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May 09, 2019

How Sonchiriya Was Shot Amidst Chambal’s Complex Terrain

Text by Shreya Dasgupta. Photographs by Parnil Vishwasrao

The rugged topography of central India’s Chambal valley is expertly navigated by cinematographer Anuj Rakesh Dhawan’s lens in the Hindi movie Sonchiriya. Shreya Dasgupta plays guide for Verve as her well-trained eye tracks the sinuous camerawork, zeroing in on the specific terrains, vegetation and wildlife that get screen time

Sonchiriya (2019) has everything you would expect from a film about dacoits. It has gunfights and bloodshed; weather-beaten faces; and the interplay of caste, patriarchy and tradition. But what Sonchiriya does differently is that it digs deeper. It probes the morality of its characters, following them as they question their dharma as bandits. It lets the landscape of Chambal, Madhya Pradesh, take centre stage, appearing in nearly every scene.

The Chambal River and the stark ravines stretching outwards from its banks are, however, not mere backdrops. They are integral characters in the film and drive the narrative forward. Even when the ravines lurk in the frames, they exude personality, revealing glimpses of the environment that has shaped the characters, right from the gang of dacoits led by Man Singh (Manoj Bajpayee) to the policemen wanting to hunt them down.

Director Abhishek Chaubey wanted the aesthetic of a western, and Chambal was the perfect setting to achieve that, says cinematographer Anuj Rakesh Dhawan. “Had the story not been set in that landscape, it might not have been as interesting. The heat there; the colour, structure, and grittiness of the sand; the sharpness of the sun; it all adds to the feeling.”

Indeed, Chambal’s texture is unique. And it mostly stems from its labyrinthine network of dry, dusty ravines, locally known as beehads, largely the workmanship of the 1,000-kilometre-long Chambal River, and the numerous streams that pour into it, as it flows through Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Over hundreds of years, the rivers have meandered through and eroded the landscape, moulding and re-moulding what is now a dense maze of deep gullies and ravines.

This maze provided the perfect cover for Chambal’s dacoits; they could move stealthily, engage in guerilla warfare, and escape undetected from the police and their enemies. But for the unfamiliar, Chambal’s ravines can be disorienting. Dhawan and his assistant got lost in the ravines not once, but twice while scouting for locations. There was a lot of slipping and sliding as well, Dhawan recalls, and one crew member even suffered a slipped disc following a tumble.

Finding the ‘right’ kinds of ravines from the 1970s, the time period Sonchiriya is set in, was crucial, as was finding the right kind of village or attire from that era. For Dhawan and his team, it meant avoiding ravines that have thickets of the non-native, invasive mesquite (Prosopis juliflora), a tree that has become widespread in the region following attempts to ‘green’ the Chambal valley.

The crumpled Chambal badlands with their thorny scrub vegetation have mostly been considered wastelands. To ‘correct’ this problem, there have been attempts to tame the ravines through numerous reclamation projects over the past century. The Government of Madhya Pradesh, for instance, aerially sprayed tree seeds across its ravines in the 1980s. They tried out a number of species, but only mesquite, a fast-growing, water-sucking invasive tree, took to the landscape, spreading like wildfire.

Large parts of the ravines have also been flattened over the past decades, mostly to make space for croplands. Replacing ‘unproductive’ ravines with more arable land might make economic sense, but trying to subdue these dynamic ravines comes with some unpleasant side effects.

Levelling deep ravines needs expensive, heavy machinery, and it is the richer farmers who can afford to do it, says Padmini Pani, an associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University. What follows is the farmers often unofficially declaring the levelled land as belonging to them. For the marginalised, landless people of the region, the loss of ravines can translate to the loss of grazing land, or access to fodder, fuelwood and wild fruits. Moreover, the levelled land generally suffers from low productivity, researchers have found, requiring constant cost-intensive land reclamation every year.

Then there’s the river. Sonchiriya presents a pristine Chambal River, offering a sense of calm to the otherwise chaotic lives of the dacoits on the run. There are no hints of the scores of trucks that dot the river’s banks today, all lining up to mine sand illegally for the construction industry. Nor is there an indication of the dams and irrigation projects that have reduced the river’s flow considerably.

Chambal hasn’t stopped flowing completely, mainly because of the big tributaries that merge with it, says Tarun Nair, a conservation biologist who’s been working in the region for over a decade. “But it isn’t as deep as it used to be. There were many more deep pools in the river, people say, especially around the bends. Many of those places are being silted up — something that the sand mining lobby is now exploiting.”

These changes are problematic for Chambal’s unique wildlife. Let’s take the iconic gharial for example. A critically endangered, fish-eating crocodile with a long snout that ends in a ghara-like bulbous growth, the gharial earns a mention in the song Baaghi Re, and is digitally generated in a scene, quietly rocking a small wooden boat that Lakhan (Sushant Singh Rajput) and Indumati Tomar (Bhumi Pednekar) are crossing the river in.

These rare crocodiles still abound in parts of the Chambal River. But with the river’s flow throttled, especially during the dry season, the area available to gharials has reduced, Nair says. To add to their woes, the illegal sand mining gouges out tonnes of sand each day, destroying the crucial deposits that gharials and other rare animals, like turtles and ground-nesting birds, depend on.

Sonchiriya shows a wild, untamed Chambal of the 1970s. Even today, the valley resounds with the chorus of jackals as it does in some of the film’s scenes. But the rich mix of wildlife it once supported is fast disappearing. The title, Sonchiriya, itself is the local name for the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard, a large, ostrich-like bird that is down to about 150 today.

In the film’s context, ‘sonchiriya’ refers to the dacoits’ quest to find meaning in their chosen path as rebels — their inner golden bird. Is it to protect their community or caste? Is it to find justice? Or is it a life borne out of habit?

Whatever the answer, one thing’s clear: the identity of the people living in Chambal was, and continues to be, deeply entrenched in the wild, unforgiving landscape of the region.

Excerpts from an interview with Anuj Rakesh Dhawan….

What was your brief for Sonchiriya?
Abhishek wanted to make an Indian western. The film was going to be about landscapes; we would shoot anamorphic, and it was going to be a dacoit film. With each of these words, the project became more interesting. We were also clear about one thing — we wanted to shoot this for the big screen. So, even in the close-up shots, while we see details of people’s skin and their expressions clearly, the landscape is still in the frame. We didn’t want to leave the environment out at any point because that is integral to the film.

Also, since there isn’t a main hero but multiple important characters who are a part of a specific milieu, we wanted the costumes and make-up to reflect the dacoits’ life experiences. For example, while Ranvir Shorey has a more typical daku look, Bajpayee, who plays the leader, wears a dhoti and make-up that makes him look older and wiser — above living a life of murder and robbery. The more we discussed the details, the deeper we got into this world. We were sleeping, eating, drinking Chambal.

Did you go there before you started shooting?
Yes, thrice. The first time I saw a glimpse of the ravines, it was just mesmerising. People don’t even know that such landscapes exist here. They’ve seen Chambal in Bandit Queen (1994) and now in Sonchiriya, but to see it in person is something else.

Sonchiriya is set in the 1970s. How did you ensure that the overall look of the film aligns with the time period?
Abhishek was very particular about the time period, and the things you would and would not see back then. So, we had to avoid ravines with too many mesquite trees, for instance. We had to remove the mobile towers from the background using VFX, make sure that the villages, the vehicles, the houses — even the lighting in those houses — reflected what it was like in the 1970s.

The maze of ravines is very central to the film. What about them did you want to capture?
It wasn’t simply about going there and shooting the beauty of the ravines; there was logic behind every location and we often walked for 10 to 15 kilometres a day when scouting locations. For example, after the gunfight sequence where a key character dies, the dacoits escape to the ravines where they argue and ultimately announce Vakil Singh (Shorey) as their new leader. For those scenes, we had to choose locations that are very hard to trek in, to show what these people had to do, what their lives were like. We also wanted the main confrontation to happen at a height in order to include the expanse of Chambal, because no matter what’s happening between the gang members, the landscape continues to have a strong place within the narrative. In fact, the actors would go to the ravines daily for three to four hours to get the hang of the terrain. As crew members, we were able to use all-terrain shoes. But the actors had to wear old Campus canvas shoes that have no grip, so it was very tricky for them.

What about the Chambal River did you want to capture?
Showing Chambal without the Chambal nadi is impossible. Including the gharials was also very important because Chambal nadi’s gharials come with a lot of history. When we were on a boat on the river in the winter, we saw hundreds of them by the bank with their mouths open….

As for the river, there are many bridges on it now, and they had to be cleaned up in VFX. But we tried to choose angles that didn’t contain much evidence of civilisation and could capture more of the natural beauty. Also, there are only motorboats, mainly for tourists, and we had to source wooden boats from Agra for authenticity. Shooting the sequence in the river, when Indumati sings on the boat, was magical.

How challenging was it to film in Chambal?
It was sometimes quite challenging to light up the night scenes in the villages because the people can be quite unpredictable. Sometimes, as soon as we would start, they asked us to get rid of our lights. Maybe they were slightly overwhelmed with the filming….

But in general, the days were trickier because of the heat. My mind would just shut down after lunch. The sun was harsh, there was a lot of dust, and bullet shells would fly around and fall on my head as I followed the actors with the camera. But although every day was complicated, it didn’t feel hard, because of the kind of content we were producing. Sometimes you put in a lot of effort and the content is not that great. But when you know that you’re working towards something amazing, you sleep very well.

What is it that you loved most about working on this film?
Being able to take the narrative forward. Very seldom do we get scripts where we can be a little extravagant with the cinematography without overpowering the narrative. But here, the narrative is so strong, that no matter what the camera did, it couldn’t ever take over.

The film has given me so much experience. It is only when you go to Chambal that you can understand the lives the people there used to live. When you see the terrain for yourself, their struggles are put in perspective.

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