Cast: Manoj Bajpayee, Sushant Singh Rajput, Bhumi Pednekar, Ranvir Shorey, Ashutosh Rana, Mahesh Balraj, Shreedhar Dubey, Amit Sial, Manjot Singh, Suhail Nayyar
Director: Abhishek Chaubey
Rating: * * *
Casting a ‘what if’ scenario for famous names who rampaged through the villages surrounding Behad in the Chambal Valley, this Abhishek Chaubey film tries to give us a rather humanistic perspective on the largely vendetta based casteist killings that had three major communities Gujjars, Thakurs and Mallahs at war with each other before, during and after Indira Gandhi’s rather infamous declaration of Emergency (1970’s).
This story is told largely from Man Singh (Manoj Bajpayee), Lakhna (Sushant Singh Rajput) and Vakil’s (Ranvir Shorey) point of view, rigging them up with a vindictive heroism that borders on a redemptive estrangement destined for salvation. It’s nowhere near the truth of what really happened in the Chambal of those days.
Chaubey’s film fictitiously attempts to cast these avengers in varying shades of grey. So in the film they call themselves Baghis (outlaws), announce their arrival before a looting and even try to make sure the women and children remain unharmed – a sort of code of ethics for outlaws.
They are also shown as superstitious and in a contrarian assertion, their belief in God is also unassailable. And right form the opening sequence itself we are made aware that this particular team of Bandits are ravaged by a bugging conscience that hurtles them into self-destruct mode. The style of narration here is similar to that of mentor Vishal Bharadwaj’s ‘Kaminey.’
The dictum ‘What goes around comes around’ is given full vein as the plotting designs a split within the core gang, gets them to work at cross-purposes for a while and then have them come together again in a ‘last man standing’ confrontation between the cops and robbers. Here every man be he cop or robber has a reason to kill and it’s all to do with caste and past crimes.
The raw nature of the telling, the gritty camerawork and hardy performances are undeniable. The plotting though could have done with a lot more meat. The opening sequence with the group of bandits coming across a dead snake in their path and prophesising doom if they continue on their chosen route may sound metaphoric but the narrative thereafter fails to cash in on that eponymous opening note.
There seems to be a disconnect between that sequence and what follows thereafter. The attempt to instil surprise twists and turns in the narrative puts paid to any deeper meaning. ‘Violence begets violence’ is a done deed here and the moralistic intonations deriding caste wars, gender based bestiality, toxic patriarchy and deep rooted psychological schisms caused by societal oppression is a sort of noblesse oblige in a saga that thrums with the sound of weapon fire after every few minutes of its rather unwieldy runtime.
Manoj, Sushant, Ranvir, Ashutosh, Bhumi and the actress who plays Phuliya aka Phoolan devi make us want to believe in their angst. But, Chaubey’s choice of Bundelkhandi language for conveying the abject realism of tough choices, alienates the viewer.
The background score and soundtrack by Naren Chandavarkar, Benedict Taylor, Vishal Bharadwaj are evocative enough but unfortunately there’s no emotional connect to take this saga right into your heart. Sudip Sharma and Chaubey himself, fail to give the lead characters enough backstory to make their eventual salvation seeking remorse believable. And that’s really why this film looks fabulous but doesn’t feel as good!