Some of our actors are so inured in brilliance we’ve ceased to notice their power . Ranveer Shorey is one of them. He just blends into the bleeding colours of brilliancy in this exceptional film set in the dark desperate world of dacoits in the confounding ravines of the Chambal valley.
By singling out Shorey’s brilliance I don’t mean to undermine the other performers, most of whom are so skillfully effective, they seem to have been born in the hungering shadows of their ever-renewable excellence.
But then the point here is not the brilliance. It is how the rites of accomplished filmmaking are applied to a solid narration that are on your mark and all set to go even before we are fully able to grasp the wide spectrum of characters on the run. Dammit, they are all fugitives, even the vicious vendetta-seeking cop played with an ironic meanness by Ashutosh Rana who is so bloodthirsty that his venom fills the Chambal valley with echoes of exasperating nemesis.
But Rana doesn’t play the most vicious character in Sonchiriya. A young boy with a big gun who plays Bhumi Pednekar’s violent son is perhaps the most bloodthirsty son under the sun. He wants his mother dead, at any cost even when his father pl the talented Jatin Sarna (who is not really his father) wants to forgive his wife for being who she is. A rebel.
Phoolan Devi who appears towards the end of this long unpunctuated treatise on torment trauma subjugation and atonement, would laugh dryly at the thought of a woman rebel. Are women allowed the luxury of rebelling against patriarchal tyranny without losing everything? Phoolan and our film’s heroine Indumati Tomar, played magnificently by Bhumi Pednekar, hit it off at a time when their life is at the brink of extinction.
The screen-Phoolan has the best lines I’ve heard on patriarchy in cinema. “The caste system is for men to fight and gain supremacy. We women all belong to one caste.” Phoolan makes Indumati an offer to join her gang. Does Indumati take up that job offer after the movie ends? Is there any other option for the oppressed than outlawry? Sonchiriya is the most anguished plea against injustice and oppression since Bimal Roy’s Sujata. The deep silences in Abhishek Chaubey’s clenched narrative reminded me of Roy’s film about a Harijan girl (Nutan) looking for an identity.
We don’t have Harijans anymore as targets of exploitation. We have Dalits, and gosh, so many variations of oppressed communities in this film, I began to wonder if there is any section of the society that is not traumatized and brutalized! Chaubey uses eerie silences in the stunning Chambal landscape to punctuate a sense of excruciating oppression.
I wish Vishal Bhardwaj’s background score was better able to capture the vile viscosity of the environment, thick with suggestions and manifestation of violence. In this world of apocalyptic despair, Sushant Singh Rajput’s Lakhna decides to rid his guilty conscience of its inexorable burden by helping a woman to protect and heal a brutally raped girl-child .
I wish the relationship between Lakhna and the ravaged girl was given more space to grow. But then where is the room for relationships to breathe when men are constantly on the run, and not just from the law? I wished for Lakhna and Indumati’s bonding over the child to end in some semblance of joy.
But wishes cannot be horses. Not in a dacoit drama without a single horse in sight. In fact there is a joke in the film about how Hindi films show dacoits galloping away when in fact there are no horses in the Chambal Valley.
There are no heroes either. Only victims posing manfully with guns that kill not just human beings. But also hope.
I came away with two heroes in Sonchiriya. The little brutalised girl from whom the film gets its title, whose devastated eyes still secrete a smile after all she has gone through. Some hope!
And cinematographer Anuj Rakesh Dhawan whose lenses render bleakness into myriad shades of life lived on the edge. Raw gritty and compelling, Sonchiriya conveys a clandestine narrative style that never impinges on the violent disarray of the characters’ brutal unpredictable lives.