Sonchiriya : Movie Review
Rating : 3 stars out of 5 ( Good)
Director : Abhiskek Chaubey
Hindi (English subtitles available), 2019
With "Sonchiriya", helmer Abhishek Chaubey demonstrates how difficult it is be a director like Selvaraghavan in India. Even if the fund-raisers come along for the party, the writer and director still need to play serious ball before you get an on-screen product that you can be proud of, irrespective of its B.O potential. Pic chronicles the escapade of a gang of outlaw "dacoits" (bandits) on the run from a shoot-to-kill police dragnet. The unforgiving hellish drama sprawls across the undulating craggy Ravines of central India - a good locale which the nation's tourism boards would do well to ease into in UNESCO World Heritage Sites so as to bring some handy cash into the impoverished region. After all the shoot-outs and shell-shocked people, we the viewers are left exhausted and a bit bruised at the good-intentioned but mostly uninspired proceedings.
Producer Ronnie Screwvala and the distributors deserves rich hosannas for taking a huge risk with the lean merciless treks of 'Sonchiriya'. His formidable roster of societally inclined movies also sport 'Paan Singh Tomar' (2010) which is the closest fore-runner of the current film. Screwvala would have had enough experience to know that this box office-unfriendly movie would face a climb as difficult as the ones the movie's characters face, ploughing ahead as he did with a Rs.30 crore budget ( promotion inclusive) and opening to 940 screens worldwide including difficult-to-reach destinations like Auckland, New Zealand. At the end of week one, the collections have barely breasted Rs. 6 crores, unwittingly complementing the movie's macabre mood and the dwindling pattern of its namesake.
"Sonchiriya" is the actual Hindi name of the "The Great Indian Bustard", a large big-necked long-legged bird that is critically endangered on India's dry plains. The theme of wildlife and its disappearance runs here prominently in more ways than one. There are the "baaghis" or the outlaw dacoits, who have abjured society and now haunt the Chambal ravines (little dry hills forming dense craggy outcroppings across the plains), hunting people for loot, and also being more hunted than a packs of wolves are. Pic's opening frame is a disgustingly admirable one. You see a close-up static frame of flies buzzing on the exposed carcass of a long slender black creature. Its dark eye lies at one end of its body and one wonders whether it's a fish of some sort. You soon get the answer as the leader of the human pack comes along.
I looked forward with great enthusiasm to the acting prowess of Manoj Bajpai, but alas... His inclusion here is a master-stroke and meister-nod to his supporting role in 'Bandit Queen' (1994) which came much before the Tremendous Triumvirate of 'Shool', 'Kaun' and 'Satya' that launched him as one of the world's finest actors.
Writers Sudip Sharma and Abhishek Chaubey do not mind taking history and twisting it a bit for some iconic concurrences. The lead dacoit of the story's marquee gang is named Mann Singh ( a dreaded widely notorious real-life bandit shot and killed in 1955) and his entourage is shown to eventually intersect with that of the real-life Phoolan Devi who ravished the ravines-'n'-villages decades later.
One would expect a conventional structure of the gang forming, consolidating and their story then proceeding forward. 'Sonchiriya' has time for no such establishment, hitting the ground running and taking flight from the get-go as the long-ago formed gang is grievously attacked in the very first chapter. Bits of their back-story ( but never even little snippets of what they were before their dacoity) are then revealed in flash-back. Driven from one decimating attack to another , they scram across Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan's arid badlands, the rifle-wielding police dead-set now on exterminating them. One of the movie's best scenes is a top-shot looking down at men relaxing at night on "khatiyas" after a rare feed of mutton. Sated, their reflections wander over to calmly speculating on how life in prison would perhaps be actually better than their thankless endless treks amidst the Chambal ravines. Such beauteous moments of perspective are rarely evidenced elsewhere in the story.
Pic's best asset is its thespian core. Surprising, the young Sushant Singh Rajput makes the most brave-hearted impression here as Lakhan Singh - the foremost conscience of this cursed gang. He fights for the weakest , and in a scene of make-or-break reckoning, with a rifle aimed at his target, he softly declares ' Mein yahaan se bhaag saktha hoon, par mein khud se kaise bhaag sakunga' ? ( I can run from here, but how can I run from myself). I tried to do the moral math of how real life makes us do things we would never have done, but still couldn't be convinced of how this fine bloke became forced to be a dacoit in the first place (notwithstanding the fact that some dacoits may still be noble people).
The awesome loose canon from 'Titli' - Ranvir Shorey - is seen here again as the outlaw and he's good with his lean, mean conviction but the fireworks are missing. One of Chaubey's costliest errors is in making Ashutosh Rana's on-the-rampage police officer Virender Singh Gujjar a cardboard cut-out character. We eventually understand why he wants to wipe out this gang at all costs but he neither has the towering villainy nor the complex shaded personality which would invest our interest in him.
What should have been a poignant track in the story is dragged in a done-to-death way. A little brutalized girl - the most damning synecdoche of the hopeless world this story inhabits - is taken along by the gang to get her the urgent surgical attention she needs. Eventually she is tagged along like a gratuitous burden, wearing out the emotional impact of her inclusion. Bhumi Pednekar's adeptly spirited turn here is tamped down somewhat by this additional weight which returns to her from 'Dum Laga Ke Haisha'.
Another little girl appears early in the story as an ominous warning to some stricken gang members. This never struck a chord with me - appearing right off as cadged from a similar omen in the peerless 'Apocalypto'. There's a shot later in the movie where the camera soars from a show-down to glide overhead back to a first-floor window where the same imbrued girl screams in horror. It should have been an inspired take, but comes across as an artifical one.
Chaubey's elder brother in cinema , Vishal Bhardwaj , provides music here - another ominous note. Bhardwaj can compose outstandingly ( 'Aao Na' from 'Haider') but more often than not , he's a middling composer and the lousy crooning which informs the movie's interval is a depressing example of how 'Sonchiriya' has little in the way of music to elevate it. Editing does not do enough to tauten what should have been a snappily cut two hour ride (the actual run-time is twenty minutes too long). Action direction is good, especially considering the sheer logistics of coherently filming hundreds upon hundreds of shots fired in two major shoot-outs, but do not expect any major rewinds here. The same qualified comment applies to the cinematography which had a lot to play with, given the unique landscape of the Chambal ravines and the carnage of mofussil war. Sometimes when whe cinematography is plain magnificent, some discerning viewers will buy DVDS and Blue-Rays purely for the lenser's shot-taking remembered from the theatre, but this is unlikely to happen here.
Ultimately, the film's full arc discloses the the script's deficiencies and the director's inability to transcend them with bravura direction. I do not mean to say that Hollywood is automatically better than Hindi cinema (note the omission of the b*st*rdized word) when I offer the best example that springs to mind of a fabulously envisioned start-to-finish chase movie - 'No Country For Old Men', crafted by the Coen Brothers not just as a thriller but as one of the finest movies ever. There, the shoot-outs are punctuated, deepened and amplified by scenes of stunning cinematic depth. Sudip Sharma, Screwvala and Chaubey's film, however, has other undeniable merits. Its brutal expose of the caste system, of how our society commingles its sacred traditions with the unspeakable degradation of the supposed lower castes, and of the developmental mire in the hinterlands which lures more men and Phuliyas into corrupted lives, is an undercurrent that will never lose its damning swirl even if it is told a thousand times over. 'Sonchiriya''s cinematic merits are limited but its social reflections are infinite.
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