LICH rating: (4.5 / 5)
Flies buzz around the lifeless open eye of a reptile. The camera stares it back in the eye, even if you can’t. That’s the incipience of death that looms like a dust cloud over the superb Sonchiriya (The Golden Bird) and never quite settles, leaving you unsettled and in its firm grip right up until the last shot. Director Abhishek Chaubey (Ishqiya, Dedh Ishqiya, Udta Punjab) directs this grimy, hard-to-look-away from project with the same unflinching panache he’s displayed in his earlier outings, but this time lacing his effort with even more despair.
Writing with Sudip Sharma, Chaubey trudges into the badlands of Chambal in 1975, tagging along the baaghi (rebels) group of dacoits as they cross the ravines, side-stepping the arms of the law, and into hiding. Headlined by Man Singh (Manoj Bajpayee), the ragtag group consists of clearly etched, ragged characters such as Lakhna Singh (Sushant Singh Rajput), and Vakil Singh (Ranvir Shorey, edgy, snarling, and very good). A tip to loot a family where a wedding’s imminent leads the gang into what will be the first of searingly shot shoot-outs, this one droning across roof-tops and on the ground, Kunal Sharma‘s sound design ricocheting off the walls right into your senses. This is where the head of the Special Task Force (STF), Virender Singh Gujjar rides into the splendid action, and Ashutosh Rana plays him with a force that’s haunting in its gumption and motive, as he vows to track down this specific band of bad brothers. Even as the band zig-zags the cops and a stunning betrayal, the director applies another layer to boil over the cauldron of discrimination that’s gender and caste-based, bringing in the character of Indumati Tomar (Bhumi Pednekar) and Khushi (a heartbreaking turn by Khushiya) that runs in parallel with that of the band and their fugitive-run.
Sonchiriya is a poetic, unnervingly still, and gritty experience. The director and cinematographer Anuj Dhawan roll in the dust and rugged landscape to bring out the roiling fury of caste storms and undercurrents that envelope the entire movie, and top it with murderous patriarchy that consumes all caste-levels, professions, and the movie’s entire world. But even here, they stun you—a night scene that amidst hopefully-lit Diwali lamps turns into the elusive leitmotif of the movie’s title; another night scene, this time in a cramped dispensary, where you can feel the trickle of sweat that flows across its campers and the unbearable claustrophobia and tension that’s injected with throbbing urgency into it, are both stand-outs in a movie that in itself is a visual work of art. Add to it Benedict Taylor and Ketan Sodha‘s solid background score and Vishal Bharadwaj‘s haunting songs (Ruan Ruan and the chilling Saanp Khavega are superb) and you get what is one of 2019’s best movies.
The cast is mind-bogglingly good, with Bhumi Pednekar delivering a flawless, feisty performance that knocks you out, she wearing her desperation and fluttering courage with controlled fierceness. Sushant Singh Rajput and Manoj Bajpayee are both terrific, the former in his possibly best act, with a stab of earnest, righteous rigor, the latter brooding and world-weary, his face a map of the ravine’s treacherous past and foreboding of the vultures-circling future; and both haunted by a past that ties up the entire bullet-riddled fate of its characters. But it’s not the guns that echo long after you’ve watched the movie; it’s its masterful casting of the die of societal oppressions and repression that does the stalking. For, from its timeline circa of Emergency into another century in an election year in India, the die that’s cast is still the caste and patriarchy. And scarily, those are the pernicious, fatal, and unputdownable forces to reckon with even today.
LICH ratings chart
(1 / 5): Don’t bother
(2 / 5): Not too great
(3 / 5): Worth a watch
(4 / 5): Very good
(5 / 5): Drop everything else NOW
Sonchiriya is rated A (Restricted to adults) There’s violent scenes, swearing, and intense sequences.
Director Abhishek Chaubey Running Time 2h 23min
Writers Abhishek Chaubey, Sudip Sharma
Stars Bhumi Pednekar, Sushant Singh Rajput, Manoj Bajpayee, Ranvir Shorey
Genres Action, Crime, Drama