I’m watching Sonchiraiya which releases Friday, March 1, 2019. And I’m discovering that bad guys do indeed make great stories.
‘How’s this film?’ asks one character in the film to another, pointing to a movie poster. ‘It’s dumb. It’s got bandits on horses,’ is the reply. The first character laughs, ‘Whoever heard of dacoits on horses?’
Indian films like Reshma Aur Shera, Ganga Jamuna, Sholay and a whole bunch of American cowboy films, and heck even Kurosawa flash upon my mind’s eye but I laugh with the rest of the audience because we know that the police have chased Steeplechase sprinters like Paan Singh Tomar across the dusty ravines of the Chambal on foot, and in this film, set in the times of Man Singh they’re chasing what is left of his gang…
I’m watching Sonchiraiya which releases Friday, March 1, 2019. And I’m discovering that bad guys do indeed make great stories. I grew up reading Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey. Sudden by Oliver Strange is still my all-time favourite cowboy character. Am happy to watch a Bollywood film about bad guys with golden hearts and guns and endless bullets. And I’m happy to report that the film is worth every penny you will spend on the ticket.
Manoj Bajpai! I want to scream with joy to see the sleepy-eyed professor from Aligarh the movie shows up as the dreaded dacoit Man Singh in Sonchiraiya. Man Singh was like Robin Hood for the poor in the Chambal region (a folk song about him goes, ‘Rasta chalta koi nahi loota, na bahino se chheene haar’). And the story is about his gang of dacoits.
Sushant Singh Rajput has been sprayed in the dust to turn him into Lakhna daku and he’s rather splendid. He’s Man Singh’s best man, a partner in the last horrible thing they did. A thing that haunts both of them. One has seen many Westerns in which the cowboys talk of redemption and their loneliness and the desert Sun play tricks on them. It is such a pleasure to see that the director feeds us similar cinematic devices and the result is spectacular. Both Man Singh and Lakhna are unable to get the image of the bleeding kid out of their heads. Is she death? Is she a reminder that they owe much because of their sin…
Deep! You take another swig of your black coffee in the theatre (it’s a Chambal Western, so picture the billy can bubbling over with strong chai, except, in reality, the dakus went mostly hungry). The philosophical bit blends seamlessly with the action on screen.
The action is great. Ashutosh Rana serves up the meanest cop any side of the Chambal. Usually, it’s the cops you want to win but you don’t know whether to like the zeal of the cops or to like the golden-hearted philosophically conflicted dacoits. And that’s a good thing. Ashutosh Rana driving the dead dacoits through the village is one of the coolest ‘cruel’ scenes in cinema.
‘Bairi beimaan, baaghi savdhaan!’ is the battle cry of the dacoits and Ranveer Shorey as Vakil is a very, vicious daku. You are alarmed at his meanness and want to comfort him when he realises why Man Singh chose to die.
The river Chambal - for those of you who have never seen it - will surprise you. It is a very big, very wide river. If you remember the film Paan Singh Tomar, you And director Abhishek Chaubey’s camera directs your attention to the sun-kissed river until you see two eyes slowly creeping up to the boat where our dusty band is sitting down joking about life as dacoits and the little child’s injured hand is trailing in the water. The river suddenly turns dangerous despite the needless shot of the little girl’s bleeding fingers in the water (made me come home and Google: ‘do crocodiles smell blood like sharks’).
That brings us to the integral plot of the film. Lakhna and two other dacoits save a woman and a child at the cost of loyalty to the gang. They need to drop the woman and the injured child to a hospital, with the cops, the gang they deserted and the family of the woman chasing them. Here is where I saw a problem. Bhumi Pednekar is amazing as the supposed virago who killed to save the injured girl. But the backstory does not match up to what we see on screen. The moment she is rescued, she behaves like a damsel in distress. Where’s the gun we saw in the poster? Only in one scene does she show spunk. But it’s mostly, ‘Bachao! Help me!’
In contrast, I loved it when Phuliya or Phoolan Devi shows up on screen. The violence of Phoolan’s revenge off screen is mind-blowingly brilliant. How many times one has thought of doing that to some people in real life and it was truly satisfying to watch the scene unfold in the film. This makes the film truly special.
The undercurrents of the omnipresent caste, ways of the villages and questions about justice and loyalty are treated without any fanfare and without being judgemental. This is a great achievement of storytelling. And then it doesn’t matter that Man Singh died in 1955 and this story is set in 1975.
Yes, there are bodies piled up and gratuitous shots of people being shot in the face. But it’s all in good faith. These were members of the polite Dadda Man Singh’s gang, the dacoit who announced his arrival on a megaphone. Well, I’ve said much because I was thoroughly impressed with the way the end works itself up to the surface. Satisfaction guaranteed.
Manisha Lakhe is a poet, film critic, traveller, founder of Caferati — an online writer’s forum, hosts Mumbai’s oldest open mic, and teaches advertising, films and communication.
First Published: IST