In a sense, the ‘Chambal Valley’ dacoit movies set in the 1970s are all tales of the disenfranchised taking to the gun and becoming ‘Baaghis’ (rebels). Gabbar Singh Gujjar, Phoolan Devi and Paan Singh Tomar were, of course, infamous as outlaws in Northern and Central India, and had movies made on them. The triggers for their bloodlust were all, in one way or another, land disputes in a country without land reforms. Added to this is an institutionalised caste system; a god given pyramid that validates unequal division, and endorses any consequent violence in dispute of it.
‘Sonchiriya’ is a fictional film on this subject, and set during the time of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. A dacoit called ‘Phuliya’ who appears briefly towards the end of ’Sonchiriya’, and whose name is a derivative of the legendary lady, says that men use caste as an hierarchical structure to grab land, in which edifice women are at the very bottom. There is never any land left for them after the war is over.
Women appear to be spokespeople for the theme of the movie. The other woman character in the film (Bhumi Pednekar) is befriended by an empathetic ‘Baaghi’ called Lakhna (Sushant Singh Rajput), who treks with his group of bandits through miles of barren land to get her and her ward, a raped and bleeding 12 year old girl, to a hospital. She senses the angst and sense of hopelessness within this doomed man. She explains to Lakhna that his sadness, and his commitment towards herself and the critically injured child she carries, comes from a call of duty towards the dispossessed. He laughs and says he is just a bandit who murders people. What good can such a person contribute to the world? She knows his soul to be good, she answers, and describes the bad deeds of his life as a cosmic burden he must bear.
There is a thematic negativity running through the speech pattern of all the ‘Baaghis’. They talk of ‘karma’, and their inevitable early deaths, as an unburdening of their souls; a profound relief found at the conclusion of a short existence. Both Lakhna and his leader, Man Singh (Manoj Bajpayee), have supernatural visions that appear to them. Usually, it is of a little girl staring accusingly at them. She comes from the river, and sometimes from the sky. Then there are omens of destinies yet to unfurl – a dead snake with flies hovering on it, a dead cat with its paws upended towards the sky; both sightings before dreadful and inauspicious events. Some images from Krzysztof Kieślowski’s ‘A Short Film about Killing’, those that signify harbingers of death, come to mind.
Though not as impactful, dramatically, as other socio-politically inclined bandit movies in its genre, ‘Sonchiriya’ is cinematically well crafted. It handles violence beautifully, if such a word is appropriate to such an odious activity. The shoot-outs, of which there are many in the movie, have a kind of lyricism associated with them. The guns are all old fashioned, but the nice mix of slow-motion footage and panoramic pull back shots, keep you watching. Also, the way the film connects external events to certain split second and instinctive decisions of the ‘Baagis’ – thereby allowing them to escape from fully armed police contingents – has a surreal touch about it.
There is no doubt that ‘Sonchiriya’ is a depressing watch. But it is also true that some of the performers – actors like Sushant Singh Rajput, for example – astonish you with a range and skill you would not think they possessed.