What sets apart a dacoit film from any other kind of action adventure? According to director Abhishek Chaubey, it’s simply that the violence in a dacoit or bandit movie is “not sexy". The characters are dressed in torn, tattered clothes. They shoot guns wildly and the bullets do not make neat, penetrating wounds in just the right place. At one time, the bandit movie was a thriving genre (particularly in the 1960s and 1970s), with films like Ganga Jumna (1961), Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971) and Sholay (1975) romanticizing dacoits. Biopics like Bandit Queen (1994) and Paan Singh Tomar (2012) are among a handful that were made when Chambal had become largely free of bandits.

Chaubey’s last film was the 2016 multi-starrer Udta Punjab. Sonchiriya, his fourth film as director, is written by Sudip Sharma and Chaubey and stars Sushant Singh Rajput, Manoj Bajpayee, Bhumi Pednekar and Ranvir Shorey. Edited excerpts from an interview:

The film is set in Chambal in the 1970s and tracks a group of bandits. What else can you tell us about ‘Sonchiriya’?

It’s the story of intra-gang rivalry but primarily it is Sushant’s (character’s) story. He has the conventional hero’s journey. The ensemble cast comprises five primaries and each one has their own arc. Bhumi’s story lies at the core of the film. Dacoits did loot and kidnap, and it’s true that some rabid gangs were just criminals, but some gangs were doing things out of a sense of duty and a sense of dharma. The question the film asks is, what is the dharma of a bandit? These are sociopolitical, existential questions of faith.

You have described this as your most male film yet. Is that a function of the genre?

It is a film about bandits and though we all know about Phoolan Devi, you can count the female bandits that existed in Chambal in the 20th century on your hands. Back in the 1970s, which is when the film is set, it was an even more male-dominated society than it is today. Women had very little agency and their roles were very clearly defined, leaving them little scope to do anything outside of those boundaries.

The film is “male" in the sense of the dominance of male characters—the bandits, police force, etc.—but hopefully not in what it is trying to say about complex issues such as gender discrimination and caste discrimination.

Does the story mix fact and fiction?

Yes, it derives a lot from what was happening at that time. It is based on research, and it is larger than life because many of the dacoits were fighting for life, death and honour. (Two years ago) Sudip met Daku Mohar Singh, who was 85. He had surrendered in the 1970s and served time. We met a number of policemen who fought bandits all their lives. It was crazy what the bandits—or rebels, as they called themselves—lived and fought for. Many became bandits because they faced discrimination and injustice. Their faith is so strong. They believe in the afterlife, so death is nothing to them. Honour is everything.

Setting it in 1975 is significant too.

Yes, because it was like the last hurrah. More than 1,000 gangs operated in the heyday of the 1940s and 1950s. The big gangs, or militia, had over 200 members. By the 1970s, there were still hundreds of gangs but the government was already cracking down on them, with surrender being the most effective way out. There is nothing nice about being a bandit. We can glamorize it, but it was a hard life.

Chambal is hard terrain and shooting there was also very gruelling. It’s a huge region traversing four states. We shot mostly in Rajasthan and a little in Madhya Pradesh.

Why do you think the once-popular dacoit movie petered out in India while the equivalent Western genre persists in Hollywood?

The Indian daku films were great, but at that time the bandit did not exist solely in the jungle—they existed in Punjab and UP too. Dacoits were more prevalent in the first half of the 20th century and stayed on in Chambal till very late. Some Indian bandit films, like Sholay, were directly inspired by Western films. Sunny Deol’s Dacait (1987) was one of the first films to shoot in Chambal.

Perhaps more films are not made because it is not easy to shoot in Chambal, but the culture is fascinating, the characters are crazy and the stories are so rich. Maybe film-makers are not more attracted to the genre because these stories are not sexy in the conventional sense.

What do you mean?

So, when we talk about action movies, the natural import is that this film is going to have very sexy violence; it’s going to make violence look good. But the Chambal and that life, that violence, is very unsexy actually, because all you are trying to do is to stay alive. And the bullet doesn’t hit you very neatly in the heart. It hits you on your cheek or in your testicles. It is just ugly.

Shooting the action was very complicated. There were 40-50 people on one side, and 40-50 people on the other, all firing at each other and running. It can get very confusing in coverage. We choreographed and storyboarded everything thoroughly to give a sense of chaos. But it is not sexy. It is brutal, and we made it look like that.

There are many ways of interpreting the title.

Sonchiriya is a fairly common given name and we decided to name one character that. Yes, it is a beautiful bird (Great Indian Bustard) found in that region, which is also endangered. Breaking the word down, it is “gold bird". In the film, we used sonchiriya in a more abstract way. Here are these extremely violent criminals who are facing some serious questions of identity and finding their inner truth so that their life makes some sense and has some worth.

Sonchiriya releases on 1 March

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