Sonchiriya begins and ends with flies. Two very different rivers shape the landscape of the Chambal Valley—only one of them being entirely aqueous—and as one rebel in the film puts it, everyone here knows his pecking order in the food chain: for every mouse that’s preyed upon by a serpent, there’s a vulture waiting to rip the latter’s innards out.
A slithery, scaly carcass lying on the road poses its own unique set of challenges to a band of bandits on the run. Dead snakes are inauspicious, we’re told, and so Manoj Bajpayee’s Man Singh—a veteran rebel who wouldn’t think twice before pumping a bullet into the entrails of a betrayer—finds himself lifting this corpse with a hesitant, almost otherworldly caress.
Not one to deny the gods their due, he then goes on to invoke Vishnu, rifle firmly in grasp, with the rest of his gang choosing to silently partake in his devotion. We might be quick to dismiss them as scum, but the parallels are there for all to see. Some men worship their deities with vermillion; others do so with guns.
What lies at the heart of Sonchiriya?
Director Abhishek Chaubey’s latest film is an absolute marvel, a haunting, unflinching saga of aspiration and bedevilment that urges us to consider what it might have meant to be on the wrong end of a ravine (and a constable’s firearm, by extension) in 1975.
President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed has just signed the darkest period in Indian democracy into existence and, soon enough, we see Indira Gandhi’s face plastered on just about everything—from spinning toys to police vans—even as those that occupy those vans go about “cleansing” the valley with ruthless efficiency. Death lies only a door-knock away: or perhaps not. “These government bullets aren’t going to kill us,” Man Singh tells us. “Only their promises.”
What would constitute a rebel’s dharma, if any? It’s a question worth pondering on, though Ranvir Shorey’s character offers an explanation of his own in Bundelkhandi: “To live and die in the ravines; to protect our caste and our people.” ‘Biradari’, as a matter of fact, plays a significant role in this film, and as any inhabitant of Morena or Dholpur would tell you, the chasm that exists between a Thakur and a Jhirsa in this part of the world can often be an unbridgeable, irreparable one. It’s a universe fueled by testosterone, and so we see an ‘untouchable’ woman dragged, hauled and slapped into silence, even while the perpetrators of this hideous act debate upon the merits of walloping her with footwear. It’s extremely disturbing to watch, and the film is nothing if not a remarkably authentic one.
Some sheer craft on display…
The action sequences are superbly staged—from mouths getting stuffed with bullets to entire villages getting wiped out over the course of one night—and Chaubey proves yet again why he is a master of interminable silences, many of these scenes unfolding with only the chirping of crickets serving as an acoustic backdrop.
The director does tend to go a little overboard occasionally—as in the case of a climax that feels so relentlessly long that it might well have been made into a spin-off titled So You Think You Can Shoot; but there’s no denying the sheer craft that’s on display here.
The performances are awe-inspiringly good, as physically demanding as they are internalised, and when these actors clamber up ravines, leap from wall to wall and get themselves a bullet-shaped hole or two, you can almost sniff the grime on their dress.
…And a Shakespearean undertone
There’s a significantly Shakespearean undertone to the tragedy that unfolds in Sonchiriya, and perhaps the film could best be described through a riff on the Bard’s verses themselves: all the ravine’s a stage, and the men and women there, merely players.
Like Shekhar Kapur’s trailblazing take on the nation’s most famous female bandit, way back in 1994, Chaubey reminds us that bandits can be kings in their own right as well. They might be destined to end up as corpses hurled unceremoniously onto the backside of a truck, but their moustaches remain stubbornly twirled upward, as if to solicit a communion with those manning the pearly gates themselves.
Deliverance has many strange manifestations. We should remember that some flightless birds are born with the will to fly.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Shreehari H. is a lover of films and an even greater lover of writing.
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