With films like Ishqiya and Udta Punjab to his credit, director Abhishek Chaubey has established himself as one of cinema’s most promising filmmakers in the realistic genre. Soon after the 2016 drug trafficking drama that grabbed you from the word go, Abhishek began his research on Sonchiriya. While doing so, he wondered why Bollywood, other than Paan Singh Tomar and Bandit Queen, had hied away from making a film on the dacoits of Chambal despite them being part of our history. “We locked Chambal for our shoot and were very fascinated by it, but what was really surprising was coming to terms with the fact that we have hardly made films on the subject except for Mera Gaon Mera Desh, Gunga Jumna, Sholay…But these films only touched upon how someone became a daku after a tragedy, or how there’s a dreaded daku and one needs to catch him. The last gang was eliminated in 2007. It is such a big part of our history and it is right there in the centre of our country. I think we ran out of stories and the genre died a natural death but it came back in the 1990s,” says Chaubey.
“They are criminals but it’s also a huge tradition. Why the bandits called themselves rebels? what was it that motivated them to be like that? I was completely overwhelmed by the society that existed and their concerns. I wanted to make an action film that explored their soul. While Bandit Queen and Paan Singh Tomar are fine films, they are biopics. They are actual people, whereas Sonchiriya is a fictional tale but it originates from real people and real culture. If such phenomena had existed in any other country, they would have made at least 50 films out of it,” he further adds.
Set in Chambal of 1975, Sonchiriya has been shot in the ravines of Dholpur in Rajasthan. The ensemble cast includes Sushant Singh Rajput, Ranvir Shorey and Manoj Bajpayee as bandits, Ashutosh Rana as the police officer hot on their trail, and Bhumi Pednekar, a survivor and woman with a voice. “The film deals with issues of gender, social discrimination because of caste and when justice becomes revenge. Our fictional bandits are at the crossroads of meaning and purpose. They have a sense of ethics and morals, but they don’t know if they are right or wrong. These existential questions bother them,” says the director.
“In the context of the film, finding one’s Sonchiriya means finding inner truth. These bandits lead a hard life in a harsh, dry landscape. They believe they have a reason to be on this earth, which can be protecting their community or caste or not living by the law of the oppressors. They call themselves baaghi, or rebels, because of their chosen path. The film is about them questioning that path,” he further says.
And what interested Chaubey the most about the bandit culture was their “twisted” code of honour. “It was not interesting for me to show a criminal gang, a bandit gang which is very evil and looting and killing people for money. Why would I watch a film about these people? What was interesting to know was about several gangs, several bandits in their heyday who commanded a lot of respect from the people because they almost lived like an ascetic. They never indulged in booze or other nefarious activities. They were there to dispense justice because back in the day the reach of law and order in the interior parts was very difficult. They also solved disputes, treat women with lot of respect and never harm them or the children. However twisted it may sound, they had this code of honour which I found fascinating enough to make a film on. The culture is long dead, thankfully,” says the director.
However, Chaubey says that his film doesn’t judge them but shows them as they are. “As a storyteller, it is very important for me to be as objective as possible. Yes, these guys are criminals, but I cannot use my urban 21st century lens on these characters. We urban and educated people, with our Western sensibilities, wouldn’t agree with their point of view, but their perspective on society and justice was different. I had to see what their life is all about. I have not tried to judge them. My film questions the validity of using violence to achieve your goals. When violent means lead to violent ends, the bandit questions himself – ‘should I keep doing this?’ Because they live a life a certain way, there are consequences and that is what the film is all about,” he says.
While Chaubey agrees that Sonchiriya is his first male-centric film that shows a male world, he reveals that there are two to three important women characters with Bhumi’s character Indumati Tomar being one of the protagonists. It is her story that drives the plot forward. “Bhumi’s is a fascinating character. She is shown as a courageous woman of great energy and inner strength. But in a world that is completely dominated by men, she is not allowed to have any power or voice. But when she faces an extraordinary situation, she decides to do something that is completely unexpected of any lady in that world at that time. She goes through a ridiculously hard journey in which she has to interact with some of the fierce and dangerous gangs in Chambal valley and she eventually finds her way,” says Chaubey, who has been deeply inspired by Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen. “That was the reference point for me. Bandit Queen, by many ways, is a revolutionary film and it is also a story of a very powerful woman and her journey. I also think in terms of its craft, visual design and performances, it is quite extraordinary,” he says.
Further, talking about shooting in extreme climate conditions and tough terrains he says, “It was a very difficult shoot for us because Chambal is very harsh and a very hard terrain, it was almost like we were on a continuous trek for three months as we were climbing up and down the mountain with all the gear. First it was very cold and then it got very hot. We were making an action film which in any case is tough. Everybody would be so exhausted by the end of the day but at the same time I have never had a better atmosphere on set. Everybody worked together like a team, there was no politics, no ill-feelings towards anybody. So in a certain way, it was the smoothest shoot I have ever had. And not to forget that the land also has a lot of physical beauty, which has made its way into the film.”