Set in the ravines of Chambal during the period of Emergency, Abhishek Chaubey’s Sonchiriya is the story of a gang of baaghis (rebels) led by Man Singh (Manoj Bajpayee). After a mind-numbing incident, one of the gang members Lakhna (Sushant Singh Rajput) goes through an internal turmoil about the whole point of being a rebel. Later, the rebels meet Indu (Bhumi Pednekar) who has run away from home to take a little girl Sonchiriya (Khushiya) to hospital as she has been violently assaulted. She requests to join the rebels to get a safe path for herself. Incorporating narratives of caste, gender, and violence, Sonchiriya is the profound journey of the rebels in search of mukti (deliverance) from their past sins.
The most fascinating aspect of Sonchiriya is its subversion of the legend of the Ramayana. The film cleverly borrows and inverts some of the dominant narratives from the epic. In the Ramayana, there was Sita who was kidnapped by the demon Raavan and the two brothers, Ram and Lakshman, go about searching for her. Sonchiriya compares Indu to Sita, but unlike her, Indu wilfully runs away with the Raavan here—the baaghi Lakhna. There are also two brothers here who come looking for Indu but with the intention to punish her. While Sita was married to the elder brother, Indu is married to the younger brother. The setting from the Ramayana is, therefore, inverted in Sonchiriya. When Indu’s husband and his brother come to take her away, Bhoora (Mahesh Balraj) even remarks, “Jaa ki toh doosri hee Ramayan hai.” This is another Ramayana. At another point in the film, Virender Singh Gujjar (Ashutosh Rana) again brings up the theme from Ramayana where he mocks Indu’s husband Ratan Singh (Jatin Sarna) and tells him, “Ek the Ramchandra Ji, aur ek thi Sita Maiyya. Itta prem do yun mein ke poochho mati. Fer, ek din Raavan jabran utha ke le gavo Maiyya ko. Ab Ramchandar Ji dhoondh toh le aye Maiyya ko, magar sweekar na kar paaye. Aur tu kar lego? Hain? Teri lugai aap hi bhaagi hai dakuan ke sang.” Once there was Lord Rama and his wife, Goddess Sita. Their love for each other knew no bounds. And then the evil king Raavan kidnapped Mother Sita. Eventually, Lord Rama rescued her but he could never accept her again. And you will? Your wife has run with the outlaws of her own will. In Ramayana, Sita’s sons go about telling her story to the people after she is banished to the jungle because the people questioned her chastity while being in Lanka. Here it is the Raavan-esque Lakhna who has to narrate the truth about Indu’s life to her ignorant son who is hell-bent on killing her because he believes she killed his grandfather. He tells him that his impotent father (in front of a vehicle that advertizes vasectomy) is not his real father but his grandfather is the one who sired him. Sonchiriya humanizes Raavan—Lakhna—by giving him a conscience. In that sense, it shares something with Mani Ratnam’s Raavan that also subverted the Ramayana in a similar way, though much more explicitly. Raavan humanized Raavan-Beera (Abhishek Bachchan) and went ahead to show that Sita-Ragini (Aishwarya Rai) developed an affection for him. Also, like in that film, the police in Sonchiriya is shown to be more ruthless than the rebels.
Sonchiriya‘s reliance on Ramayana continues when a flashback reveals the reason that led to the hallucinations of Man Singh and Lakhna. The incident that shook them happens on Diwali—the day that celebrates the return of Ram to Ayodhya. Here the Raavan comes to the village on this day. People light diyas on Diwali but here, the people put out diyas with their hands. Children celebrate by bursting crackers. Here, a child accidentally lights up the crackers, which brings death and the sound of the gunshots merges with the sound of crackers. A day of celebration becomes a day of devastation. A day that marks the victory of the good over the evil becomes the day when the evil triumphs over the good. Thus, to reiterate, Sonchiriya completely inverts the tales from the Ramayana. During this particular same sequence, Lakhna is startled to find a ten-headed idol of Raavan in the house and after the shooting, Man Singh sits outside the house and starts chanting Ram as a means of penance, again adding to the subtext of Ramayana in the film.
Sonchiriya tries to argue that there can be inherent goodness even in people who are considered to be downright evil. An outlaw can also be a good person. All through the film, there are instances where this can be seen. When the rebels go to loot a wedding, Man Singh makes sure that the bride receives the gift of one-hundred-one rupees. After the rebels have to break the wall of the doctor’s house, Lakhna says that he owes him a wall. Ek deewar udhar rahi. On the journey to Dholpur, while sitting on a boat, Indu comments that the rebels all are bhale (good) people. Later, Lakhna and his companions again mention that Vakil Singh (Ranvir Shorey) is a good man. Aadmi buro na hai. The rebels respect women and would protect them as compared to the well-behaved citizens who violently abuse women. However, these rebels are trapped in life. The snake-like ravines are the prison from which they want to get out. “Narak lagne lage ko hai jeevan,” says one of them. Life seems like hell. They are trying to run away from their own self. They dream of a better after-life. And, for that, they have to pay the debt of their sins. They are cursed. All through the film, they keep talking about shraaps.
There is also a notable presence of other children in the film. Man Singh and Lakhna accidentally shoot dead a group of children. In their hallucinations, they see one of the little girls whom they had shot. In the flashback, the same girl is shown to scream from the window during the shootout between the villagers and the rebels. Early in the film, a young kid runs away to the balcony where the police warn him to remain quiet and he becomes a witness to the massacre. After the death of Man Singh, there is again a scene where children are witnessing the procession of the dead from the window. The film’s focus on children is again a reminder of the inner conscience and innocence that the rebels were seeking.
Religion, thus, has a significant role in the lives of the rebels. Their conversations are littered with talk about curses of their karma, and the burden of their sins. They follow the dharma which they are told is—to live and die in the ravines, to protect their caste and their people, and to not show their back in battle but take a bullet on their chest. They worship Maa Bhavani and offer her sacrifices. A song in the film says that their feet might be dirty but their soul is unblemished. They talk about mukti and redemption. They talk about garud purana and the human body being a vehicle of the soul. However, for me, one of the most striking scenes with religious connotations in the film is the one when Virender Singh Gujjar parades Man Singh’s lifeless body tied to a cot in a truck. The imagery in the scene has an uncanny resemblance with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Sonchiriya also makes the distinction between vengeance and justice. Vakil Singh insists that Indu should go away with her husband as the brothers will avenge their father’s death from her. However, Lakhna stops him and says that that is revenge and not justice. Later, again, when he hands over Thakur Beniram (Dev Chauhan) to Phuliya (Sampa Mandal), he asks her that she sought justice from Thakur; now she should learn to deliver justice, too, and offer them a safe path. For a film teeming with rebels and police, no character really deserves the audience’s scorn. It is just they have different viewpoints. For instance, at one point, Vakil Singh tells one of the members to forget the past and look forward; on the other hand, Lakhna cannot let go of his past actions. Even the police inspector Vrijendra Singh Gujjar who is more brutal than the rebels has a reason for his harsh demeanor.
Animals are another motif in Sonchiriya. The film opens with a shot of a swarm of flies hovering over a dead snake which makes the rebels think that they are cursed. After some time, there are vultures that can be seen hovering in the sky. Characters frequently talk about the law of nature where a snake that eats a mouse is eventually eaten by a vulture. They say “Saanp khaavego choohe ke, saanp ke khaavego giddh, je hee niyam duniya ko, keh gaye saadhu siddh.” Sonchiriya compares the hierarchy of the food chain in the animal kingdom to the one in humans where a more powerful human kills another one. This power manifests in different forms, such as caste, class, gender, profession, or a shared belief in victimhood. In the song Baaghi Re, the rebels are compared to a crocodile at the bottom of Chambal river. At one point, the police inspector calls the rebels as a bunch of animals. Phuliya is also compared to a tigress. Later, dead cats are found in houses. Crocodiles are lurking in rivers and are trying to attack humans. The rebels dream about farming while riding on camels. In the last few scenes of the film, Lakhna is killed and the flies hover his dead body, creating a mirror image of the first scene with the dead snake in the film. Animals are everywhere in Sonchiriya. Even the film’s title is named after a mythical golden bird that everyone is seeking in their lives.
At one stage in the film, one of the rebels Balak Ram (Abhimanyu Arun) is being treated for a wound and he screams. Immediately the scene cuts to a screaming face of a bandit on a poster of an imaginary film titled Baghi Ka Badla as if joining the two scenes. This particular trick was reminiscent of the many visual linkages among the different narratives in Abhishek Chaubey’s previous film Udta Punjab as well. For instance, when Mary Jane (Alia Bhatt) calculates the amount of money she could get by selling drugs, she is surprised, and immediately, in the next scene, Tommy (Shahid Kapoor) has the same expression on his face. In another scene, when she is hallucinating and swims towards the light, Tommy takes out his face from the water and he is wearing a hat with a white light on it as if she was swimming towards him. The same connection seems to have been applied here. What is also interesting about Baghi Ka Badla is that a character makes fun of this movie because it shows bandits on horses because, in their village, the dacoits have always come walking. In almost all Hindi films of the past, the dacoits have been shown on horses. It is another subversion in Sonchiriya. Baaghi Ka Badla is not just about the badla of revenge but also the badla of change.
Sonchiriya takes a lot of referential material from Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen. In that film, Manoj Bajpayee had played a dacoit who was also named Man Singh, like here. The story of Phuliya in Sonchiriya is also inspired by the story of Phoolan Devi (played by Seema Biswas in Bandit Queen) and she even dresses up like her with her trademark red bandana on her head. The caste communities in the two films are also primarily the same, comprising Gujjars, Mallahs, and Thakurs. Sonchiriya mentions another caste group Jhirsa.
The film has some splendid sequences shot using drones and helicams. It also showcases superior sound recording skills in the scenes involving gunshots and Mexican standoffs. The shootout sequences, one at the beginning and one at the end, are superbly shot, though they seem a little too long. The performances by all members of the cast are all first rate with Sushant Singh Rajput, Ranvir Shorey, and Bhumi Pednekar being the standout ones.
Sonchiriya also provides enough material for a political reading of the film. The film could also be read as a comment on India. In earlier days, like the film’s title, India was known as Sone Ki Chiriya, which Abhishek Chaubey also mentioned in an interview. The film is set during the time when Indira Gandhi proclaimed Emergency. Hence, the term rebel is quite befitting in that context as well. In fact, the film makes a conscious attempt to never address them as dakus (dacoits). At one stage, Man Singh comments that they don’t die by government bullets; instead, they die by the government promises. The fights between the rebels and the government officers happen on a vehicle that is promoting sterilization. Therefore, it could be a symbol of another rebellion against the establishment. It is often said that a good film offers multiple readings of its subject. Sonchiriya offers multiple layers to the audience to think and savour its myriad themes.