Prakash Jha’s filmmaking career, right from the village-level caste politics of Damul (Bonded Until Death, 1984) to the caste reservation-based drama Aarakshan (2011), has been driven by his interest in Indian politics. His most recent film is no different.
With Chakravyuh, however, Jha moves away from his two long-term preoccupations – the politics of post-1970s Bihar and the changing role of caste in Indian socio-political life – to a different space, both in geographical and social terms.
Set in the tribal-dominated interior regions of Madhya Pradesh where Maoist insurgents are waging a guerrilla war against the forces of the Indian state, Chakravyuh is Jha’s effort to place a rather complex contemporary problem before Hindi film viewers.
Jha and his long-time screenplay writer Anjum Rajabali have chosen a classic way in which to do this: by creating characters who represent and personify the different viewpoints. So there is Arjun Rampal as a fiery and honest young police officer called Adil Khan, who upsets his also-police-officer wife Riya (Esha Gupta) by volunteering for a posting to a hardcore Naxal area which he is determined to “clean up”.
When the film opens, Khan has just successfully arrested an old Naxal ideologue called Govind Suryavanshi (Om Puri). But his biggest challenge is a Naxal leader called Rajan (Manoj Bajpayee), under whose leadership the Naxals have managed to capture significant areas of forest. Raja has two lieutenants, of whom one is female: a woman named Juhi (Anjali Patil, seen earlier this year in Delhi in a Day).
Surrounding this central core of characters is a raft of politicians and bureaucrats and businessmen – including Kabir Bedi as a bearded NRI industrialist called Mahanta who is clearly meant to be a stand-in for Vedanta.
The acting is decent on the whole (barring Esha Gupta’s impossibly fake urbanity), but none of these characters come wholly to life.
As with so many “issue-based” films, they end up being mere pegs to hang an ideology on. They aren't exactly caricatures, but their absolute consistency makes them flat. Their political positions are so clearly laid out – and they seem so utterly inflexible – that they come across as types than fully fleshed-out human beings.
Where the narrative does show some spark is in putting at its core not a relationship of enmity – the almost personal confrontation between Adil Khan and Rajan, for instance – but a friendship. The friendship in question is admittedly a fraught one: between Adil and his closest college buddy, Kabir (Abhay Deol) who left the police academy in disgrace, and has made no contact with his old friend in the intervening years.
But the complicated push and pull of a friendship, as anyone who has ever watched Namak Haram knows, makes for a far more engaging ground on which to stage a battle than the all-out war that is waged between enemies.
As in Namak Haram, where Rajesh Khanna infiltrated a trade union to help out his friend the industrialist (Amitabh Bachchan), Abhay Deol’s Kabir infiltrates the Naxal camp to help his friend Adil the police officer. Deol has the most interesting role in the film, and he more or less does justice to it. The filmmakers seem to deliberately keep his character a blank slate: seven years ago, we’re told, he was a close friend of Adil’s, but all we know about the present-day Kabir is what he tells us himself. And he doesn’t tell us much – not even his last name.
All we have by way of back-story is the event that led to his dismissal from the police academy, which gives us a character whose primary identifying traits are an inchoate sense of rebellion against injustice and a refusal to kowtow to authority. These, as should be apparent even without spoilers, fit exactly into the role Kabir will perform in this film.
In other words, there are no surprises, even here. But then perhaps Jha’s aim is neither nuance nor surprise. What he wants to do is to set up the broad contours of the debate: to show us why vast numbers of poor people in this country have felt it necessary to take up a violent path that leads to a stand-off with the state.
Jha’s films have always displayed a keen grasp of how the worlds of politics, business and crime intersect in the Hindi heartland, and Chakravyuh does a very competent job of showing us how this sort of unholy alliance, in the country’s most mineral-rich and least ‘developed’ regions, is leading inexorably to popular alienation and increasingly, bloodshed.
Jha’s usually unerring ear for dialogue – especially for the cadences of Bihari speech, with the occasional English word thrown in – falters here, with Esha Gupta given such sterling lines as “Jesus Christ, ek monster create kar diya tumne” and Manoj Bajpai and Anjali Patil’s excessive accents distracting unhelpfully from their performances.
The Sameera Reddy item song – Kunda Khol – feels tagged on and therefore terribly tacky, but Jha’s talent for dramatically-shot set pieces is very much in place. From picturesque marches through the jungle to aerial machine gun attacks conducted from a helicopter, Chakravyuh is full of nicely plotted, superbly-realized big screen action.
Considering the enormously bumpy terrain it takes on, Chakravyuh is a surprisingly smooth ride. Perhaps it is sometimes too smooth --but at least its simplifications are never cringe-worthy.