“What is a baghi’s [rebel] dharma, Dadda?” Lakhna (Sushant Singh Rajput) asks Man Singh (Manoj Bajpayee), the leader of an outlawed gang in Chambal. Dadda attempts an answer, but he doesn’t sound convincing. But Lakhna needs to know because he gets visions: of a five-year-old girl – at times floating dead in a lake, often standing and staring at him. A gaze that says, “I know what you’ve done.” Dadda sees that girl, too, making him jolt out of sleep or (when awake) suspend all sense of time and place.
Sonchiriya, directed by Abhishek Chaubey, has, on the surface, all the markings of a ‘bandit drama’. It has the rebel and the rival gang (the police), the looting and killing, the snitches and shootouts. But as the above scene exemplifies, this film isn’t about guns and gore. Instead, time and again, it brings up universal themes, asking questions about remorse, honour and, the movie’s fundamental fixation, dharma. This is a film about people trained to kill who have trouble living with themselves.
Sonchiriya’s first hour – thoroughly captivating and intriguing – nearly always remains elusive. Which is strange because there’s no dearth of action or information here. We find that the film is set in the mid-’70s: a radio station informs us that Indira Gandhi has just declared the Emergency. We become familiar with Dadda’s gang (the calm leader; the hot-headed deputy, Vakil (Ranvir Shorey); the skeptic who wants to surrender, Lakhna).
We see their exploits, threats and ethics (while looting a wedding party, Dadda says, more than once, that no one should get hurt; he also makes Vakil pay Rs 101 to the bride).
Then there’s the local police, headed by Virender Singh Gujjar (Ashutosh Rana), a cop who behaves like a bandit, forever sniffing the trails of Singhs, wanting nothing but bloodshed and revenge.
All of this is framed by historic caste rivalry: the Gujjars hate the Thakurs (Dadda’s men) and vice-versa. Added to this mix is Indumati (Bhumi Pednekar), fleeing from her relatives and also Thakurs, because she murdered her father-in-law for raping a young, ‘untouchable’ girl, Sonchiriya. Vakil remains largely unsympathetic to them, refusing to help, while Lakhna – a philosopher among outlaws – sees in them a new window: hope, atonement, redemption.
But what consumes Dadda and Lakhna, you wonder, and a segment after the interval completes the puzzle. Several scenes from the last hour now find the comfort of context – the murderous cop has his reasons, and so do the outlaws: nobody is virtuous enough to be loved, nobody is villainous enough to be loathed.
Chaubey and (screenwriter) Sudip Sharma – who earlier collaborated on Udta Punjab (2016) – win our attention and respect right from the beginning, propelling the scenes through sharp writing and dynamic filmmaking. The dialogues, spoken in Bundelkhandi, sting and soothe and slay – even the choicest of insults are salted with humour (my favourite, “The father fumbles in the dark, while the son’s a powerhouse”). Rana’s Virender gets the best lines and he does them full justice, flinging them with icy assurance and penetrating intensity.
The animated camera and the eclectic directorial style – tense shootouts, contemplative slow-motion shots, song-laced frames (sometimes all in one sequence) – provide wonderful tonal variation, keeping us hooked while capturing the hinterland in all its messy, conflicting realities.
There are altercations, betrayals, murders and amid all that, a desperate lunge to find one’s moral centre. “But that is vengeance, Dadda,” Lakhna says, at one point. “That is not justice.” Or a long stretch of bleakness washed by a light of (literal) magic: Lakhna playing with Sonchiriya, showing her the candy in one palm, making it appear in the other. Such contradictions transcend milieus and genres, prodding us to recognise, much like its characters, the sublime in squalor, salvation in perdition.
Sonchiriya has scenes of violence aplenty but, unlike most action dramas, they don’t leave you with a sense of exhilaration. What you find instead is darkness folded on darkness – a futile attempt to extract the right answer from the wrong question. But none of that is seen through the tired lens of morality or cynicism. How do you defeat, or reason with, guilt anyway? Like a ginormous broken glass, it bleeds you dry and reflects your discomfort – Lakhna knows this.
Rajput, finally returning to fine form after embarrassing duds such as Raabta (2016) and Kedarnath (2018), brings to this role a searching existential dread. The rest of the ensemble – featuring superb performances by Rana and Shorey (whose accent falters only sporadically) and competent turns by Bajpayee and Pednekar – closes this tragic circle of loss.
The ravine is a prison; the bullets promise salvation – in a tired baghi struggles a ravaged soul. No amount of introspection will ever feel enough: his existence is his punishment.