and more divided than our opinion on reservation. There are castes, sub-castes and bizarrely envisioned pride associated with them. Being a Man Singh or a Phuliya (Phoolan) isn’t a matter of choice but of survival.
Sushant Singh Rajput’s Lakhna is team Man Singh because the Thakurs have their own gang but he might be contemplating branching out or who knows, surrender! A sudden entry in the team Indumati (Bhumi Pednekar) could have shown him the way but it’s far from being a lovestory.
Director Abhishek Chaubey (Ishqiya, Udta Punjab) glides us into the harsh lifestyle of bandits or rebels as they like to call themselves. They speak of their difficulties in as many words but can’t leave this life because they have never known anything better. It’s cruel, pointless and vengeful. Everything is personal and nothing is personal.
Chaubey leisurely sets us up on a date with a deeply patriarchal, unjust society where loaded words lead to belligerence. They swear and die by their surnames. In such a situation that completely fogs your imagination and the zeal for a better life, luck is the only companion you want.
After a few minutes, actors like Rajput and Ranvir Shorey (Vakil Singh) begin to spread wings. It’s very unlike hero role and that makes Rajput tread the path carefully. He is mostly silent and hardly delivers the kind of dialogues our leads are used to especially when there is a gun at disposal, but his presence is enigmatic. While holding his ground against actors such as Bajpayee and Shorey, he shows restraint and an objective compassion. The film has a healthy spine.
It’s always difficult to not draw similarities when films like Bandit Queen and Paan Singh Tomar feature the same canvas, so what a director could do? Take a new angle or stick to one agenda, which might have been shown earlier, and get deeper into it. Chaubey chooses the second option. His focus is caste and he has done a good job at it.
There are no villains but many troubled souls who are sinners too. One such character is Ashutosh Rana, who, as an inspector with a backstory, is the most tangible flavour of Sonchiriya. He shifts moods as per convenience and assists others in getting it right. By now, Rana is an expert at looking menacing and acting accordingly but he has tried to reach beyond the usual gambit this time.
Shorey, as usual, knows what he is doing but he could have been given more screen time. Pednekar operates within usual clichés, but she is the chosen one to convey the message of Sonchiriya, so you can’t really overlook her.
Despite violence, of all kinds, being at the helm, Sonchiriya successfully manages to be a film about the bigger picture and larger good, but that’s not my preferred take-away from it. I think, Chaubey has got a real firm grip on the Westerns and easily is the best exponent of this genre in Bollywood right now. At 143-minutes, a unidirectional Sonchiriya wouldn’t let you crave for a spicier set-up.