Filmmaker Abhishek Chaubey has a filmography that boasts of projects like Ishqiya, Dedh Ishqiya and Udta Punjab. His films have always had thoughtful casting and for him, it is of utmost importance. He says, “I have always believed that a lot of the engagement of the audience comes through the performance of the actors. So, you have to be careful while casting for your film.”
Now, the 41-year-old filmmaker, who has assisted ace filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj in films like Omkara and Maqbool, is all set to present the story of the dacoits of Chambal in his upcoming release Sonchiriya. The film stars Manoj Bajpayee, Ashutosh Rana, Sushant Singh Rajput, Bhumi Pednekar and Ranvir Shorey. Before the release, Chaubey reveals why the film is titled Sonchiriya and what drove him to present the story of dacoits.
Why is the film titled Sonchiriya?
Sonchiriya is the name of a bird, the great Indian Bustard, that is found in Chambal. It’s a very rare species of bird and I think it’s endangered too. We kept it as the title of the film as one of the characters of the film is called that. Who it is, you will get to know when you will watch the film. Also, all the primary characters in the film are looking for freedom and deliverance. They are looking for some sort of meaning to their lives and thus, we have played it in a way as if they are looking for their inner Sonchiriya. It’s a lot of fun when you hear the name of the film as Sonchiriya, which is a soft, nice and a sweet word, but when you watch the visuals of the film, they are pretty opposite.
Why do you say Sonchiriya is an action film with a difference?
I say that because primarily action films are plot-heavy and the plot is usually centred around an object which the characters of the film are trying to get at, for example, it can be about money, about robbing a bank, or you have spy movies, where they are searching for some tangible object. This film is also a plot-heavy action film, but it is more about the soul of a man. It’s more about what’s going on in their head and heart. And, the object that they are after is the more abstract one. So that’s why I call it an action film with a difference.
Your films have always had thoughtful casting. What special care did you take to cast all the five protagonists of Sonchiriya?
In terms of the casting, I have always believed that a lot of the engagement of the audience comes through the performance of the actors. So, you have to be careful while casting for your film because the actors you have to have for your film should be of really high calibre to play a character convincingly. I am a film director, I can help the actor to get where he/she wants to get but I can’t really teach them acting because I don’t know how to act.
So, I always rely on my casting director Honey Trehan and my own instincts while casting actors who are very good at what they do. Then, I work with them to create a certain kind of look and feel and prepare them enough for them to be able to do their job.
In a film like this, where you have someone like a Bhumi or Sushant or Ranvir, they are very young and urban. This film is set in rural India and in an era 40 years ago, so they have to go through intensive training to be that person, be it the dialect, the body language or getting a taste of what their character’s lives are like, all of that has to be done. But all of this is useless if they are not good at what they are doing.
Ashutosh Rana said about you that you are ‘a Democratic Dictator’. Are you one or do you allow your actors to take that creative liberty?
I think he (Rana) was having fun at my expense and he said it with a lot of affection. No, I would not call myself a dictator at all because filmmaking is an intensely collaborative process and if anybody thinks he can do it all himself, then I think he is either fooling himself or others. You have to listen to the other person. Some of the best ideas that come on a film set actually don’t come from the director. They come from the crew or from the actors. But sometimes ideas come which are not good and are not gelling well with the film, so I also have to say ki “Sir ye nahi chalega (Sir this won’t work).”
What compelled you to explore the world of bandits of Chambal?
While working on the story, we came across this region. Sudeep Sharma (writer) and I were working together and we started looking at the lives of baaghis or rebels and even having seen Paan Singh Tomar and Bandit Queen, we realised we still don’t know enough about them. Their lives and their beliefs were extremely fascinating. It was very moving to think that they don’t think of themselves as criminals, nor do the people of that region look at them like that. They believed in what they were doing and they thought what they were doing had a meaning or higher purpose than just robbing people or kidnapping them. That I think became our focus; to tell a story about their beliefs and about what they think of themselves.
Filmmakers in the 21st century haven’t explored the world of bandits as much as it was done in the late 70s or 80s. What’s the reason behind that?
It was because the world was a certain way back then. The Zamindari system was abolished early on after independence, but that culture still remained and this was the reason why people became dacoits. It was a very feudal society and there were bandits like Malkhan Singh and Phoolan Devi who were operating and were still active in Chambal back then. Their stories were very relevant to people back then because they could read about them in the newspapers as well. We went and shot a film in Dhaulpur in Chambal, but we could not have even thought about it back in the day.
But then society changed. A lot of infamous bandits gave up arms and came into the mainstream after serving time. The world changed dramatically. The newer generation didn’t have any interest in those stories because their concerns were different. Since the 90s, we have had only two or three films about bandits.
But now, when I look back at this as a part of our history, it looks fascinating. It is something that the new generation should be introduced to and we need to tell them these stories because they are our stories. Also, the fact that I can make a thrilling and riveting action movie about those lives, then why not.
We have seen that your films are those which cannot be called typical Bollywood masala entertainers. So while making them, what kind of an audience is in your mind?
I think it’s the same audience which goes to watch those masala films as well. I have been an audience for most of my life and it is only now that I have become a filmmaker. I look at myself as an audience. While I enjoy myself while watching masala entertainers, I also want to watch another kind of cinema. I have a very big appetite and I want to watch all kinds of films. It’s kind of boring to watch the hero and the heroine dancing around in a night club film after film. It gets on your nerves actually.
So, I want to make that kind of films which I would want to watch myself as an audience and there are so many more people like me who would want to watch cinema that is different, that has more courage, that doesn’t have to toe the line of “yahi chalta hai, yahi banao”.
You can do your original stuff, you can do work that reflects your personality and your own beliefs. There’s an audience for that today. Films that do not subscribe to the mainstream masala commercial formula are doing very well and it’s very encouraging.
Do you plan the third sequel to Ishqiya?
If someone comes up with a story, I will do that. I have completely run out of ideas as far as the Ishqiya franchise is concerned. But I love Naseer (Naseeruddin Shah) Bhai and Arshad (Warsi) and I will do anything to work with them again.