Director Abhishek Chaubey didn’t set out to make a bandit film, but here he is. Sonchiriya — his follow-up to 2015’s anti-drug drama Udta Punjab — scours the ravines of Central India to unearth a violent tale of dacoity and deceit.
The setting is no stranger to the Indian big screen: Chambal in the 1970s, the socio-politically tense landscape that has lent canvas to many Hindi film classics, most notably Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen and Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Paan Singh Tomar. Sonchiriya, the 41-year-old director assures, casts an entirely fresh look at the rebels of the riverside.
You were developing a different story with RSVP Movies. What prompted the shift in tracks to Sonchiriya?
The earlier story I was working on (a rooted western set in Rajasthan) had a character who was a bandit. While researching for him, we ended up learning a lot about dacoits: how they lived, how they worked. Thus, when the initial idea wasn’t working out, we decided to explore the world of the Chambal dacoits, which I found more fascinating and exciting. Also, we didn’t want to make something that was bloated in terms of plot or ambition; we wanted to make a film that was muscular, tighter, leaner.
The trailer of Sonchiriya hints at caste and gender violence. Then there’s the Emergency backdrop. How did you blend the film’s action-adventure theme with real social and political issues?
It happened organically. We set out to make an action picture, and whatever issues we brought up were gleaned from the world we witnessed in our research. If you look at the story of Phoolan Devi, for example, which was shown in Bandit Queen, there are issues of patriarchy, gender and caste. Similarly, for Sonchiriya, once we decided to set the film in Chambal, these topics naturally found their way into the script. They also helped to make the story more concrete.
And Emergency? Is there a present-day parallel the film is trying to draw? In the trailer, we hear Manoj Bajpayee’s character, Man Singh, mockingly say, “Beheno, Bhaiyo…”
Not literally, no. The film is set in 1975. We all remember 1975-1977 as the Emergency era. It was a political event that had gripped the whole country. In my script, I have used Emergency more metaphorically than literally.
Landscapes play a major role in your films.
For me, the best films are the ones that have a strong sense of time and place. I find it enriching as a filmmaker to go to places I don’t belong to, such as Chambal or Punjab, and learn about the people and their lives. Cinema allows you to enter a different world and tell your own story about it. How can you remove the world of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas from the story it’s trying to tell? You can’t.
You have put together a massive cast — from Sushant Singh Rajput, Manoj Bajpayee and Ranvir Shorey to Bhumi Pednekar and Ashutosh Rana. What was it like working with them?
Sonchiriya has five protagonists. Sushant’s character, Lakhna, can be called the ‘hero’ of the film, but the other four are equally important. They have their own arcs and journeys. Additionally, there is a large number of supporting characters, from other gang members to police officers. We had to cast over 80 people for the film. My entire office wall was filled with pictures of possible actors. The total crew went up to 400 people. It was a long and exhausting process.
Usually, film sets are hierarchical in nature, which wasn’t the case for Sonchiriya. Everyone worked as a team. They supported each other and stuck together through the long, strenuous shoot. There was no rivalry or animosity on set. Everyone had fun making it.