Deafening war cries
Maoist rebellion and life in the Red Corridor are entrenched in our collective consciousness. It is a subject that questions our national identity, and our integrity as a democratic nation. Engaging with this war amid India’s tribal communities, and whether or why that war could be justified, has forced intellectuals to take moral positions—most famously, Arundhati Roy has written long, eloquent essays indicting the state’s handling of it.
The title of the new film by director Prakash Jha set amid Maoist violence, Chakravyuh, gives away his approach to the subject. The word comes from Abhimanyu’s entrapment in the Mahabharat; it implies a hemmed-in state or situation from which there is no escape. So Jha is scratching the surface here, accommodating opposing points of view, and concluding safely that it’s a conundrum without a solution.
A political or moral stance is not necessarily an index of creative quality, but in this case, Jha’s apolitical stance fails. The film falls flat. His treatment depends entirely on jingoistic dialogues, a hammering background score and a dramatic graph that never really dips. Every sequence has a climactic fervour.
The centre of the story is a friendship between two men, a safe and overused dramatic tool in Bollywood, and how it is tested when they are pitched against each other because of their positions on Maoism. By the end of the film, I was tired and switched off the subject entirely for a while—presumably much against Jha’s intentions.
In the Hindi film world, where escapist themes are the norm, Jha and his co-writer, Anjum Rajabali, use politics, and the tense space where politics, society and human emotions intersect, as commercially viable stories for cinema. Jha is like our Costa-Gavras, without, perhaps, much of the great Greek director’s flair for subtle and astute storytelling. Jha’s milieu has always been that of north India (he hails from Bettiah in Bihar, where he runs Anubhooti, a non-governmental organization) . His films have dealt with bonded labour in Bihar (Damul, 1984), gender injustice (Mrityudand, 1997), and police vandalism (Gangaajal, 2003), among other social malaises.
Chakravyuh opens with the arrest of Govind Suryavanshi (Om Puri), a Maoist leader (the character is loosely based on Kobad Ghandy, a member of the banned Communist Party of India—Maoist), by superintendent of police Adil Khan (Arjun Rampal). A massacre of police personnel in a Maoist belt follows the arrest. Nandighat is the lush, forested site of a Maoist group headed by Raajan (Manoj Bajpai) and his associates Juhi (Anjali Patil) and Naga (Murli Sharma) and attracts the owner of the Mahanta group of industries (Kabir Bedi), who wants to open a mammoth plant here because of the area’s wealth of natural resources. The police is redundant here; the police station is a shut-down, dusty room.
The death of policemen outrages Adil Khan, who is married to police officer Rhea Menon (Esha Gupta), and he accepts a posting to Nandighat. The couple’s old friend Kabir (Abhay Deol), who we are told is a man who lives wilfully and impulsively, visits Adil when he is injured during an encounter. Kabir, also a police officer trained in guerrilla warfare, decides to help and enters the Maoist heartland as an informant. He has a change of heart after living with Juhi and the other rebels. So the climactic war is not only between Adil Khan and the Maoist revolt and ideology, but also against his friend Kabir.
The weakest thread in Chakravyuh is the journey of Kabir. His transformation is awkward and unconvincing. The forced personal battle between two friends is banal and assumes laughable proportions against the explosive backdrop. There are some compelling scenes in the film, including one that involves Juhi’s surrender and the brutal scene that follows it.
Jha’s casting is one of the film’s biggest failures. Rampal tries, and his efforts are sorely obvious, but he is too much of a slick urban animal for this role of a gritty hardliner. Deol appears almost indifferent to his role. Bajpai scores a forceful, histrionics-driven performance in the few scenes he gets. Patil is an accomplished actor, not yet a known face in Hindi movies, and hers is the most assured performance in the film.
Chakravyuh has a sense of authenticity in its location and milieu, but Jha’s simplifications and reliance on melodrama fail to underscore them. His tone is serious and sombre—not a fortuitous combination—forcing his narrative upon the viewer.
Chakravyuh released in theatres on Wednesday.