The best films are those that not only inform and enrich, but also manage to entertain us to a point that we don’t even realise we are being educated. The Hindi film industry is full of successful directors that are thriving by making the romances, the high-octane action, the comedies, or the epic period films.
And then we have Prakash Jha. In the past, Jha has brought known Indian social issues to the public eye with his high-pitched political dramas. With Aarakshan, he delved into the complications of the caste-based quotas in education. With Rajneeti, Jha showed the vengeful complexities of Indian politics. And now with Chakravyuh, he explores the world of the Naxalite movement, not only showing the difficult challenges the police have in defeating them, but also going into what propels the Naxalites to the crimes they commit.
Born 65 years ago, Naxalism is currently the biggest security threat to India and it’s a mystery that Indian cinema has barely explored the movement.
The film begins by following SP Adil Khan (Arjun Rampal) and his stubborn plight to stop at nothing to capture vicious Naxalite leader Rajan (Manoj Bajpayee). The story then gradually moves into the Naxalite world as Adil’s best friend Kabir (Abhay Deol), sees the struggle he is going through and chooses to infiltrate the organisation by becoming one of them. As he experiences life as a Naxalite and sees how his ‘laal salaam’ colleagues live, Kabir increasingly wonders whether he is fighting for the right side.
It is a gripping story, and Jha has done a wonderful job in taking a current affair and putting a commercial ‘Bollywood’ coating to it – though it definitely could have done without the item number (a hard-hitting Naxalite drama doesn't really need the suggestive pelvic thrusts of an item girl). The friends-turned-enemies convention is reminiscent of films like Company and Deewaar, and works a treat, especially because by the end of it, even we’re not sure whom we should be rooting for.
Where the film fails, much like Jha’s previous films, is in the overuse of expositional dialogue. Although there are powerful things to be said about the way the police and the Naxalites work, sometimes the large speeches come across a tad unnatural and more polemic than anything. At times like this, the entertainment stops whilst the education continues, and Jha, with writer Anjum Rajabali, have been guilty of doing this with their previous films together. These lessons can work well as dialogue in theatre, but become jarring in a cinematic context and could have done with a heavy dose of editing.
Another failure of the film is in the repetitive use of violence. Like Rajneeti where there was one attack after another on yet another politician’s family member, Chakravyuh is chock-full of policemen and Naxalites killing each other over and over again. As with anything in film, such as tears or scares, the more you see of something, the less effective it becomes. So unfortunately, when we start to reach the finale of Chakravyuh, having seen so many deaths already, the end comes across considerably limp.
The performances overall are good, with particular credit going to Rampal’s Amitabh-esque ‘angry man’ SP officer – possibly the best of his career so far. Unfortunately, Deol comes across too soft for the role of a man who becomes a hardened Naxalite, and his understated performance doesn’t fully portray the anger and hurt a character of his position would be feeling.
The less said about Esha Gupta’s performance as Adil’s wife the better. Albeit being gorgeous, she was seriously miscast; coming off as if she’d accidentally mistook the gig as a Vikram Bhatt movie. Newcomer Anjali Patil impresses greatly as a Kabir’s love interest, showing good promise for her career ahead. The only gripe, out of no fault of her own, is that she comes across too pretty to credibly be a senior leader of the Naxalites.
As with many a Hindi film before it, this would have benefitted with a good amount of editing to have become the powerful cinema it could have been. It’s an important story that relates not only to India, but to the whole world, where a small number of people hold the majority of the wealth whilst the vast number of people struggle below the poverty line, leaving them with no other option but to fight for what they believe they deserve.
There’s a great line in the film where Adil tries to reason with turned-Naxalite Kabir about the functionality of Indian law – “If the system is broken, don’t destroy it. Fix it.” In many ways, this could also be said for the issues facing Hindi cinema, that repeatedly falls short of truly breaking into the mainstream conscience internationally. Chakravyuh proves that Indian cinema is not lacking in good concepts – where it faults is in its execution.
For those Indian filmmakers missing their masterpiece by a whisker, I can only advise this: If the film is broken, don’t release it. Edit it.