There used to be a time when the Daku movie was a staple in Bollywood. Right from the 40s, with Mehboob Khan’s Aurat (which he remade as Mother India), into the 60s with Dilip saab’s Gunga Jumna, it was the 70s when the genre hit its peak with blockbusters like Mera Gaon Mera Desh, Ganga Ki Saugandh, Khote Sikkey and of course, the baap of them all, Sholay!
But while the genre flourished right up till the late 80s (Mardon Wali Baat, Aag Hi Aag), the resurgence of the family film through directors like Sooraj Barjatya, Karan Johar and Aditya Chopra led to daku movies being slowly relegated to B-grade cinema in the 90s, and relative obscurity in the 00s, what with a more urban brand of cinema coming in, save for the Paan Singh Tomar biopic, or the brilliant Theeran Adhigaaram Ondru from 2 years back.
Therefore, when the promos of Sonchiriya showed up with an ensemble cast and a brilliant soundtrack, the only thought that entered one’s mind was if this was going to be a throwback to old school Daku dramas, or would it be a more contemporary take on the lives of dacoits?
The year is 1975, it’s a raging hot summer in the ravines of the Chambal, and Indira Gandhi has just declared Emergency, leading to the local law enforcement’s power increasing manifold. Thus even as Man Singh (Manoj Bajpayee) or Dadda as he is more fondly known by the locals, attempts to keep his band of dacoits consisting of Vakil (Ranvir Shorey), Lakhna (Sushant Singh) etc. from imploding, the real challenge for him, other than his gradual loss of faith in himself and his ideals, is to stay alive even as a ruthless cop Virender Gujjar (Ashutosh Rana) pursues them relentlessly.
Add to the mix a mysterious gun toting Thakur woman, Indumati (Bhumi Pednekar), a rival gang led by the fiery Phuliya (Sampa Mandal) and a motley crew of arms dealers, caste leaders and police informers, it would seem that the Man Singh gang is at the end of its tether as the golden days of rebellion seem far far behind, but can they find their elusive sonchiriya that may lead them to their salvation?
Abhishek Chaubey is part of the newer generation of Bollywood directors who has been steadily building a solid body of work, right from his brilliant debut with Ishqiya, to 2016’s gripping if flawed Udta Punjab. With Sonchiriya, he takes us right into the world of dakus minus the standard old school Bollywood trappings, and narrates a tale so bleak, Cormac McCarthy would be proud.
However, while the movie is a compelling watch for the most, and possesses some brilliantly etched out characters, it doesn’t quite find its groove as a whole, mainly because there seems to be some sort of confusion about whether it is a philosophical treatise about the lives of men with guns, or if it’s supposed to be a high octane action drama between men on both sides of the law.
The cinematography by Anuj Dhawan is splendid and captures the starkness of the Chambal Ravines in all its dystopian glory. Add to that the brilliantly choreographed shootout scenes by Anton Moon and Sunil Rodrigues, that have you at the edge of your seat throughout, not knowing if the characters involved are going to come out alive or not.
However, if there’s one area where the movie cannot be faulted, it’s the performances. Sushant Singh Rajput makes a welcome return to form as the conflicted Lakhna after the rather indifferent Raabta and Kedarnath.
Bhumi Pednekar who is slowly building a reputation for herself as one of the finest actresses of this generation puts in yet another superlative performance, as does the ever reliable Manoj Bajpayee as the wizened leader, and one of his lines about political promises being more frightening than police bullets will stay with you long after the movie is done.
But the real stars of the movie are from the supporting cast. Ranvir Shorey as the feral Vakil is a revelation, with his bloodshot eyes doing all the talking for his character. Ashutosh Rana is just fantastic as the vindictive cop who would rather shoot first and talk later. Sampa Mandal as the Phoolan Devi expy and Jatin Sarna as a man caught between his duty to his family and his love for his wife, are sublime, and you wish some more screentime had been devoted to their characters.
To sum it up then, Sonchiriya is a well made attempt at giving us an intimate glimpse into the men behind the rebels, but suffers from the flaw of trying to pack too much within a duration of 2.5 hours.