Bandit Queen (1994) and Paan Singh Tomar (2012) are two excellent films that explore Chambal and its bandits. What made you turn your gaze there?
I started with the idea of making an action-adventure film that is a take on the Westerns. When you attempt to explore that space in India, Chambal or Rajasthan becomes a natural choice. But we started with a different story, a political film where the Emergency had a direct role to play. Bandits were only a small part of it. But after some months of research, we realised it was turning into an epic saga, whereas we wanted to do something leaner. Since we had done so much work on the bandits, we chose to focus on it.
What about the research made you focus on bandits?
I found their lives fascinating, that they thought of themselves a certain way. They didn’t view themselves like bank robbers; they had an ideology they followed, which gave a meaning to their lives. They saw themselves as baaghis (rebels). We thought let’s make an action film that’s not about a bag of money but one where what they think is more important. This allowed us to talk about issues of today, like caste, and do it in the garb of an action film. But it’s not action that makes violence look nice.
There have been powerful films on caste recently. How does Sonchiriya tread this territory?
Gangs of bandits were closely aligned with their caste identity. The film doesn’t look at the caste system from our lens but theirs; where caste is preordained, it’s a law of nature. So, there were good bandits and bad bandits. The former were often pious, they would take revenge but not rape the women. They also considered upholding caste their duty. But what happens if, all of a sudden, you begin to question what you have believed in? The film isn’t a commentary on caste. We wanted to go beyond stating that the caste system is bad. The film digs deeper, to explore how caste is connected with a person’s identity. What if you have spent all your life believing in it, defending it and fighting for it but are proven wrong? It’s about finding your inner truth, and that is the treasure in this film, not a bag of gold.
How do you manage to incorporate the genre of the Westerns in such a film?
India’s modern bandit culture lasted for at least half a century. Yet, we only have two films on the subject. That’s something I couldn’t wrap my head around. Sure, we have had Sholay (1975), Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971), Khote Sikkay (1974) and so on, but they were primarily derived from the Westerns. This film isn’t that. It has certain tropes and elements that define the genre, like the quest for a treasure, journeying through harsh lands, trying to save someone’s life.
But the Westerns romanticised the outlaw life. In Sonchiriya, we don’t do that. You cannot escape what awful lives the bandits led. But why would you want to live such a life? Because you believe it has a purpose. Yet, it’s larger than life because the stories of the real bandits were indeed that. Everything was about life, death and honour. Sonchiriya doesn’t glamorise action like, say, Ek Tha Tiger (2012). You see their lungs getting punctured, you see them dying horrible deaths. It shows violence for what it is.
The trailers suggest that the men with guns are also vulnerable and afraid.
Basically, bandits were fighting for some kind of honour; theirs were mostly revenge killings. There were battles with the police, who they viewed not as law enforcers but oppressors. Their primary way of making money, more than looting, was kidnapping. The good ones were known to keep their victim well. And if they struck a good deal, they would use a part of the money to build a temple. Their motivations may have been more than that of a thief but, in a battle, all you do is save your ass. So instead of showing bravado, we show fear and, through that, we show their strength. They aren’t your stereotypical cool bandits smoking a beedi in style. In fact, my hero, played by Sushant Singh Rajput, is addicted to lozenges.
Rebellion is at the core of all your films.
When the extreme form of rebellion in our films is getting married to the person of your choice, anything seems like a rebellion (laughs). It’s not intentional but rebellion is brought to the fore in my films more because our cinema is conventional, traditional even. The mainstream is polite, it doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable. It’s middle class. The films promote that and don’t rattle people because there is money to lose. Cinema is the most right-wing of mediums all over the world. It reinforces rather than questions our primary beliefs.
How do you navigate that terrain as a filmmaker then?
The bigger challenge is bringing people into the theatres. We are told the audience is not prepared to watch this. But who will prepare them? The audience may have a delusion about themselves; we are often scared to point that out but that’s the job of an artist in its basic form. I try to use the craft of filmmaking for that. Make the film riveting enough. The audience may not always discuss what the filmmaker is saying but one hopes they will.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘Mainstream cinema is the most right-wing of mediums: Filmmaker Abhishek Chaubey’