SONCHIRIYA (2019, India, dir. Abhishek Chaubey)

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The Dacoit Western is a transnational film genre forged out of a synthesis between the Dacoit film and the Italian Western in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The dacoit in popular culture has undeniably been represented with ambivalence, chiefly as a romantic figure, existing outside mainstream society. Yet the rebellious nature of the dacoit, disregarding law and order has often made the dacoit an oppositional entity, a symbol of counter culture, dissent and even protest. Sonchiriya is a Dacoit Western but it seems so much more political given the age of Modi, with overtures to do with caste and gender that seem altogether absent from the genre in the past. Apart from the songs that are incorporated seamlessly into the narrative, this is very much an exquisitely mounted art film pitched as moderately mainstream. Since genres like horror, science fiction and the Western are perfect vehicles for ideological subversion, allowing filmmakers to smuggle in all kinds of social and political dissent, filmmaker Abhishek Chaubey and scriptwriter Sudip Sharma succeed in delivering a high end genre film, navigating the terrain and conventions of the Dacoit Western with a creative zeal.

Sonchiriya takes place in the valleys of Chambal in the 1970s when the notorious dacoit Man Singh and his band of rebels reigned supreme. A point of real curiosity for film buffs is that actor Manoj Bajpayee had previously played a dacoit in Shekar Kapur’s Bandit Queen who also goes by the name of Man Singh. I’m still not sure if he is playing the same character since the historical timeframes in the two films suggest otherwise. A folklore and mythology has emerged around the dacoits of Chambal in the 1970s and the film is careful not to strip away this mystique. In fact, the film enhances the haunted nature of the dacoit with metaphysical aspects that also connect with the desolate topography. A tactile work, conjuring a sharp sense of the milieu with the camera constantly pushed up against the face of the actors while also going as wide as it can when filming the rugged vistas of Chambal makes you almost taste the dirt and feel the sweat. For instance, the film opens with the sound of buzzing flies on the rotting cadaver of a snake. Such a wretched image of death recalls the cinema of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone in the way in which Chaubey chooses to magnify this particular detail whereby it takes on a larger than life symbolism and acts as a foreboding precursor of things to come, much of it twisted and violent.

In the first major set piece, the gang’s entry into Brahmpuri village is juxtaposed to a radio announcement of Indira Gandhi’s declaration of the Emergency of 1975. The ambush by the police in Brahmpuri leads to a shootout and which the machinations of violent state repression unleashed by the Emergency are realised in the political impunity with which the police act towards the dacoits, massacring them. Later Man Singh’s dead body is paraded through the village, a grotesque spectacle of power and ugly expression of vengeance. It is also worth pointing out the gang see themselves as rebels whereas the police demonize them as dacoits. This is an important distinction since it is only later that we discover that Man Singh is not merely a rebel but has a conscience and lives by a stringent moral code. Thematically, redemption for the dacoit is woven through the episodic narrative structure anchored in the fortuitous device of trying to get a wounded Dalit girl who has been raped to a hospital. While the episodic structure works to mirror the nomadic and exilic state of the dacoit, suggesting how they are doomed to wander, the use of key flashbacks that narrates a past drenched in prodigious horrors and from which no one can really escape returns to Chaubey’s genre preoccupations expressly noir that he deftly mined in Ishqiya (2010).

Nearly all of the characters that populate the film aside from the women are loathsome scoundrels. But that is to be expected, after all this is a Dacoit Western. Lakhna (Sushant Singh Rajput), a mediating figure, often openly questioning their marauding nature, while Man Singh exudes a magnetism that is articulated brilliantly by Manoj Bajpayee, still one of Indian cinema’s most complete actors. The most startling performance comes from Ranvir Shorey as Vakil Singh, the most temperamental of the gang. Shorey has been busily working since the late 1990s but I feel he doesn’t gets the credit he deserves as an actor, especially someone who has nurtured a considerable range. The symbolism of the dacoit is interchangeable and situated on the margins it comes to stand in for many oppositional ideologies. However, I would reason the apolitical nature of the dacoit, erasing the concept of the social bandit in favour of something more mythical shows a reluctance to frame the dacoit as ideological. But the caste dimension does at time negate such apolitical reasoning. Nevertheless, Chaubey and Sharma show little in terms of taking sides in this immoral universe, choosing to enunciate a perverse social order that exists including hierarchal power struggles and an on-going contestation to do with bridari that reduces pretty much everyone to animals. And in the final shot, a twisted coda, it is vehemence and fatalism that prevails, the lifeblood of film noir.

MAYA (Dir. Vikas Chandra, 2018, India)

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Maya, a tightly scripted short film directed by the talented Vikas Chandra, opens with the face of a child. The palpable image of the child establishes a mark of innocence and youth, positing the broader themes of growing old, death and companionship. Maya, played by Kirti Kulhari, is a modern-day middle class woman who cares for her mother (Alka Amin in fine form). Having met Raunak (Naveen Kasturia) through a matrimonial site, Maya invites Raunak’s parents to her house where they both express their wish to be married. Chandra’s sensitive handling of this dinner table sequence is measured through the ways in which the mother-daughter relationship is the focal point. Exploring Maya’s refusal to negotiate where her mother belongs, pronounces the supposed norms of modern day relationships while effectively arguing for the creation of a new familial and matrimonial space that defies traditions. But when Maya announces that her mother will remain with her after their marriage Raunak’s parents are somewhat bemused by this decision, and so is Raunak, arguably demarcating her proto-feminist ideals. The sequence discloses another taboo, that of bodily degeneration that comes with growing old. Indeed, Raunak’s parents show no sympathy whatsoever for the mum’s incontinence and apathetically walk away from the dinner table when she can’t control her bladder, a gesture that conveys a coldness indicative of lofty and fixed conservative middle class apprehensions. The mother also feels she is a burden on her daughter, another social anxiety director Vikas Chandra explores with a degree of complexity, notably through Maya’s spasms of impatience. The crux of this two hander is when the mother goes missing which triggers a frantic search that finds Maya canvassing the city with the reluctant help of Raunak. A great sense of loss washes over Maya in this particular instance and her eventual reunion with her mother, staged perfectly on a stairway, returns to a perennial theme of our times – how to respond to both old age and death with dignity and empathy in a society that has shrunken into an extended malady of individualism.

SIR (Dir. Rohena Gera, 2018, India-France)

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Set in contemporary Mumbai Sir is a sharply crafted romantic melodrama, full of warmth, about a benign architect, Ashwin (Vivek Gomber) and a migrant servant, Ratna (Tillotama Shome). The script is sharply written and brings to life the complexities of Ratna and Ashwin who are are bound by class and caste. Although they are two people from opposite ends of the social spectrum, the emotional connection that is forged becomes a tentative bond and gradually emerges as a painful longing that reaches a memorable conclusion. The narrative unfolds from the perspective of Ratna and for much of the film remains with her character, which is significant because a romantic melodrama of this type could easily have capitulated to a male point of view. The script is wonderfully underplayed and Tillotama Shome in superb form brings to life the nuances of Ratna, a widow who works in the city to support her family back home and has aspirations of becoming a tailor. Writer and director Rohena Gera treats Sir as an urban fairytale and thankfully channels much of the emotional interplay through subtle gestures and precise framing. If marketed with vigour and picked up internationally Sir has the potential to crossover and reach the critical and commercial heights of a recent Hindie breakout like The Lunchbox.

TUMBBAD (Dir. Rahi Anil Barve, Adesh Prasad, India/Sweden, 2018)

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A bewitching and meaty horror with an elemental sensibility, Tumbbad uses the archetypal Indian trope of the Mother Goddess to give us a perennial treatise on greed. Tumbbad’s tactile and sensory approach recalls atmospheric films like The Keep (1983) and Sorcerer (1977), combining the supernatural, mythology and history into something deeply atavistic. The expressionistic use of ancient landscapes juxtaposed to the tumultuous weather (it rains a lot!), particularly in the opening section, gives the film an unsettling Herzogian timbre. The narrative unfolds over a number of decades and is segmented into chapters, beginning in 1918 (?), imbuing the film with a historical arc that augments the ambitious scale of the production. Tumbbad reunites the talents of Soham Shah and Anand Gandhi who both collaborated on the seminal Hindie film Ship of Theseus in 2012. Recently screened at the Venice Film Festival, the film’s arrival coincides with a growing interest in the horror genre in Indian independent cinema that bodes well for what should be an international release.