Sonchiriya opens to the sight of a dead snake. Flies feed off its open wounds, buzzing near the flesh. It stops Daku Man Singh (Manoj Bajpayee) and his gang in their tracks. A rotting carcass is bad omen in any culture, a harbinger of bad luck. The men try to deliberate but Man Singh pays no heed, ordering them to march on. “Changing tracks won't change our curse,” he spits out, scowling under the sun as he scoops the serpent offroad. “The worst is already upon us.”
Animals are an obvious motif in Abhishek Chaubey’s densely existential dacoit drama. A crocodile rocks a boat, a cat lies brained on the floor. The title, slightly streamlined, suggests a mythic gilded bird. But the significance of snakes stands out as the most fetching. In a recurring apologue, they are placed in the middle of life’s natural order: between the rat and the vulture, swallowing one, succumbing to the other. This is perhaps what soothes Man Singh when he glances upon the creature and submits to his fate, the fatal realisation of his position in the grander scheme — a rebel running from sin, atoned by the gluttony of another.
Set in Chambal in 1975, this film is a conscious heir of Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen. The texture is strikingly similar, but comes with a slight adjustment: where Kapur obsessed with locating rebellion as rooted in vengeance, Abhishek delights in baring its branches to redemption. The homages are thus introspective, not literal — children presented as apparitions and saviours; caste laughed off as a markedly male yardstick.
The plot is hard to unspool without taking it fully apart. Like the narrow ravines of the harsh landscape, the script (by Abhishek and Sudip Sharma) folds up in jagged peaks and mounds. The camera stays the most with Lakhna (Sushant Singh Rajput), a fraught youngling in Man Singh’s upper caste gang. After a botched mission that ends in a gunfight, Lakhna finds his faith shaken. On the run, he crosses path with the searing Indumati Tomar (Bhumi Pednekar) — an escaping caste sister with a bleeding child by her side — and resolves to lead them to safety. The rest of the film tracks his hero’s journey while probing the decadence of a most violent year, torn by Emergency and brutal crackdowns.
Ashutosh Rana plays a marauding officer chasing the bandits. It’s a grand comeback after a series of under-written roles. Clean-shaven and upright, with an ugly butch cut on his head, Ashutosh brings a hunter’s glee to the combat. In contrast, the unshakable Ranvir Shorey sports scruffy whiskers that give him an animal front (his name is Vakil Singh and he is called ‘Vakila’, the added syllable recalling character names from folksy jungle tales). He is the gang’s second-in-command, a stoic (often hilarious) deliverer of justice.
These are strange, deluded men. While bombing out an exit, Lakhna tells a doctor, “I owe you a wall.” Another dreams of dying with his moustache twirled to the sky, just so the newspapers get it right. Pride is an amulet flung around the neck, until it becomes the noose. The cinematography is both gloomy and adventurous: sterile exteriors intercut with tricky POVs, like in a scene where the camera locks onto a rifle. The technical finesse does choke the film’s emotional growth, at times, making action heroes out of sticklers and grumps.
Devious and unforgiving, Abhishek Chaubey’s filmmaking lugs Sonchiriya into uncharted mainstream territory. Its reflective pace might puzzle a few, especially audiences unaccustomed to revisionist cinema, but I’m hoping for the humour to sell. The most knowing moment comes wrapped in a chuckle, when the wince of a stung gunman is match-cut with a bandit on a poster. The passionate titling ‘Baaghi Ka Badla’ may evoke the neighing of horses, but this film reminds us otherwise. The dakus of Chambal came marching on foot.
Director: Abhishek Chaubey
Cast: Sushant Singh Rajput, Manoj Bajpayee, Bhumi Pednekar, Ranvir Shorey
Rating: 4/5 stars
(This review originally appeared on cinemaexpress.com)