Soon after the drug trafficking themed drama Udta Punjab (2016), Abhishek Chaubey and co-writer Sudip Sharma began to work on what they called a “revisionist Western” that was a “hybrid of Bandit Queen, a Western, and a contemporary thriller”. Chaubey, who made his debut with Ishqiya (2010), observed, “The daku films thrived in the ‘60s and ‘70s before dying a natural death in the ’80s, and then Bandit Queen and Paan Singh Tomar arrived. So how could you do a Western for a generation that grew up in the ‘90s, unaware of the Indian bandit film?”
The resulting film, Sonchiriya, is set in Chambal in 1975, and has been shot in the ravines near Dholpur in Rajasthan. The ensemble cast for the February 8 release includes Sushant Singh Rajput, Ranvir Shorey and Manoj Bajpayee as bandits, Ashutosh Rana as the police officer hot on their trail, and Bhumi Pednekar as the woman caught between them.
The trailer of the Ronnie Screwvala Productions film hints at intense gunbattles and dust, blood and sweat. Composer Vishal Bhardwaj and lyricist Varun Grover have teamed up for the soundtrack, which comprises five songs. Abhishek Chaubey spoke to Scroll.in about the origins and making of Sonchiriya and his vision for the film.
How did ‘Sonchiriya’ begin, and what research did it involve?
When Ronnie [Screwvala] said that he wanted to make an action film on the lines of an Indian Western, Sudip [Sharma] and I began to work on a story based on the politics of a village around Rajasthan set in the Emergency. Bandits were a secondary element there.
That story wasn’t working. Meanwhile, all this research we accumulated on the bandits or the baaghis [rebels] of Chambal was there. We focused on that and cracked this story rather quickly, compared to the time spent on Udta Punjab. We went to Chambal and met a few retired bandits who had served time in prison. Bandits are not active now. These old-timers and the police who had hunted bandits were our sources.
Another source of information was a document compiled by Sudip after spending months in those regions. He would put everything into that document. It could be an interesting line or statement that he heard which could become dialogue, or any interesting anecdote or costume detail.
As for reading, Mala Sen’s exhaustive book [India’s Bandit Queen: The True Story of Phoolan Devi] comes to mind. Then, there was the biography of Chambal bandit Malkhan Singh whose story ran parallel to Phoolan Devi’s. Prashant Panjiar’s photographs of the region and its dacoits were a treasure trove and helped us capture the look and feel of the era.
What is the story of ‘Sonchiriya’?
Sonchiriya is spread over four days in the Chambal ravines, and deals with issues of gender, social discrimination because of caste and when justice becomes revenge. Our fictional bandits are at a crossroads about their 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.
The story is about finding your inner sonchiriya, a common name for women in the area, which is a beautiful and rare bird. It is also called the Great Indian bustard, and conservationists are worried about its endangerment. In Chambal, you will see Sonchiriya Hotel, Sonchiriya Guest House, and so on. It also means the golden bird, which was also what India was called long time ago.
In the context of the film, finding one’s sonchiriya means finding inner truth. These bandits lead a hard life in a harsh, unforgiving, 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.
Could you talk about the lead characters?
Lakhna, played by Sushant Singh Rajput, is a foot soldier in the gang headed by Man Singh, played by Manoj Bajpayee. While Lakhna is the young lad who ultimately figures right from wrong and becomes the hero, Man Singh is the voice of the film.
Lakhna has ideological differences with another bandit, Vakil Singh, played by Ranvir Shorey. There are no good guys or bad guys in the film, and sometimes the good guys do bad things and vice versa. Vakil Singh is a brave and courageous fighter, but since he sees things differently from Lakhna, he becomes the antagonist.
Meanwhile, a regular village woman, Indumati, played by Bhumi Pednekar, and a little girl, get involved in their story. Faced with an extraordinary situation, Indumati discovers courage. Chasing the gang is Ashutosh Rana’s police officer. He is a ruthless cop but is tender inside. Down the way, he is not sure if his mission is personal or professional.
Jatin Sarna (‘Sacred Games’) is playing an important character.
The cast is a goldmine thanks to Honey Trehan [casting director] and his assistant Karan. There are a number of actors, mostly on the gang’s side. Jatin plays a mellow but intense character whose part is in the core of the film. His role is diametrically opposite to his Sacred Games character, Bunty. Important roles are played by Gagandeep Singh Riar, Ram Dibakar, Sridhar Dubey, and Mahesh Balraj, who was in Ghoul.
What interested you the most about Indian bandit culture?
These guys genuinely believed that their life had a higher purpose. More than criminals who would steal money and make merry, the bandits operated like militia fighting for truth, honour and justice. 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.
My film doesn’t judge them, but shows them as they are. My film also 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? When they have to confront the fact that the belief that justified their existence is a lie, where do they go? And the issues of caste, gender and law in this story set 40-odd years ago in a small backward village are still so relevant today.
What was the public perception of bandits when you shot the film in 2018?
It depends on who you are asking. Some look back on them with reverence as many of them were principled and pious and gave back to the community by making temples and such. The villagers, in return, sheltered them from the law. Then there are others who thought they were a nuisance.
Back then, there were many gangs, and some were better than others. Malkhan Singh, for example, earned a lot of respect from the community. He treated women and children well. The good ones lived a very Spartan lifestyle, not spending on booze or women, and did the Robin Hood kind of thing. The most interesting thing above all was their belief that this life had a higher purpose.
What the physical experience of shooting the film on location?
Really exhausting. Shooting in the ravines is tough. A lot of physical energy is spent just on climbing up and down the terrain with all our gear. It felt like we had been trekking for three months. But the land also has a lot of physical beauty, which has made its way into the film.
It was extremely cold when we began shooting in January 2018. During night, temperature would circle around zero degrees. But by March, at 8.30, 9 am, it would be 45 degrees centigrade. Shooting the climax, which was a big battle sequence, for 10 days in March in peak summer weather was tough. If one take went wrong, it would take 45 minutes to set up the arms and ammunition and start the next take. And there was so much dust flying around.
Could you talk about how you shot the action scenes?
Considering the kind of action we have in the film, covering geography is very important. If a filmmaker does not show the space where the action is happening properly, that shows a lack of ability on their part or some other restriction. We ensured that we got that correct, so that the audience was never confused who was shooting where. It’s better to have the shooter and the one getting shot in the same frame.
For Sonchiriya, drones and automated cranes helped in getting wide images where characters weren’t lost. We have two-three battle sequences in the film where 40 to 50 people are fighting with rifles and machine guns, so it was important to get that right. But the violence is not stylish. The film is ultimately making a comment on the practice of violence, so it couldn’t be glamorous.