Sonchiriya is set during the Emergency period in India. The setting is the dry magnificence of the ravines of Chambal in Madhya Pradesh and the film follows the story of a gang of dacoits. Manoj Bajpayee is the head of the gang in which there are Ranvir Shorey ( Vakil ) and Sushanth Singh Rajput ( Lakhna ). A Thakur woman tags along this Thakur gang of dacoits, who are also on the run. The woman played by Bhumi Pednekar is Indumati Tomar. She has a 12 year old girl with her who is raped and needs medical attention to save her life. The name of this girl is, Sonchiriya, A Golden Bird.
The screenplay of the film is marked by several events that are shocking and moving, in equal measure, as the above-mentioned characters embark on a journey with an objective to at least, help Sonchiriya reach the hospital. The arc of the story is as simple as trying to take Sonchiriya to hospital and eventually taking her there. This simple arc is punctuated by numerous hurdles in between. Manoj Bajpayee plays the leader of the gang, Mann Singh and Sushanth Singh Rajput plays Lakhna, a young compassionate man who believes surrender is the way forward. Both these men harbour a deep guilt for something they do unintendedly. This overbearing guilt makes it even more important for Lakhna to help Sonchiriya get to the hospital and save her life. The treacherous journey from the ravines to the hospital has to dodge the ‘ sarkaari ‘ bullets and also the deeply hurtful bullets of societal atrocities, in the form of a severely patriarchal family, ruthless casteism and the never ending circle of revenge.
Abhishek Chaubey and his writer Sudip Sharma team up to create a film that is a gargantuos cinematic shock for a 23 year old urban man. All they do to infuse this stinging shock is play out the shameful realities of our social fabric and one cannot miss the lack of humanity in it. In an outstandingly conceived scene we see two female characters, a woman and a girl being dragged by men and abused and humiliated; years of barbarism is captured in a frame. In another moving scene, Sonchiriya is almost dead and is sitting helplessly for death to take over, as there are bullets firing from all-around. This is a metaphor for a country rotting in the middle of ‘ sarkaari ‘ bullets and ‘ sarkaari vaade ( promises ). Our social fabric has been infested with caste and in these characters, it grows like cancer, eventually killing oneself and a few others along with them. Abhishek Chaubey succeeds in magnifying this epidemic of casteism and patriarchy and urges us to look in its eye and question our deeply entrenched prejudices.
Abhishek Chaubey creates moments of utter disbelief that pierce the conscience with their evilness. The stunning visuals in the film shall remain in my eyes for a long time. In a hauntingly lit set-up, the Police and dacoits are firing bullets at each other, spilling blood in the dark night and the camera flies over these two groups and pans into a window, through which we see a little girl haul in terror and my hair stood up in grief. The image of a terrorized kid through that window shall haunt me for days to come. We get repeat shots of vultures hovering around in circles in the sky, as if death is always around the corner. The impact of the visuals remains unshakable, hours after the film. The long, uncut silences are the best scenes of the film. The camera traverses along dimly lit corridors of a house, with death lurking in the corner or it swoons in the expanses of Chambal, building a palpable tension, which then reaches its cresendo, ending in yet another harrowing event. Chaubey is an amazing Craftsman. Although a film about grief and guilt, he shoots and edits it with much guile. The overwhelming emotional heft eclipses the brilliant craft at display. Chaubey does not shy away from driving his point home by putting it in your face, characters looking into the camera with their grieving eyes. It is impossible to achieve subtlety in a movie that has dramatically henious events. There were moments in the film where I found myself blankly looking at the screen, lost in thought about the things unfolding in the story.
Children and their reactions to the ruckus around them is a recurring motif in the film. Scenes involving them are the most affecting ones. Something about watching a 14 year old boy slap his mother is stomach-churning or seeing a 10 year old girl stare blankly in horror as dozens of kids are gunned down in front of her eyes. This aspect of the film looks at the horrendous inheritance these children are born into and how their lives would one day, transpire to become a part of this recurring ruckus.
The acting performances are extraordinary. Sushanth Singh Rajput does not quite slip into the character of a dacoit with the same ease as Manoj Bajpayee or Ranvir Shorey but he holds his own along with the revelation that is Bhumi Pednekar. None of the actors ever miss the accent, although difficult to follow, their onpoint accent adds great authenticity. The unforgiving ravines, revenge seeking men and a rotting society are the overarching themes of this outstanding film. The authenticity of the evilness in the film hits you so hard that it becomes impossible not to flinch at the horrific reality that people in our country endure on a daily basis.
For most part, Sonchiriya is an absolutely riveting watch. It only gets a tad tedious as it reaches the end. The vicelike grip Chaubey has on us, slips eversoslightly in the later parts of the film but by then, the film had won me over with its sheer brilliance and its uncompromised look at the satanic human lives in the ravines. One wishes the film was a little shorter. Trying to give each character a closure, kind of takes away the exhilaration the film offers until that point. The slight slump in the later half aside, Sonchiriyan is a masterfully made film with haunting music and lyrics by Vishal Bharadwaj and Gulzar, respectively. Baagi re.. Abhaagi re.. writes Gulzar sahab.
Sonchiriya is a relentless ride of aching social and personal traumas but you would be glad to take this ride. Sonchiriyan is a stunningly crafted masterpiece. The film addresses themes like casteism and prejudice in the 1970s village in Madhya Pardesh. As the film ended, I took a lift downstairs and a man in the lift was complaining about the maintainance of the mall, which he presumed was a Muslim’s . This incident proves the relevance of this film in today’s world where the high-rise buildings and fancy suits have not been able to filter out the human evils like patriarchy and prejudice out of us. Pity.