Movie Review: Chakravyuh (2012)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Chakravyuh is the latest offering in the Bollywood sub-genre of topic-driven films. The concept of building a film with a political or social issue as the foundation — then adding a story and characters around it — generates films that patronize as often as they entertain. Recent topics to grace the screen have included fairness in education (Taare Zameen Par and Aarakshan), honor killings (Aakrosh and Ishaqzaade), and farmer suicides (Summer 2007 and Peepli Live).

Chakravyuh exemplifies how to do an issue picture the right way. It starts with an on-screen note explaining that the film is based on actual events in the Indian government’s ongoing struggle against the Naxalites, a Communist separatist group. Writer-director Prakash Jha finds the common threads in these real-life events and weaves them together into a cohesive narrative that presents all sides of a complicated conflict.

The first five minutes of Chakravyuh are spent bringing those audience members unfamiliar with Communist separatism in India up to speed. Jha efficiently explains who the Naxalites are and what they want, without belaboring the point for those who already understand the conflict.

The story is told from both sides of the conflict: the police hired to enforce the law, and the separatists who seek self-rule. Adil (Arjun Rampal) volunteers for the position of chief of police of the town of Nandighat: a rural town on the edge of Naxalite-controlled territory. Adil, full of confidence acquired during his relatively easy journey through life, sees himself as the only man who can drive out the Naxalites and restore local confidence in the Indian government.

Adil is only in town for a few days when he is shot in the line of duty. His ne’er-do-well friend, Kabir (Abhay Deol) — who was kicked out of the police academy for hitting a superior officer — sneaks into the police station to see Adil. Kabir offers to infiltrate the Naxalites and act as Adil’s informer.

Because of Adil’s overconfidence and Kabir’s nonchalance, they don’t appreciate what a dangerous idea this is until Kabir is being beaten up and shot at by both the cops and the Naxalites. After spending some time with the separatists and witnessing the way the police treat the locals when Adil isn’t watching, Kabir begins to sympathize with the group he was meant to destroy.

Chakravyuh‘s sets and scenes are gripping. Nighttime police raids are dark, disorienting, and terrifying. Villages of homes built largely of sticks fly hammer-and-sickle flags in their yards, as armed insurgents walk through town calling each other “comrade.” The Naxalite camp is little more than tarps strung up between trees in the forest.

Adil and Kabir are terrific characters to guide the audience through the film. Both have enough power to influence some events in their lives, but not enough power to actually end the conflict. Kabir, while valuable, is too new in camp to make it into the Naxalite inner circle. It takes Adil a long time to realize he’s merely a big fish in a small pond; the real power lies with the federal heads of the police department, the politicians who appoint them, and the industrialists who finance the politicians’ campaigns.

Rampal and Deol are both superb in their roles. Each man is sympathetic, if not always right. The history of their friendship is illuminated by minor glimpses into the past but is apparent in the way events play out in the present.

Esha Gupta does a nice job as Adil’s wife and fellow police officer, Rhea. She ardently defends Kabir, but her loyalties lie unambiguously with her husband and her badge. Manoj Bajpai is gripping as the Naxalite leader, Rajan, as is Anjali Patil as Juhi, Rajan’s executioner. The story of how Juhi came to join the insurgents captures the sense of frustration and helplessness that could drive a person to rebellion.

At the heart of Jha’s story is compassion for the poor and the seeming futility of their struggle for a better life. The villages in Chakravyuh lack plumbing, electricity, and medical facilities. When Adil puts antibiotic cream on a villager’s wound, the man’s face beams, accompanied by a corny, patriotic musical swell.

The Naxalites intimidate the villagers into brandishing weapons against the police, but the rebels also provide the people with a sense of control, a way to fight back against a government that ignores them until valuable natural resources are discovered under their land. At one point in the film, an army of paid thugs with machine guns rolls into town on bulldozers, bellowing through bullhorns that the government’s forced demolition of the town is “for your benefit.”

Chakravyuh places blame equally on the government and the Naxalites, while acknowledging that both parties undoubtedly regret needless bloodshed. Yet, with neither group willing to be the first to renounce violence, the conflict rages on, and it’s the poor people caught in the middle who suffer.


13 thoughts on “Movie Review: Chakravyuh (2012)

    1. Kathy

      Thanks, Keyur! I give Prakash Jha a lot of credit for making a film about a complicated situation that was informative and balanced enough — and entertaining — that someone from outside India could understand the situation and talk about it without sounding like a doofus.

      1. Keyur Seta

        You welcome, Kathy. Yes, I agree with you on that. Even someone who has 0 knowledge about the issue will understand by the way he has explained.
        By the way, I just read you haven’t seen Singham. The film surely finds a place in my all time favorite movies’ list 🙂

  1. meeradarjiyr1

    Great review and insights on the film. I haven’t seen this film yet, but it seems good and I just love how you have wrote the review! I just read your about and its amazing of how far you have come, especially not knowing Hindi. Some great bollywood films you must watch are; 3 Idiots, Rowdy Rathore and Singham. There’s probably more great films, however I can only think of those three at the moment. I have just started my blog and have wrote a review for ‘3 Idiots’. If you get a chance please have a read and tell me your views. But I have to say that you will definitely love the film.

  2. Shah Shahid

    Great Review. Well said. I love Prakash Jha’s films. However, his last two films seemed to lose their place in the storytelling somewhere.
    Let me know if you agree, if you get a chance to read them.

    Warning: My ‘Reviews’ are more akin to me rambling on and on. Upside is that they’re brief, most of the times.

    I’ll take a look at CHAKRAVYUH soon.

    1. Kathy

      I think we’re on the same page regarding Jha’s recent efforts, Shah Shahid. Here are links to my reviews of Raajneeti and Aarakshan.
      What Jha does better in Chakravyuh is to focus the story on two main characters. There are lots of other important peripheral characters, but all are secondary to Adil and Kabir. I think not bogging us down with side plots and backstories of every character — or keeping those extra scenes and details brief — actually helps the secondary characters feel more developed. While watching the film, I was impressed that, in every scene, I knew exactly what each character wanted to accomplish in that scene, what their motivations were. From a technical, screenplay-nerd perspective, Chakravyuh is very well-crafted.

      1. Shah Shahid

        Interesting. Looking forward to CHAKRAVYUH even more now, knowing that my specific gripes may have been avoided this time around by Jha.

        I’ll always be a fan of Jha though. Similar to Nolan, even his most mediocre movie, has aspects of brilliance that are non existent in most films.

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