On actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s birth anniversary on 21 January, revisiting Abhishek Chaubey’s hidden gem Sonchiriya
Last Updated: 01.33 PM, Jan 21, 2022
Abhishek Chaubey’s 2019 piercing tale drama Sonchiriya, starring Sushant Singh Rajput, Manoj Bajpayee, Bhumi Pednekar, Ranvir Shorey and Asutosh Rana, arrived and left the theatres with little fanfare. It is a strange film, with quietude binding its most poignant moments, even as guns are fired in the background.
Set in the arid ravines of Chambal, Sonchiriya brims with a sense of lyrical poetry and sadness rarely associated with a film surrounding dacoits or baaghis. In Hindi cinema, the most iconic Chambal dacoit — Gabbar Singh — is an awe-inspiring antagonist who mercilessly shoots people and loots villages. Amjad Khan almost immediately shot to stardom with the role, which eventually became an indispensable part of the Bollywood lexicon.
The protagonists of Chaubey’s film are nothing like Singh. Caught in a cycle of endless violence and bloodshed, this group of outlaws, led by Maan Singh (Manoj Bajpayee) seek a sense of salvation, a sense of freedom from the life they once considered honourable. Their bodies are covered in dust, their parched throats crave for water and their guns have started to rust. Like the baaghis of Chambal, the once-glory days of the dacoits in Hindi cinema have also come to a close. They are now a legend, trapped in books and films, but wiped out of common memory.
As the men battle their internal conflict about the nature of justice, the women remind the viewers that they do not even feature in stories, in history or in society. “Caste categories are for men; women are a separate caste altogether,” a woman reminds them. The same woman who kills a man in order to protect a little girl.
Nothing about Sonchiriya is comforting. The sun mercilessly beats down on the ravines and its dwellers. Maan Singh, his apprentice Lakhan (Sushant Singh Rajput) and Vakil (Ranvir Shorey) are being relentlessly chased down by the police Gujjar (Ashutosh Rana). You know it is only a matter of time until they get caught. You know it is only a matter of time until they die.
The characters here as not as much characters as inhabitants of this landscape.
Sushant Singh Rajput and Bhumi Pednekar are the star actors in this movie, yet, there is hardly a shred of these actors’ real-life persona that come through in their performances.
Rajput, whose limited filmography boasts of some of the most heartbreakingly authentic performances of the generation, was at his brilliant best as Lakhan
Rajput seamlessly blend into an ensemble cast of fine actors, bringing Lakhan’s conflict to the fore more with his lost gazes than his words. He is consumed by an existential dread and their harrowing circumstances, with Maan Singh’s sudden death and Vakil’s mistrust in him. He knows the police bullets are his destiny, and also his salvation. But he is conditioned to put up a fight, to resist the establishment. And thus he does.
Vishal Bharadwaj’s soundtrack oscillates between a dreamy nostalgia of a forgotten past and a dash of grounded realism. The title track, sung by Rekha Bharadwaj, sounds almost like a pensive lullaby, inviting the tired, broken baaghis to finally leave the yoke behind, and fall asleep. Even the song, Baaghi Re, sounds almost like a swansong, marking the end of the era.
Shot primarily on location, Sonchiriya also soars because of its commitment to authenticity. The characters speak in fluent Bundelkhandi, not diluted with Hindi for ease of understanding by the non-Bundelkhandi speaking audience. The filmmaker almost challenges the viewers to sink their teeth a little deeper into the universe he has created with utmost detail. Cinematographer Anuj Rakesh Dhawan’s camera swings through every cranny and crevice of this impossible landscape, circling it around as if the place were a maze — that there is no actual escape from it.
It is almost fitting, then, that Sonchiriya tiptoed out of the theatres without most even remembering its existence. Perhaps it is a legend that waits to be discovered, and one day, the golden bird will resurrect from the embers to make us ponder about our own frailties, shortcomings and failures.
Or perhaps, this gem of a movie is worth revisiting on Sushant Singh Rajput’s birth anniversary on 21 January.
Watch Sonchiriya here