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Walk On The Wild Side

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.

Shreya Dasgupta

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 remoulding 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.

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