Let me begin by stating that I am highly disappointed by the makers of Sonchiriya at this moment – in large parts of India, they simply decided to release a hindi dubbed version of the film, and didn’t bother to use any indicators in the show listings for the audience to decide whether they are willing to watch the dubbed film, or should scout for theatres and shows where the original bundelkhandi version is possibly playing with subtitles. It is a strategic blunder on the makers part – they should have realized that their film is anyway niche and the biggest thing that had caught the audience attention since the trailers was the authenticity of the setup, and the edginess of the dialect. By robbing the film of that edginess in order to make it more accessible, the makers have just put off a large section of genuinely interested audience by not giving them the experience they came for, and haven’t necessarily attracted a large additional viewership for that hefty price.
I feel part of that ‘cheated’ audience today, especially since the expectations of authenticity around this Abhishek Chaubey film were tremendous. But the film that I watched today was a significantly compromised version where a bunch of rebels living a rugged life in heartland Chambal don’t speak the bundelkhandi dialect, and instead use a lot of set piece cinematic dialogues in common everyday hindi to talk to each other (with dubbing not even done by the actual artists!) – therby making them appear unnaturally planted in an alien ecosystem at times, and downgrading their entire internal struggle for the ever elusive redemption plastic and superficial. I am not sure if the issue was with the shoddy job done on dubbing the dialogs, or even the original dialogs had suffered with an unnecessary weight to establish a cinematic aura at any cost; but in their current presented form, most of them felt heavily textbookish without the character to be penetrative enough to connect you to the baghis, echoing the internals of their bruised consciences, and their constant conflicts of trust and being true to themselves, their pasts, their clan, the administration, or the country at large, heavily fragmented by gender, class and caste.
Baaghi Maan Singh and his gang are constantly on the run desperately in search of an answer to baaghi ka dharm kya hain. They know how they have been generally unfair to life at large – some of them think that surrender is the path of their atonement, some of them know within that reparation is an elusive chase and hence don’t agree to submit, but they all talk about the pashchatap (again a heavy handed pure hindi word you just can’t associate with the rebels and their terrain, one needed a synonym far more rooted – and there are plenty of such jerks across conversations), and they are even haunted by images of unfairly compromised souls from the past. These morally faulted men are all seeking the elusive golden bird of redemption, through a turn of events even come across a little girl by the name Sonchiraiya, and the rest of the film becomes a metaphorical journey to seek salvation through saving the abused girl from wasting away and also become out of reach. Honestly, by naming the girl to match up with the title of the film and hence force feed the metaphor, Chaubey and team don’t show enough respect to the intellect and aesthetic understanding of the audience and rob the film of its layered context and a more surreal interpretation. There was enough in the narrative to anyway establish the intent of the title, and one would have anyway appreciated why a bunch of rebels on the run, bleeding heavily on their conscience with the death of many innocent little lives, would take it upon themselves to ensure that the little girl lives – she really didn’t need to be named Sonchiraiya for that! It stood out as a major screenplay blunder from ace writers Sudip Sharma and Chaubey himself!
And such screenplay issues to make things too obvious or far more accessible are in abundance. They wouldn’t have stood out so much it this film was in a typical commercial space. But it clearly isn’t, and yet it cannot rise above some of the typical cliches of the dacoit film genre. At many places, the film spends more than enough time to establish the heroism of its star lead with typical cinematic tropes – whether its glorifying many of his (or even his gang members) actions through overuse of slow motion (to the point that it becomes repetitive and jarring); or getting him to jump terraces at ease and capture them in larger than life angles; or having him (and only him) to always fire the most critical gun shots and immediately follow that up with him casually walking out with a heroic swagger of a lit smoke; and also to see a heavily wounded him to fight long enough like a typical hero to see certain things through before finally biting the dust (frankly a reminder of 80s kind of filmmaking, long obsolete now). It all feels too cinematic, indecisive whether it wants to be a crude, gritty tale or a sanitized and softened take on the darkest of subjects, and most often chooses the later. Add to it the rather out of place song placement and even more out of sync background score, which further robs the screenplay of its grittiness rather than enhancing it! A disappointment coming there from Vishal Bhardwaj and the BGM team!
Which is honestly sad for a film that otherwise had so much ammunition in it to be such a scorching commentary on a decaying society infested with abhoring gender, class and caste issues at the times of ’emergency’. In fact, the film shines in the way it exposes the deplorable stature of women of those times. Women belong to the lowest node of the chain and hence the caste system doesn’t even apply to them – exclaims one of them. She has no agency within a family structure, and hence gets physically abused across generations, doesn’t matter if it is her son or a father figure. She knows that no one will fight for her, so she carves out her own path of being a rebel, whether she is Phulia or Indumati. The deep rooted patriarchal restrictions imbibed within her automatically channels her to first go in ghoonghat and then aim at the adversary to protect herself. All this in a country where there is another woman at the top of the chain and has declared emergency.
In parallel, there is a distinct narrative playing out on lives heavily beaten down by the perils of caste system too. The clans come together only on the basis of caste, one stands a chance to be attended to a serious medical condition only if he or she belongs to an appropriate caste, a senior Gujjar police officer commands no natural respect or basic human empathy from his Thakur subordinates, the trecherous food chain of life with mice, snakes and vultures is explicitly called out, and irrespective of the higher class or caste, illiteracy and its associated curses come and bite all like a dead snake. Thankfully, the film doesn’t turn a heroic tide to find a sudden feel good solution to any of these, thereby maintaining the much needed tonal consistency of a stark and discomforting narrative in tune with the film’s opening scene.
The performances also score high on the consistency benchmark. In spite of the drifting screenplay issues, the plasticity of the dialogues, and the other challenges, almost all the performances leave a mark. Ranvir Shorey followed by Sushant Singh Rajput and Bhumi Pednekar shine the brightest, and are able to completely camouflage themselves into the grounded characters they play. How much ever the script tries otherwise, Sushant and Bhumi do everything to shed the starry aura fully and feel lived in those terrains for years. I don’t see anyone else stepping into their roles and being as effective. That the terrific actor within Ranvir Shorey will steal the show amongst all is nothing surprising (anyway the stars seem to be shining on a certain first name these days!) and was apparent from the trailer itself. It only feels sad that we see so little of such a gifted artist on screen who has so much to offer. Manoj Bajpayee is in his homeground in this role and naturally holds fort, though the length of his role doesn’t give him the space that he deserves. Ashutosh Rana relatively pales out a bit – he has enough screen time, he does not slip, but does not sparkle either to his potential. The rest of the cast with Mahesh Balraj, Jatin Sarna, Amit Sial, the little ‘golden bird’ girl and others are all effective and in sync with the overall artistic quotient of the film. The big disappointment comes from the role play of Phulia though, especially since the mastery of Seema Biswas from Bandit Queen is still fresh in our minds.
Along with the ensemble, cinematographer Anuj Rakesh Dhawan is the other distinct performer of the film earning an applause. His deeply authentic cinematography of the barren terrain successfully emulates the harrowing internal barrenness of the central characters who are on their own internal journeys of salvaging peace. The Production and Costume Design is effective to recreate the period. Meghana Sen‘s editing isn’t as tight though, and wobbles along with Sharma’s and Chaubey’s screenplay in its highs and lows, robbing the film of its much needed grip and consistent edginess.
And honestly that has been a recurring issue in previous films of Abhishek Chaubey too, well other than Udta Punjab. They all have an excellent premise, some very interesting characters who want to flourish in their grey shades, and each of the films have the potential to become classics. And then they always get pulled down by uneven writing, messy execution, and often not trusting the audience enough to subtly leave the film for them to delayer, consume and interpret on their own, even if it demands its own redemption curve. That would make them all so much more soul stirring and internally satiating. Sadly for now, the quest for that perfectly immersive experience remains the elusive Sonchiriya.