Sonchiriya is a quest for justice in Chambal’s ravines

Film now running in Bengaluru explores idea of dharma amid all the cruelty.

Directed by Abhishek Cahubey, Sonchiriya is set in the ‘70s. It stars Sushant Singh Rajput and Manoj Bajpayee.

What do you fear when you no longer fear death? In an opening sequence from Abhishek Chaubey’s dacoit drama, ‘Sonchiriya’, two of the film’s anchoring characters, Man Singh (Manoj Bajpayee) and Lakhna (Sushant Singh Rajput) have just this conversation.

The film revolves around fear and what haunts men (and women) when they know that life is short, death close at hand and the incentives to go on living in the harsh north Indian outback of the mid-1970s meagre if not non-existent.

The gang of outcasts, led by their ‘dadda’, Daku Man Singh, are sworn to spend their lives in the ravines of the Chambal, making a living by putting the fear of god into men. But while they may be lawless, they are not heartless. They have stepped off the narrow, measured rails of a socially-sanctioned existence, but they have not stepped off the moral compass. And they struggle endlessly with doing the right thing. 

The film starts with a close up shot of a fly-infested eye belonging to a dead snake. The snake lies across the path of the Man Singh gang, foreboding the unravelling of tragedies. Man Singh’s worst nightmares have already come true. He has committed an act that is unforgivable according to the code by which he lives. And the memories of that incident haunt him and his gang as a curse, placing a moral debt on them that can only be repaid with their lives. But death is not the point of this tale. Death in this story is commonplace. This is really a story about what forms tragedy can take in lives of those for whom the fear of living itself is the biggest tragedy.

As Man Singh’s deputy, Vakila (Ranveer Shorey), remarks just before his death in one of the closing scenes, all the main characters seek a deliverance that always seems to elude them. But what could that deliverance be?

‘Sonchiriya’, the mythical golden bird, holds the key. She stands for the dignity of life in a world that reduces people to an animal-like existence. But also the dignity of death which is bereft of fear. Sonchiriya comes to the gang members in the form of a twelve-year-old untouchable girl who has been raped by a Thakur man old enough to be her grandfather. The girl will succumb to internal bleeding injuries if not taken to a hospital in time. It’s up to members of the gang to save her.

The film dramatises the eternal quest for goodness or wholeness in telling and mysterious ways through the character of the violated child and the cast of characters who come in touch with her. This, in essence, is the central poser of the story: how should you treat those who are less powerful than you, and those who have no ability to defend themselves?

The film gives us some answers too. If you can manage to never veer off the terrain of humanity or justice (insaaf), as the film calls it, then you still have a chance of redeeming yourself. If you do nothing more than live by the rules of society or caste, following its as a rigid dharma, then you are doomed.

The film, then, seems to be telling us that to protect the ‘Sonchiriya’ is the truest dharma of human beings. To exemplify this, we have the character of the Thakur woman (Bhumi Pednekar) who is the girl’s guardian and protector. She is the only character who is completely above the fear of living and dying in this film. But, she too is not immune from shame. It is Sonchiriya, the 12-year-old, who towers above the rest, protecting those who love and punishing those who act out of their hate.

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Sonchiriya is a quest for justice in Chambal’s ravines

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