Express press service
Anubhav Sinha can lead. His last three films – Mulk, Article 15, Thappad – were solidly argued ideological statements, but the moments could also be found with real cinematic merit. In Anek, however, I could only find one. He arrives too late in the film: a band of rebels fight their way through a dark forest and die one by one. For once, Anubhav is in his element, using movement and imagery to convey a thought. The rest of the film shows little and tells a lot.
It’s a shot of a subject. Aside from Dil Se.. many years ago, India’s North East political strife has rarely filled a mainstream Hindi film. Anubhav, teamed with co-screenwriters Sima Agarwal and Yash Keswani, condenses a lot – “There are 30 to 40 rebel groups in the Northeast,” says undercover cop Aman (Ayushmann Khurrana), tacitly acquitting the film of dealing with a single state or event. The pivot is a peace accord the Center is required to sign with separatist leader Tiger Sangha (Loitongbam Dorendra). Aman was sent to ensure its proper execution. However, as the big day approached, a new group mobilized – ‘Johnson’, in fact conceived by Aman and his bosses as a political ‘pressure point’, but now usurped by invisible rebels.
Anek parallels these conflicts with the abject racism that Northeastern Indians face on the mainland. This is described in non-subtle terms; they are called things like “chinki”, “chinese”, “chilli chicken”. In a revealing scene, Tiger Sangha is driven to a meeting in Delhi and sees the monuments parade in the harsh light of a horror movie. No direct link is established, but it is clear that years of alienation, mistrust and disenfranchisement of socio-economic rights can turn into activism. Not everyone picks up guns; Aido (Andrea Kevishusa), a boxer, wants to represent India to express the displeasure of her people. She is wooed by Aman (under an alias, Joshua) to get closer to her targets. “I wish she had never come into my cafe,” he says in voiceover, minus the caustic chagrin of Bogart’s Rick Blaine.
The poor suffer in a conflict zone, we are told. The film cleverly gives several human faces to this reality: a widow living in Aman’s cafe, her son mingling with the rebels, and faceless men held and tortured in makeshift prison camps. The ordinary population is caught between insurgent violence and brutal state repression. If it does not lack empathy, the film does not manage to give an interiority to these characters. Aido and his father, a suspected rebel, are still fighting. There is a mechanized rhythm to their lives, drawn along political lines. Emotions are always neglected. Even the scene where Aman finally returns to Aido ends with him telling her, “You have to fight.”
If you thought the “Stand Up For National Anthem” promotional campaign was a bit over the top, wait until you see the full movie. Anubhav never misses an opportunity to preach. Hectoring an audience, whether right-wing, left-wing or apolitical, is never correct. Aman appears less like a spy and more like a liberal arts graduate looking for someone to joke around with. His growing cynicism, meanwhile, is betrayed by the nationalistic wrap of his general bow. Ayushman is greatly wasted in the part, sniffling instead of bubbling. The only kudos go to Manoj Pahwa, entertaining like a government bully, and JD Chakravarthy on his return to Bollywood. “Peace is a subjective assumption,” he says calmly, well softened since Satya’s time.
In films like Haider, Madras Café or the relatively recent Sardar Udham, the politics of one world gradually give way to a sustained character study. It’s the people – with their flaws, their contradictions and their less than perfect humanity – that ultimately connect us to the screen. Anek’s highlighting of North East issues is commendable. But without big characters, without evocative detail, it’s no better than the usual eyewash.
With: Ayushmann Khurrana, Andrea Kevichusa, JD Chakravarthy, Manoj Pahwa
Director: Anubhav Sinha