This week there are two new Bollywood offerings vying for audience attention. Aside from the romcom Luka Chuppi there's Sonchiriya, a drama that tells the story of a group of brigands who roamed the Chambal Valley in the 1970s.
The Chambal Valley is an area spread across the states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, where the names Phoolan Devi, Nirbhay Gujjar, and Man Singh, among others, are household to this day.
These bandits, on whom the film is based, were Robin Hood-type figures who were branded “rebels” and who ruled by the bullet until their own (inevitable) deaths.
Needless to say, director Abhishek Chaubey has made the film to tell a dark story on a subject that has barely been tackled on screen. He gets into the mindset of the rebels, who live by the caste prejudices that still exist. The accomplished director does well to explore these themes. However, the weight of the storyline and the lack of crisp editing make it hard for fans of even the artiest of cinema to lap up.
Chaubey has focused on portraying the real character of the brigands down to the dialect of the Bundeli language and shooting in Chambal in extreme temperatures with the entire cast and crew.
The film opens with "The Emergency", announced by Indira Gandhi in 1975, as a response to corruption allegations against her government, and her loosening grip on power.
Sonchiriya looks at the way the rebels conducted themselves, their irrational way of thinking, balancing the battle of survival with exacting revenge on whistle-blowers and retaliating against oppression by higher castes. They had an aloofness, which was much-needed to protect themselves from both the law and their enemies, but they were able to bond as a gang and trust one another. In short, they could be ruthless, while still superstitious and God-fearing.
Manoj Bajpayee gives a convincing performance as gang leader Man Singh in the limited scenes he has in the film. His gang includes understudy Lakhna Singh (Sushant Singh Rajput) and deputy leader Vakil Singh (Ranvir Shorey). They are hunted down by police officer Virender Singh Gujjar, portrayed by Ashutosh Rana – a character that might be considered easy pickings compared to his previous roles. Indumati Tomar (Bhumi Pednekar) is the only woman in this ensemble of male bandits, and there is another gang led by a female rebel inspired by the infamous Phoolan Devi, on whom the award-winning 1994 movie Bandit Queen is based.
For Gujjar, the battle with the rebels is personal. Members of his clan have been killed by Man Singh’s outlaws, including children, something both Man Singh and Lakhna are plagued with guilt by – the superstitious pair worry about retribution for their sins.
The situations that develop, and the subtlety with which casteism and karma play out, is where Chaubey really succeeds, with a compelling script co-written with Sudip Sharma. However, in a nutshell, poor editing and too much gunfire make it a social message overdose over an intense 144 minutes.