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.

MUKKABAAZ / THE BRAWLER (Dir. Anurag Kashyap, 2017, India) – Fist of Fury [spoilers ahead]

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Mukkabaaz ends with very little of the catharsis you would expect from a boxing biopic. But Kashyap’s latest venture uses the sports film trappings as a way of navigating the politics of caste against the backdrop of an unconventional Hindi romance. This one zips along, partaking a breathless, infectious energy and enjoys circumventing audience expectations so to let those authorial Kashyap flourishes gather a hedonistic momentum.

While mainstream Hindi cinema continues to dodge the question of caste, having rendered caste invisible in the sentimental NRI neoliberal narratives, Parallel Cinema attempted to make the question of caste a central edict of the communicative political cinema of Benegal. Some time or another many of the great Indian filmmakers have all dealt with caste. Even Ray realised the urgency of this task with Sadgati, his grimmest film. And many of the best films about caste have come from the South; see Chomana Dudi. While alternative, independent cinema has thrived, caste led narratives have been intermittent. Yet the critical success of films like Sairat, Chauranga and Masaan point to a cycle of films that deal with caste head on, and so Mukkabaaz in some respects can be situated in this cycle. But what seems to separate Mukkabaaz from these films is the political address; much of it on the nose politics, which is openly critical of Modi’s polarized, nationalist rhetoric that has claimed the lives of many innocent Indians.

One gets a sense of urgency from this work that has been lacking in the past because it feels like a film that Kashyap had to make – but not to silence his critics or to stage a pithy comeback, rather to finally put his neck on the line in ways that become amplified in the coruscating tale of caste subjugation. Not that Kashyap has ever put his neck on the line before; he does it all the time on social media and usually gets it chopped off! Kashyap has been bumping up against mainstream Hindi cinema for a while now, often with mixed results; see Bombay Velvet. With Mukkabaaz Kashyap manages to pull off such a creative feat, freely mixing the idioms of 70s storytelling with the postmodern Hindie panache of hyper-edit montages and monolithic super villains. Kashyap has always been a tactile filmmaker and with Mukkabaaz he once again conveys a naturalistic feel for the urban environment and particularly the spaces the characters inhabit. The juxtaposition of blood, sweat and skin gives the film a tangible ambiance that seeps through into the unconventional romance.

Where the film really comes to life ideologically is when Ravi Kishen shows up as the Dalit boxing coach and in one particular initial exchange with Jimmy Shergil’s upper caste despotic, bigoted Bhagwan, a crippling social reality transforms boxing into a metaphorical caste struggle that energises the narrative. An attempt to depart from the conventional romance is at the level of caste but the decision to make Sunaina (Zoya Hussain) mute heralds a palpable symbolic gesture to do with patriarchy and female oppression. Moreover, muteness becomes a device with which to create lots of humour and arguably Mukkabaaz is also one of Kashyap’s wittiest films. Perhaps one of the darkest moments is when Shravan (Vineet Kumar Singh) humiliates his boss in the workplace, overturning a caste hierarchy and privilege that seeks to disenfranchise further those already on the margins.

Most of Kashyap’s films never follow any set rules in terms of narrative storytelling and often function episodically, rarely building to a traditional sense of closure. And given the emotional catharsis often associated with boxing films, much of this is kept in check so not to sentimentalise Shravan’s epic struggle. But there are deliberate moments of hyperbole such as Shravan’s rescue of Sunaina, a brilliant send up of Bollywood’s deference to the mythological, and which Kashyap pulls off with chaotic aplomb. Indeed, such hyperbole also stretches to the sordid degrees of corruption prevalent in society, one in which the film paints a nexus of the upper caste, the police and public institutions working in cahoots, a major characteristic of popular Hindi cinema in the 70s.

Undeniably this is actor Vineet Kumar Singh’s film and he rumbles and contorts his way through, his sculpted body instrumentalized to mirror a razor sharp determination that claws into the warped psyche of a nation that seems to have yielded to a neo-fascist impulse. But what to make of the final invocation of ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’? It seems to be yet another rejoinder, delivered in a tone of mockery. Nevertheless, I still felt some ambivalence towards this moment since I didn’t fully comprehend the intentions. I should also mention the final shot is a brilliant one that crackles with mischievous delight.

SHAITAN (Dir. Bejoy Nambiar, 2011, India)

Shaitan is a mischievous film with a mischievous title. The anarchic content certainly lives up to such claims of youthful mischief but it is a mischief that turns into a tale of contemporary middle class guilt, corruption and murder. The film starts confidently enough with sequences of real visual energy and creativity. By initially taking a deconstructive approach to narrative and genre, the film appears resoundingly iconoclastic and very contemporary in its design. However, Shaitan is a film that self-destructs as the narrative of a fake kidnapping unfolds, gradually descending into a pantomime of relatively familiar cinematic tropes. I completely lost interest in the final third and could not care less of the outcome for the characters. However, unlike Peepli Live which is marred by a dependency on the spoken word, what really makes Shaitan stand out amongst the recent crowd of Indian multiplex films is director Bejoy Nambiar’s attempts to innovate conventional visual language through a prism of distinctive flourishes with the camera. Shaitan is arguably yet another multiplex multi protagonist film and although the film’s stylised visuals may point to something new, a closer look reveals some recognisable features including the jaded cop archetype. The film’s wayward narrative trajectory is more than compensated by the hedonistic camera and hyper kinetic editing style that jumps schizophrenically through the urban spaces. If one were to compare Shaitan to the current crop of Hindi films then based on one sequence alone it would surely be at the top of the list, and this is why:

O ho ho ho, Khoya Khoya Chaand, Khula Aasmaan
Aankhon Mein Saari Raat Jaayegi
Tumko Bhi Kaise Neend Aayegi

 
Khoya Khoya Chaand – Lyrics by Shailendra, Music by S D Burman
Originally used in the film Kala Bazar (1960)

PEEPLI LIVE (Dir. Anusha Rizvi, 2010, India)

Farmers committing suicide so they can be compensated after their death by the government is the backdrop to this Aamir Khan production. The opening dilemma of two farmers, Natha and Budhia, having their land seized by the feudalistic powers that be echoes Shambhu Mahto’s enslavement to the demonic zamindar in Do Bigha Zamin. Peepli Live takes the story of impoverished framers to analyse the state of the Indian media. At times, it was a case of too many characters and sub plots overwhelming the main narrative. I’m no sure why the film feels the need to work in so many narratives and although it might work to highlight the hysterical media frenzy, ultimately it detracts from the original story of the farmers. When the national media discovers that Natha has promised to commit suicide, they descend upon the village, turning the rural space into a media carnival. The film’s parasitic depiction of the media recalls with eerie precision the vicious journalism of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole. Similarly in Peepli Live, the media pretends to care in the interests of coverage for their respective news channels. If the media is rightly the target of this satirical critique than it does a far better job than a recent film like No One Killed Jessica in which the media is presented as flawed but still courageous in its support of those denied a voice or misrepresented.

Additionally, what makes this film’s representation of the media much more convincing and complex is the attempt to include the role of local media. In this case, the indigenous and authentic voice of the media comes from a local journalist Rakesh who finds the ‘real’ story worth telling in the village. Natha and Budhia’s predicament becomes a political bandwagon, creating a media platform for ideological dogma that reduces life and death to an inconsequential meta-narrative. Director Anusha Rizvi’s film is an assured debut, which benefits from a well-written screenplay, good pacing and some flashes of visual imagination. However, it is a film salvaged in many ways by the end shot of an exhausted Natha covered in a mask of dirt working in a construction site, most probably in the city; it’s the most haunting and effective shot of the film because it says so clearly that no matter where Natha goes he will be always be part of an anonymous invisible mass.

The final shot – Natha as exile, worker, migrant and part of the invisible underclass.