EXCLUSIVE: Sonchiriya director Abhishek Chaubey on Sushant Singh Rajput, Bhumi Pednekar, CBFC & Me Too

Director Abhishek Chaubey is back with another interesting film, Sonchiriya. In an EXCLUSIVE interview with Pinkvilla, we spoke to the director about his film, the lead actors, the change in CBFC and Bollywood's Me Too movement.
EXCLUSIVE: Sonchiriya director Abhishek Chaubey on Sushant Singh Rajput, Bhumi Pednekar, CBFC & Me Too EXCLUSIVE: Sonchiriya director Abhishek Chaubey on Sushant Singh Rajput, Bhumi Pednekar, CBFC & Me Too movement
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Abhishek Chaubey is known for his distinctive and challenging films. The film-maker has proved time and again that a good film is not based on its grandeur, A-listers, and larger than life experience feels. The director knows quite well what the audience demands and puts the ingredients that are required to put forward a brilliant story. Abhishek's films have a promising story, impressive cinematography, a high dosage of emotions, drama and a reality check and of course, the finest talent from the film industry as his cast.
After Udta Punjab (2016), which was based on drug addiction and illicit sale of the same in the Punjab state, Chaubey's upcoming project is now based on the life of bandits. Titled Sonchiriya, the film stars Sushant Singh Rajput, Bhumi Pednekar, Ranvir Shorey, Manoj Bajpayee and Ashutosh Rana. It is slated to hit the theatre screens on February 8, 2019. As we saw in the trailer, the film covers the political tensions, the fight of the bandits, the casteism factor, the terror of the cops and clashes within the group. The story is set in Madhya Pradesh's Chambal division and also shot there itself. 
In an EXCLUSIVE interview with Pinkvilla, I spoke to the ace director about his film, the thought behind choosing the star cast that is in the film, the reason he chooses to shoot films in real locations, the CBFC and the impact of Me Too movement in India.
Read the interview below:
What prompted you to make Sonchiriya?
It started with the conversation I had with Ronnie Screwvala when I was still busy with Udta Punjab. Then, we decided to do a film together. We were thinking about what to do and he mentioned that why don't I do a thriller film based on action. I said yes, and that started our journey. Sudeep Sharma, my co-writer and I started looking for subjects and that led us to Chambal. Then, we started reading about the Bandit culture, about history of the bandits, read some books and met a lot of people in Chambal. And we were absolutely fascinated with the lives and the stories. It turned out to be far more interesting than I thought it would be. And then, we started writing Sonchiriya. 
We went to Chambal, and in Chambal, we started researching with the local journalists there and that led us to meet a lot of people. We met some people who had an association with the bandits. We also met some police officers who spent their entire life fighting them and arresting them, and the local people, i.e. the villagers who had experienced that life. That gave us a lot of information. 
How was the entire shooting process and experience of filming in Chambal? Was it challenging and risky?
Well, the Bandit culture is over. So, now, we don't find any daakus roaming around in Chambal, thankfully. But, Chambal is not the easiest place to shoot. It's beautiful, it's gorgeous to look at, it's very well on celluloid. But, some of the locations we liked were completely inaccessible. So, there was no way of reaching these locations, but I was determined to shooting in those locations. We were there for three months but half the time my team had to shoot on locations where we had to create roads to get there. So we had the GCB making a path for the cars to reach, set up a way because we were in very inhospitable terrain. It was very difficult for the unit because it was not a very straight land. So you are climbing up and coming down and you can't do it with your regular shoes. 
Why do you prefer shooting your films in a real location when there is an option to build a set or use VFX, which most of the directors prefer nowadays?
It actually changes a lot. Why I find shooting in real locations very important for me as a filmmaker because it actually gives me the feel out how actually it must have been. It helps me to think deeper about the story and the characters that are portraying in it. Also, a real location always comes with certain restrictions. But what it gives you in terms of texture and reality is something that I will not let go. A set might give you a freedom of doing whatever you want, but that freedom I think is unnecessary because when you have restrictions of a real location when you think about it very harder about how to make it happen that makes the film richer. 
I only do sets and VFX only when it is impossible. To the extent it is possible, I will shoot in real locations. 
How did you think of such an exceptional casting for the film? 
Sushant was our first choice for the role of Lakhna. Sushant has lived in Delhi and now in Bombay (Mumbai) for so many years. He is very urbane, sophisticated and well-educated, but there's something desi about him. And if you are looking at the characters we have created, it's basically farmers who became bandits. We had to get that desipan and it was very important for us. Sushant came on board very quickly and he really liked the story and told me he liked the story. He was the right choice and apart from the character who looks desi, I also wanted an actor who has a lot of physical energy. There's a lot of running and jumping around, physical action, firing guns, all of that. So, we needed an actor who would do that and was willing to go through the rigorous training and the workshops that we did in order to become the bandit. His commitment was absolute. 
Bhumi is a Bombay girl and has lived her life here; but again, there's something very Indian about her. She is playing a rural woman who faces an extraordinary situation and becomes a person that she is in the film. Bhumi also heard the narration and came immediately on board. She took 2-3 months for prepping for the film and she even lived the way her character would have lived. From Sushant and Bhumi, this film demanded a lot from them - mentally and physically. They were up to the challenge.
Ranvir Shorey is a very good friend of mine. He has been around for a long time and done very good films. But we have never seen him play such a character, a bandit. But I know he is a genuine talent. He is almost like the antagonist in the film and he has done a wonderful job and people are going to like it.
Manoj and Ashutosh were natural choices. Ashutosh is from that region, understands that region very well and the dialect was no problem for him. Manoj Bajpayee's first film was Bandit Queen in which he played the character called Maan Singh and he is playing Maan Singh in this also. Both of them when they heard the script, they came on board and wanted to do it. Along with these 5 people, there is also an ensemble of 60-70 people in the film. We have got some fabulous first times and people who have worked in 2-3 films. 
Your previous film Udta Punjab had to struggle a lot to get a release. Your upcoming film Sonchiriya depicts some political tension. What encourages you to keep going on with films based on such topics?
As a filmmaker, I think it's very important to entertain people. At the same time, talk to people about things that are important. And I like to keep doing that as much as I can. This is an entertaining and thrilling film, an edge of the seat kind of entertainment. But at the same time, the issues that we are talking about are as relevant or even relevant today than they were 45 years ago. When we talk about issues of casteism, gender issues, these are very important issues. Now because of the exposure of social media, there is even more conversation around it. When I make a film, it addresses these issues and even raises questions about the issues. I am sure today's audience will be able to relate to it.
You earlier said that box office numbers don't bother you much. 2018 was a year where content won over superstars. Do you hope for the same in the coming time?
It's not that the box office numbers don't matter to me, they do matter to me. At the same time, when I do something, I don't have any illusions about it. I know what works and what doesn't and I deliberately choose to do what I do. I would like this film to achieve a lot of success, I would like people to go and watch this film at the theatres, as I want them to take a particularly different experience from what they usually take. I definitely think that today the audience is more for a different kind of cinema. Just because nobody is doing it is not a reason for me to not try and do it. 
From Udta Punjab to know, how much do you think Censor Board has changed?
I think part of the problem during Udta Punjab was the manner in which the Censor Board handled the film. But, in this film, I think I have no problems. I found the board members who saw the film, and when I interacted with them, they were very understanding and very supportive of me as a film-maker. I think the big change that has happened in the certification process is a big relief to me as a film-maker.
The Me Too movement is going on strong in Bollywood. In an interview with Rajeev Masand, Alia Bhatt said that she fears film industry won't hire more women as a part of the crew of their film's team. As a film-maker, what do you have to say about it?
I hope it doesn't happen. It will be unfortunate if film-makers stop working with women. There have been case or two where we have seen the allegations put on a particular individual were false and they were made by malicious intentions. But we have to understand that 90-95 per cent cases are genuine; these charges are real. It will be a grave injustice to women who want to make a mark in the industry to not get an opportunity to work with film-makers just because of the Me Too movement. I, as a filmmaker, as a writer and a producer, am not going to be doing that. I'll advise any of my contemporaries to not do something like that.
In the past 2-3 years, new writers and directors have presented quite a remarkable work. You are known for doing challenging films. So how hopeful are you of these budding film-makers who consider it is tough to release a film?
I would say that today, our cinema more than before has become much more open. People who have unique, individual voices and has stuff that has not been done before having more opportunities today than they had 5 or 10 years ago. I would tell any younger writer or a film-maker who has a strong and good idea to do it fearlessly, regardless of the challenges they might face.

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