Sonchiriya movie review: Sushant Singh Rajput and Ranvir Shorey’s bandit drama gets a lot right but the slow pace keep it from being a great film.
In Sonchiriya, a policeman and a young boy discuss how inaccurately dacoits are portrayed in Hindi cinema. “Imagine,” says the boy sitting outside a rundown little theatre, “this film shows them on horses!” The very idea is laughable to them, even though our cinema, drunk on Westerns, persisted with anachronistic equine imagery throughout — particularly in the 60s and 70s, when daku movies ruled the roost.
Set in 1975, Sonchiriya tells of rebels and ravines in the Chambal, but without the usual trappings. All is hardcore, from language (Bundelkhandi, which necessitates subtitles) to laughter. The one time a dacoit throws back his head to laugh is nothing like Gabbar Singh of Sholay; the laughter here comes from devastation and heartbreak.
The one laughing is the optimistically named Vakil Singh, played by a phenomenal Ranvir Shorey, throwing his head back to confront the futility of his life and struggle. The word ‘baaghi’ is best translated as ‘rebel’ instead of ‘dacoit’ or ‘bandit,’ but what is their cause? The film poses the question early on, one character asking in as many words: “If the dharma of the policeman is to catch the rebel, what is the dharma of the rebel?”
The question is loaded, and while the film does provide possible answers to ponder, it doesn’t engage deeply or philosophically with them. Shot breathtakingly by Anuj Rakesh Dhawan, this may be Chaubey’s best crafted film, but feels superficial, and is needlessly heavy-handed by way of metaphor. For instance, characters tormented by ghosts of their guilt see these ghosts frequently and simultaneously, as if haunted to the very same degree.
Ashutosh Rana plays the brutal cop chasing down the brigands.
The story is simple, about many outlaws on the run. The actors are a thrill. Shorey aces it, as does Sushant Singh Rajput, playing a man called Lakhna — a name that may automatically damn the wearer to banditry — uncompromising and duty-bound, even if his idea of duty can change on the fly. Manoj Bajpai is excellent as a rebel chief, holding up a wedding with the practised ease of a professional breaking out his routine, while Bhumi Pednekar, a desperately feisty woman on the run, holds her own strongly.
A round of applause for Ashutosh Rana, as the brutal cop chasing down the brigands. Rana, a fine actor, has been reappearing in our cinema more often — Mulk, Dhadak, Simmba. It’s great to have him back in the mix, an actor who makes small parts feel vital. May we call this the Rana-issance?
Bhumi Pednekar plays a desperately feisty woman on the run and holds her own strongly.
Chaubey has always brought us interesting faces. The bandits include a vaguely blonde one, as well as one who looks like Kratos from the God Of War video games, and a terrific pint-sized performer is cast in a most iconic role, and explodes across the screen. (I can’t tell you what the part is, but you’ll know it when you see it. Just watch out for the great line about cowardly men being measured up for lehngas.)
The action is choreographed elaborately, with Chaubey continuing to display his love for Mexican standoffs, and the dialogues feel nakedly authentic. There are time the film plays beautifully with tension, but a pretentiously slow pace lets it down. The men may not be on horses, yet the dramatic triggers pulled by the narrative are stubbornly old-school and cinematic.
Sonchiriya claims to be about a band of outlaws in wild search of a golden bird — but that bird may just be a goose. The film skims topics of caste, gender, religion and politics, and proves to be a film about the desperation to belong to something larger than oneself, the all-consuming desire to believe in something. Even birds of prey need to pray.