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'Chakravyuh': The UKAsian Review

Whatever their shortcomings - unimaginative food, The Daily Mail, bad TV, the benefits system, etc, etc - the British more than make up for it with their sense of humour.

Take the British Film Institute for instance: the venerable institution decided to include Prakash Jha's 'Chakravyuh' in the list of gala premiers at this year’s London Film Festival, as a way of showcasing the global significance of New India and New Indian Cinema.

Funny, that, for not only is 'Chakravyuh' a bad advertisement for India, it is a rather half-baked advert for Indian cinema.

Jha is renowned for bringing India's myriad social ills to the big screen, from the controversial reservation quota system for ethnic minorities to gender inequality.

'Chakravyuh' is perhaps the director's most important movie, based as it is, on the long-running conflict between the Indian state and left-wing guerrillas in Eastern and South Eastern India.

Following the massacre of 84 police officers, SP Adil Khan (Arjun Rampal), arguably the best looking and most idealistic cop in all of India, is posted to Nandighat, a town where the Maoists hold sway.

Determined to suppress a group of rebels led by the ruthless Rajan (Manoj Bajpayee), SP Khan enlists the help of his best friend Kabir (Abhay Deol), a tempestuous ex-cop who agrees to play supergrass and infiltrate the rebel group.

Once on the inside however, Kabir comes to sympathize with the rebels and their cause, scuppering plans by the government to regain control of the area and allow industrialist Mahanta (Kabir Bedi) to mine the region’s mineral wealth.

The relationship between Adil and Kabir is a perfect metaphor for the complexities inherent in a war once described by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as the biggest internal threat to India’s national security.

What began as a struggle against exploitation by wealthy landlords has evolved into a conflict which has corrupted both sides.

The warring political ideologies have become deeply flawed and it is no longer simply about the exploited rising up against the exploiters.

Prakash Jha ably lays bare these intricacies, providing a balanced view of the individual motivations, the greed, the exploitation and the senseless violence that feeds the ever expanding cycle of violence, the ‘Chakravyuh’.

It is the film’s only redeeming quality.

During an interview prior to the Gala Premier in London, Jha told The UKAsian that narrative style and structure are secondary to the message he wants to convey and that is plainly evident here as it was with the likes of ‘Aarakshan’ and ‘Rajneeti’.

The message is clear and persuasive but the film as a whole is mighty disappointing, perpetuating the exact same over-the-top Bollywood themes routinely derided by western critics and audiences alike.

The plot has more holes in it than an industrial-scale cheese grater and the narrative moves from the authentic – the brutal punishment inflicted on a traitor by Rajan – to the utterly farcical – a beautiful female officer firing on a guerrilla group from inside a hovering helicopter. 

The dialogue is soppy and the pace is choppy.

Jha spends plenty of time getting his actors to articulate the ins and outs of the conflict for the benefit of the audience whose only means of entertainment is a string of badly staged gun battles which expend more bullets than both ‘Expendables’ movies combined.

And of course several ill-placed song and dance numbers are thrown in, adding to an already unnecessarily long movie.

The acting is a typically mixed bag as well.

Arjun Rampal is remarkably good as the conflicted cop and Om Puri – as the rebels’ ideologue – and Manoj Bajpayee are excellent as ever.

On the other hand, Abhay Deol, one of the best actors of his generation, is surprisingly wooden as Kabir, despite the catastrophic consequences of his shifting loyalties.

To be fair, the actors have very little to work with; the characters have as much flesh on them as a victim of an Ethiopian famine.

‘Chakravyuh’ is an opportunity missed; a weighty and compelling story wrapped in mindless Bollywood tripe: informative but unentertaining.  

- Viji Alles

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