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Sonchiriya (2019) Review

Now I tend to call myself a realist. I call a spade a spade and don’t mind admitting I particularly despise manual labour (especially when it involves spades). So, when you tell me there’s a Bollywood movie called “Sonchiraiya”– which apparently translates to “Golden Bird” – playing in theatres, I’m neither impressed nor curious. And for most of my life – this (cough) arrogance (cough) of judgement has helped me steer clear of most terrible movies, and helped me maintain my “least number of shit movies watched” title among the monks.

This one time though – I was dead wrong. And the funny thing is – I didn’t have the slightest clue about how bloody mistaken I was, until after I’d finished watching this movie.

Now – before I jump into the movie – you need to keep a little background in mind when you’re viewing the era this movie is set in. It’s the 60’s and the 70’s in India – so think post Indo-China war, Declared Emergency, Rampant Corruption, No Coke Studio, Bad Roads – oh, wait, scratch that last one – bad roads still exist in 2019 – but, you get the point. This was especially a time for general lawlessness in a region that surrounded the “Chambal” river – a region whose notorious reputation holds to this day. Some say the term “highway robbery” was coined in this region. Some also say Indians invented socks. And deodorant.

Sonchiraiya is the kind of movie that keeps all the political context of that time in mind – hinting at it repeatedly, but never dwelling on it for too long. It’s the kind of movie that rewards the history buffs – which is why the name Thakur Daku Man Singh Rathore – or “Man Singh” as he was commonly known – was not unknown to me. And the story begins bang in the thick of it – a zoomed in shot of a dead snake’s eye, the blurred background of the ravines of the Chambal region and a resolute looking Manoj Bajpayee (sporting a look that you absolutely love in the first go) walking with a band of dacoits trailing him in the background.

That style – that opening shot, that camera angle – that set the style of the movie from the get go – and I was already sitting up in the first 5 minutes, partially also due to the crappy seats in the only theatre that was playing just one show of the movie in South Mumbai.

If it wasn’t for LOLkein’s random “let’s watch a random movie and possibly ruin a Sunday” plans, I would probably never have heard about this movie as well – and it would have passed unknown into oblivion.

The plot is simple – it follows a bunch of dacoits that think they’re cursed due to the unspeakable acts of horror they’ve committed – with a few of them questioning their motivations and code of honour. The gunfights in this movie are possibly among the best I’ve seen in a Bollywood film in a really long time – with recoils, reloads and misses all shown in equal measure. These gun fights incorporated realistic strategy and I absolutely have to make special mention of the bloody epic standoff shots taken with brilliantly choreographed overhead angles. If I had to just rate this movie on its fight sequences alone – I would already say it’s one of the best I’ve watched here.

But to say this movie is only about the violence is akin to saying Harry Potter is only about broomsticks and golden ball. This movie delves into so much more – it’s almost impossible to remark at how eloquently the director has managed such a feat. There’s a rigid caste system that dominates the plot outline – with family ties and honorary titles forming the backbone of many of the story elements.

There’s the ever-present forms of blatant sexism, and severe racism cleverly interwoven between the overall journey of the protagonists. 

But above all – what I personally enjoyed the most in this film is their honest portrayal of the protagonists. Most movies that concentrate on Anti-Heros show the villains as unanimously bad in all ways – and almost seem to justify the horrendous acts of the Anti-heros. This movie chooses instead to focus on the complex dynamics of living life as a dacoit – always on the run, always in situations with murky moralities. It shows how the locals in villages sometimes revered the dacoits – because they often fought for the poor, and fought against corrupt authorities – and sometimes hated the dacoits if they were the targets of their loot. 

You begin the movie thinking it’s going to be a glorified story with gung-ho action throughout – but by the time you’re a third into the movie, you already know that the director is intent on breaking tropes faster than a political party’s promises on an election campaign. The protagonist could be anyone – even though it concentrates the most on Sushant Singh Rajput’s character. And while I personally think it’s impossible to top Manoj Bajpayee when he gets into a local gang lord character (if you’re unaware of the reference I’d suggest you find the closest ceiling fan and put your tie to some use) – I think Sushant pulled off an amazing role, with acting that was as dramatic as it was emotional. Ranvir Shorey also played his character to perfection – angry and always ready to jump into the fray, even when it’s wisest not to.

In fact, the movie is so detailed – it goes as far as hinting at the strained relationship between the STF (Special Task Force) and the Local State Police – and how in-fighting between government authorities are often one of the primary weaknesses the dacoits adopted on those days. All in all – this is a movie that most people think is slow overall, but felt properly fast to me. The twists in the story are well worth the wait, and while most of the names etc. are a figment of the director’s imagination, the few characters that you have heard off will certainly make their presence felt on screen.

The Chambal Region surrounds the main Chambal river – extending for many kms on either side – encompassing highways, villages, ravines and harsh terrain. In the Mahabharata, it is known as the “Charmanyavati” river, and is said to have originated from the blood of a thousands of animals sacrificed by the Aryan King Rantideva. Anyone who drinks from the river were also thought to be cursed by Draupadi. But that’s all mythology. And if you’ve forgotten, I’m the guy who calls a spade a spade.

Only this time, the spade’s a shovel in the hands of a grave digger. And the streets are littered with bodies. In the harsh unforgiving sun, a river snakes across the terrain – untouched by the violence surrounding it. And above it all – a Golden Bird flits across the sun, casting an invisible shadow on the land beneath. I call it fate. The locals say “Sonchiraiya”.

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