Sonchiriya opens with a shin-kick of an image: a close-up of a shiny dead snake head crawling with flies. It's lying in the path of a band of approaching dacoits, led by Man Singh (Manoj Bajpayee). They stop some distance away and contemplate changing direction; a black snake is bad luck. But Man Singh picks it up and moves it aside, asks his followers to say a prayer and proceed. The reptilian motif is picked up in the churning “Baaghi Re", Varun Grover’s lyrics warning of both ghariyal (a type of crocodile) and “sarpan ki phunkaar" (a snake hissing). The film’s barely begun and it's already full of dread.
Operating on a tip, the gang takes a wedding party hostage. But the police know they’ll be there, and they’re soon surrounded. Several characters whom we’ve just met die in a dramatic, drawn-out gunfight, the sort that usually ends films. It's a deft screenwriting move from director Abhishek Chaubey and his Udta Punjab cowriter Sudip Sharma – in the spirit, if not the scale, of Saving Private Ryan, pummelling the audience so hard early on that by the time they recover half the film’s over.
The remaining baaghis escape into the ravines, where they’re tracked down by Indumati (Bhumi Pednekar), a woman on the run from her family, with a young girl in tow. She tells the bandits she belongs to their caste – an all-important detail in this universe – and appeals to them for help. But as secrets come to light, the gang splits into two factions, the larger one headed by Vakil Singh (Ranvir Shorey), the other comprising Lakhna (Sushant Singh Rajput) and two other dacoits, Indumati and the girl, who’s been assaulted and needs urgent medical care.
Both the opening image and the first movement of Sonchiriya are likely nods to an older film in a genre that’s analogous to the dacoit film – the Western. Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969) also has a group of outlaws riding into town to stage a robbery. The first thing they see is a group of children watching with delight as a nest of ants overwhelms two live scorpions. Like Man Singh’s men, the outlaws are ambushed and many die in a shootout, leaving a small group to soldier on.
If this is indeed an inspiration, it’s an apt one. The Wild Bunch was a revisionist Western, an interrogation of the genre that lay bare the brutality of the Old West. Sonchiriya is similarly jarring, a pitiless look at the Chambal ravines at the time of the Emergency, when the police had started cracking down on the big gangs – just as Peckinpah’s film was an end-of-the-West Western. It’s an ugly world, organized on the basis of caste pride and violent patriarchy, and Chaubey doesn’t allow much grace or human feeling to creep in. It’s telling that one of the few quiet moments – with the three men and Indumati letting their guard down while being ferried across a river – is interrupted by a crocodile.
There’s a bit of The Last of the Mohicans in Chaubey’s film, with multiple warring tribes and two women being taken to safety by a conscientious rebel. There’s a famous line borrowed from Chinatown, with the genders reversed. But the film that looms largest over Sonchiriya is Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen. It’s everywhere you look – in the near-constant violence of deed and word; in the resemblance of the girl to the young Phoolan Devi of Kapur’s film; in the poignant decision to cast Manoj Bajpayee, who played the taciturn Man Singh in Bandit Queen, as a version of the same character here, but with a lifetime of weariness in his eyes. There are several references to the fearsome “Phuliya", but when that red headband finally comes into view, I found myself out of breath.
Bajpayee, his sunken face dwarfed by a moustache, haunts the film just as his character is haunted by a little girl (the reason for this is revealed in the film’s most harrowing scene, another piece of excellent writing). Lakhna is haunted for the same reason, but the soft-voiced Rajput doesn’t have the same wildness as the other actors playing the dacoits. How much more interesting it would have been if Ranvir Shorey’s Vakil – wild-eyed, morally wavering – was the one helping Indumati and the child. Alone among modern-day Hindi film actors, Shorey has never sought the viewer’s sympathy, which has earned him the viewer’s trust.
After a slew of films about duty – to kingdom, country, state, party, family – here’s one that’s ambivalent about the notion of a larger purpose. There’s a question that recurs through Sonchiriya: what is a dacoit’s dharma? At one point an answer is given: to protect one’s people and caste, to live and pass away in the ravines, to die from a bullet. A fatalistic response, and a bracingly nihilistic film.
This review appeared in Mint.