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.